The first week of April is not an ordinary week for Eugenie Mukeshimana, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2001. It’s a sobering anniversary. In April of 1994, her life in Rwanda became unhinged. She was in her early twenties and eight months pregnant when the killings began.
Mukeshimana, who now lives in Newark, speaks quietly with a smooth voice that has a hint of song in it. Her big smile reveals a small gap between her two front teeth.
She grew up in a village outside the city Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Her father was a teacher, her mother a homemaker. When it came time to go to high school, she moved in with her sister in Kigali and commuted to a small high school built by Belgian nuns. She arrived in her uniform at 8 o’clock each morning, had a break for lunch at noon, and then returned to classes until 4 p.m. The day ended with an hour-long supervised study hall.
Trouble began brewing in October of 1990. The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front)—a mostly Tutsi organization of Rwandans in exile—invaded the country from Uganda, the nation to the north. Rumors flew around school that day, Mukeshimana remembers. There was no television or announcement made by the school, but the kids who lived close enough to go home for lunch returned with the news.
Like the nation at large, the student body included both Hutus and Tutsis. “The Hutu kids were telling the other Hutu kids that the Tutsi kids started the war,” Mukeshimana said, as the students began talking in groups. “But you didn’t realize that until later on when you passed a group and people stopped talking.”
That moment in 1990 changed everything, she says. In the years that followed, she became mindful of her surroundings, avoiding certain parts of town, trying not to stay out too late, and carefully selecting her route home depending on whether she was alone or with others. The government began requiring everyone to carry identification cards, which noted “Hutu” or “Tutsi.” Once in awhile, a grenade would explode somewhere in the city, but Mukeshimana continued taking the bus to school every morning.
Growing up, the division between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis was one of class. German and Belgian colonialism, decades earlier, had created a system that favored the Tutsis, according to an authoritative chronology compiled by PBS. The minority group received western-style education and other privileges and ruled as monarchs until the Hutus rebelled against colonial rule and the Tutsi elite in 1959. Though Rwanda had a history of violence between the groups, Mukeshimana—a Tutsi—felt the distinction had no bearing on life in her village.
The war between the RPF guerillas and the Rwandan army—led by the Hutu government in power under President Juvenal Habyarimana—changed the way people saw their neighbors. Mukeshimana considers the war as the fertile ground from which genocide was cultivated.
On April 6, 1994, a plane was shot down outside of Kigali. Inside were the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. That was the spark. By that time, Mukeshimana had graduated. She was living with her boyfriend, expecting a baby. The next day, she remembers, public transportation halted and an announcement on the radio instructed people to stay home. Everything shut down—the government, the private sector, schools—as Hutu extremists hunted down their moderate counterparts along with members of the Tutsi minority by the thousands.
Trapped with no way to move around, “a game of hiding and trying to stay safe” ensued. Mukeshimana and her boyfriend decided they should split up. There wasn’t room to hide together in Kigali’s small homes, and they might fare better separately. A Hutu family they knew refused to hide them, but found other families who could.
Mukeshimana found herself in the home of a poor Hutu family with young children. The kids couldn’t know she was there, so she stayed in a dark, dusty room, with nothing but concrete to rest her pregnant body. “If the kids went to play with the neighbor’s kids, I could come out, go to the bathroom, have something to eat, drink,” Mukeshimana said. Even so, she only had a few minutes before she had to disappear again. If the kids didn’t feel like going to play, Mukeshimana didn’t come out at all.
The baby came in her second hiding spot, a separate structure outside another family’s home. “I was alone. It was at night. I didn’t know what to do,” said Mukeshimana. “There was nothing normal about it.”
The baby didn’t cry. She didn’t know the baby was supposed to, but she was relieved her daughter didn’t give away their hiding place.
But one day, a group of men found Mukeshimana and took her to a killing site. They decided, for reasons Mukeshimana can’t quite explain, it would be bad luck if she were the first victim of the day. They made her sit and wait. In the meantime, a soldier showed up. In exchange for information he thought Mukeshimana had, he offered to shoot her and her daughter instead of killing them with a machete. All she could do was bargain for those two bullets, she said.
