Tuesday March 18,1997, was a normal day at Groupe Scolaire Nyange. which was a teacher training school in the then Kivumu Commune, Kibuye Prefecture, currently Ngororero District-Western Province.
Teachers alternated in classes to deliver different lessons. As routine, in evening, the students went for super, then returned to class for the second course review which they normally referred to as ‘etudes’ in French.
At around 8pm, things changed drastically; the students started hearing gunshots and thought it was the normal routine operations by soldiers targeting infiltrators.
Prior to this particular event, there had been cases of armed groups which used to infiltrate Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), mainly composed of remnants former government forces FAR and Interahamwe, who often launched attacks on the western and northern parts of the country.
They would attack, kill and loot households.
The students were convinced that, as usual, the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) would deal with them and they carried on with their studies as though nothing was happening
It did not take long however to discover that their school could be the target and started worrying. Before they knew it, a chorus of men vowing to exterminate the Tutsi, quite like it was during the 1994 Genocide against, entered the school compound.
It was a traumatic situation for the students in the aftermath of the Genocide against Tutsi. Some of the students were survivors who could vividly remember horrific incidents in their families as if they happened yesterday. The memories were still fresh.
Suddenly bullets were fired into one of the classrooms, Senior 6, which happened to be Phanuel Sindayiheba’s class.
“We hid under our desks, then three heavily armed men in old military fatigues entered our class.,” Sindayiheba narrates.
“They broke the window and found us really startled under the desks,” he recalls.
The leader of the militia asked the students a question in French: “Est-ce que vous me connaissez?” or “Do you know me?” in English.
When they responded that they didn’t know him, rather than introducing himself, he replied in French “Eh bien vous allez me voir”. “You are going to see me.”
“After this declaration, he added a statement which was really confusing to us: however, if you cooperate, you will be fine,” Sindayiheba recalls adding that they couldn’t figure out what this cooperation was all about.
At this level, the men had not done anything to their targets; Sindayiheba could take a quick peek at the infiltrators carefully to figure out who they were. For example, he noticed that their chief was armed with a long bullet chain and a knife.
He could also hear another section of assailants patrolling the school outside as the third group continued with their ethnic hate-filled songs in the compound.
The chief assailant in the class made an order: “Hutus on the right, Tutsi on the left.”
Without hesitation, one Chantal Mujawamahoro answered with a very audacious statement. “No Hutu, no Tutsi in the room. We are all Rwandans.”
The man who didn’t believe his ears asked “What did you say?” Only to hear a refrain of the audacious class saying:” Yes! We are all Rwandans.”
With a sign, the assailants were briefed to go out to refine their evil plan.
“Within a few minutes, the ill-intended group threw two grenades in the class through the window injuring many of us, including me. They entered again and reiterated the same question only to find that we had not changed our minds despite the strong warning,” Sindayiheba recalls.
The chief ordered his men to shoot, each taking in charge of one row of the desks. First to be shot dead was Mujawamahoro who had earlier shocked them with a firm answer saying no to ethnic divisionism.
They then shot Beatrice Mukambaraga, who had just married recently and continued with the atrocity.
“Three of us died on spot, twelve others sustained injuries, including serious ones,” Sindayiheba recalls.
After the carnage, they rushed to Senior Five which was on opposite side, some fifty meters away, where the students were in the same state of fear, ducking under desks.
According to Sindayiheba, the students of Senior five had no clue where the assailants were committing the crimes.
Not only were they afraid and hiding in fear, but also the conditions an already dire situation. The lighting was limited with just a small electricity generator able to power two light bulbs per class.
In senior five, assailants slightly changed the approach, this time asking for the identification of Tutsi students.
“We know that there are Tutsi here. Show them to us.”
Once again, another fearless young girl, Helene Benimana replied quickly, also reiterating that there were no Hutus or Tutsis.
“We are all Rwandans,” she said.
This time, the killers did not give a second option, but one of them said “I have already seen one Tutsi here-agatutsi ka mbere ndakabonye n’ejobundi nakabonye ku ishusho.”
He shot her dead.
According to Sindayiheba, the first victim in Senior five was Seraphine Mukarutwaza. Two days earlier she had accompanied her elder sister who had come for a visit. She saw her off at the level of a monument of Virgin Mary at Nyange Parish, a place commonly known as ‘Ku Ishusho’
“This means that the killers had been watching the area for a couple of days,” Sindayiheba believes.