The soldier took Mukeshimana to a house that didn’t appear to be his, she remembers, because “he didn’t know what was what.” When he realized the house contained kitchenware and appliances, he had Mukeshimana cook for him, on borrowed time. Then one day he left and never returned. Like other perpetrators, he ran to avoid an impending attack on the city.
The killings ended just 100 days after they began, taking approximately 800,000 Rwandan lives in just over three months, according to an independent inquiry into the actions of the UN during the genocide, which Kofi Annan set up in 1999. Mukeshimana and her daughter are among the survivors.
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Mukeshimana came to the U.S. in 2001. She planned to take a degree in social work back to Rwanda to work with survivors there. But when the time came, she decided to seek asylum.
“I just couldn’t imagine going back there,” she said.
She couldn’t picture encountering perpetrators released from prison or going back to live in neighborhoods where some had killed the families of others. In 2002, she went to college, working as a French tutor alongside her studies.
At the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, Mukeshimana realized most of her classmates and professors didn’t know about the events she’d lived through. She said she could not imagine how so many people could be killed while the UN was in Rwanda, and a U.S. embassy. “I thought they knew.”
Mukeshimana felt spurred to speak publicly about her experiences. She also began connecting with other survivors who had left Rwanda for the U.S. and helping them with translation and other obstacles they faced.
She continues to speak publicly about genocide. Last month, she was part of a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum panel that grappled with the events—marking their 20th anniversary—and with the role of the international community. Her daughter is a freshman in college, she assured the audience that evening, afraid they would wonder whether the baby born into genocide had survived.
Mukeshimana also organizes informal gatherings within the survivor community, makes calls to some survivors on a regular basis, and monitors social media to see if anyone is having a rough time.
She founded Genocide Survivors Support Network (GSSN) in December 2010 “to help genocide survivors rebuild their lives and use their voice to contribute to genocide prevention through education,” according to the organization’s website. For now, the nonprofit ,Rwanda Gift for Life, serves as GSSN’s umbrella and fiscal sponsor.
And for now, it seems Mukeshimana is the arms, legs, and heart of GSSN, helping survivors who struggle with immigration, insurance, and education. Mukeshimana translates and advocates for them at the Social Security and insurance offices, explains to community colleges why they cannot procure transcripts from schools and other documents, and assists with other tasks.
Twenty years after the fact, she also explains why some survivors try to leave Rwanda now. Some “tried to live there for quite some time,” she said. “The trauma is becoming more intense,” as they live among neighbors who are also dealing with the scars of 1994, and among the neighbors that caused them.
However, gaining asylum so long after the fact is challenging. “Genocide survivors in Rwanda have great difficulty receiving refugee status and right of asylum to allow them to settle outside of the country,” wrote Noah Schimmel in The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance—a publication managed by Tufts’ Feinstein International Center—in 2010.
“The standard reply that they receive when making queries about the possibility of immigrating to Europe, Canada, or the United States is that there is no longer persecution on the basis of ethnicity in Rwanda, and thus there is no legal merit to their request.”
Physical safety is one thing, Mukeshimana said, but “emotional memory is hard to deal with. Therapy can only go so far. Sometimes you need a modified environment.”
And as the survivor community grows older, the community is dealing with new questions. The second generation, children of survivors, are beginning to have kids of their own. In some cases, the impact of growing up with “emotionally unavailable parents,” who were traumatized, said Mukeshimana, is showing itself.
Survivors whose parents were killed and sacrificed school and marriage to take care of younger siblings, are realizing they “haven’t really lived their lives,” she said. And many elderly survivors have no family left to care for them. “Five, ten years ago, we didn’t know about these problems,” she said.
In 2011, Mukeshimana began interviewing Holocaust survivors from World War II, “to understand what it is they know that we should know.” She asked about how and when survivors believe that parents should tell their children about what they went through, how they live with the memories that never fade, and how they managed to raise their families despite it all.
“They were very candid and open about their own experiences,” said Mukeshimana, but even they could not give definitive answers, nearly seven decades after the Holocaust ended.
“I think we have more questions than answers now,” Mukeshimana said. “There is no handbook that tells someone how to be a survivor of genocide.”
In conjunction with the 20th anniversary, the UN will hold a memorial ceremony on April 16 at the New York headquarters. Mukeshimana is co-organizing another commemoration for the NY, NJ, and CT Rwandan community at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on April 13.