The killers were in the same context of the Genocide where perpetrators would look at someone and say that the nose can show that they are Tutsi, that their heights is a height of the Tutsi and so on…
When Mukarutwaza was shot dead, Helene Benimana, the one who spoke first in this class said: “Incredible! You have killed her?”
Apparently, Benimana called the killer by his name because she managed to identify him as someone from her village. This was bad news for the killer. He turned to Benimana and shot her dead, too.
While moving, one of the killers stumbled on the foot of a student Prisca Uwamahoro who was laying down.
“He said: look at her long legs! She must be Tutsi,” recalls Uwamahoro, one of the Nyange heroes interviewed by KT Press this week.
“He shot me and left me for dead.”
The hero Prisca Uwamahoro is the spouse of hero Phanuel Sindayiheba, with whom they have three children.
As they continued to shoot the students, one after the other, one of them Valens Ndemeye took the resolve to make a decision which saved them.
“He told us: if we stay here, they will kill all of us, let’s stand up and run,” Uwamahoro can recall.
They all run but Ndemeye was unfortunate to hit one of the killers who shot him dead.
The RDF, which was camped a couple of kilometres away, intervened as the students were running in different directions after this event which lasted barely 25 minutes.
“We could hear them saying: let’s be quick before the Rwanda Defence Forces can surprise us,” Uwamahoro recalls.
The entire school was thrown into disarray as students desperately ran for their safety as killers hurled grenades into them from all directions, injuring many from them.
On their way, the students met RDF soldiers coming to rescue the school from the attackers. They returned them to school safely.
The injured students were hurried to Kabgayi hospital courtesy of RDF car and a pickup volunteered by Aloys Rwamasirabo, a trader from Nyange.
That night, the headmaster Aime Haba Barihuta was the first target of the killers. But, when they went to his home inside the school, they searched for him, but luckily, he had travelled to Kigali for a meeting with Minister of Education at time, Laurien Ngirabanzi.
“He had invited me to work on a plan of visiting my school. The assailants came to my home and found I was not there and then rushed to kill my students,” Barihuta told KT Press this week.
“There were no mobile phones yet, there was no landline. I learnt about the incident in the morning and came with a rescue team from Kigali to support the efforts of RDF.”
Komeza ubutwari Association
The Nyange heroes believe that their school had given them something valuable: the values of believing in unity, and the love of prayer.
The students would alternate in leading prayer sessions and everyone could lead the classmates according to his/her belief whether Muslim, Roman Catholic or born again.
For example, the class of Senior Five can remember that Helene Benimana, the second victim in this class had led the prayer that evening.
She read Roman 8: 25-39 which goes like ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’
The scripture concludes that nothing whatsoever can separate us from the love of Christ.
In February 2013, a Presidential Order approving persons declared as National Heroes proclaimed a total of 47 students of Nyange as National heroes-in the category of Imena.
Those include 18 students from Senior Five and 29 students from Senior Six.
Out of those, 6 died on spot during the Nyange attack while two more died later on, making the number of survivors currently 39.
They have formed Association Komeza Ubutwari, which intends to perpetuate the legacy of heroism in Rwanda.
They conduct sessions in schools and other gatherings, and encourage the youth to work hard so as to make a difference in life.
The survivors are now contributing to country development in different aspects of life.
Father Jean Baptiste Mvukiyehe, a PhD student from Fodham University is one of the Nyange heroes. He says that the Nyange incident has become part of his life.
His research Interests are on the identity and Culture of Encounter and Christian Thought, Migration, and Humanitarian Action.
“Every day I wonder how people could think that young children could have the same understanding as their divisive elders . It is a problem that we continue to witness in the great lakes region where people are being victims of their ethnic belonging, which they did not choose at birth,” he said.
In his interventions, whenever he finds an opportunity to address any audience, Fr. Mvukiyehe discourages any form of divisionism and promotes peaceful cohabitation and coexistence in harmony in the societies.
“We can only be very thankful for Rwanda which promoted the Rwandan-ness beyond every other identity of its sons and daughters,” he said.
Nyange Hero Joselyne Mukahirwa, a mother of six and a trader in Kigali recalls that during the Nyange incident, she was 20 years old.
As assailants threatened to kill them, she was sad that she “was going to die without leaving a child behind,”. As she faced her tormentors she prayed for God’s mercy.
Today, she is thankful for the legacy of heroism in Rwanda.
“In the aftermath of the Genocide, some children became head of families after losing their parents, some students contribute school fees for their fellows who do not have means,”
“There are people here who do things beyond imagination,” she says, adding that Rwanda has people doing great things, who can be considered heroes.
You can also click here to understand the whereabouts of Nyange heroes