To my father who was killed in the genocide in Rwanda: "Dear dad, I decided to teach that love is stronger"

Jean Paul Habimana’s letter, thirty years after the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda

Dear Dad,

how are you? It has been thirty years since we last saw each other: it was Friday 8th April 1994. So excuse me for only getting in touch now. You know, many things have occurred in the meantime, but you have always been with me, in my heart, and I have not stopped talking to you, looking forward to hearing your voice... I know that nothing is ephemeral like it is where you are now: you have everything in fullness, even time is an eternal flow.

Here everything is the same as when you left us: nights alternate with days, weeks with months and months with years. Thirty years later, nothing or little has changed: I have become a man and the father of two sons, Samuel and Davide. On Grandparents’ Day, teachers ask pupils to write a letter to their grandparents and they always write to you, every year. I guess they got to you, didn’t they? They are beautiful, smart, strong and proud like you, after all, and when I look at them the memory of you overlaps with their image. I look at them and I see you, I don’t know why.

When I talk to you I don’t expect to hear answers in words, but I see the things you do for me and they are more eloquent than any sentence, you know? - I am perfectly aware that you have never left me and I will never stop being grateful for your closeness and support.

It was on 8th April when we split up for fear of being killed, do you remember?

Since then I have never stopped feeling close to you. Soon after the plane in which President Habyarimana was travelling exploded, fear started to hover in the air and the next day, 7th April, we remained tightly shut in our homes. The next day something incomprehensible occurred: our neighbours came and burnt down our houses, killing those who could not flee with inhuman violence. Dad, can you see that? It is absurd: a politician dies and they kill civilians... but I know that you either cannot understand that story.

I heard you had gone to Rubiha to see Yohani, your friend, thinking he could protect you and hide you. But he advised you to go and see Philbert. A couple of days later, your brother was passing by Yohani’s house and heard the Interahamwe (assassins) talking to Yohani: together they were preparing a plan to come and kill you and as soon as you heard about it you hid. When they came looking for you, they beat to death Philbert, who was guilty of protecting you as your baptised son. At that point, you moved elsewhere in search of another refuge. Then, again, I heard you went to Shangi parish. Dad, you know, fate is really strange: you arrived in Shangi just when I was there too: I was close, at the nuns’! We felt quite safe in the parish, but when the killers from Yusufu’s group arrived on 29th April, everything changed.

To this day I still don’t know if they killed you in the parish or later by taking you somewhere. We have not heard anything more about how things went. A lot of people were killed in that parish, we are talking about 5,000. Dad, they say nta joro ridacya (no night does not become a day) and it is true: I was saved because the killing stopped at some point.

As a matter of fact, the government of the murderers, the one that had called the Hutus, our neighbours, to eliminate us from Rwanda, had lost power and the executioners took refuge in neighbouring countries, especially in Zaire, which today is called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Too bad that the murderers were later joined by other Hutus.

You know, in these terrible events it is never all black or all white. Indeed, if some of us were saved it was for those Hutus who protected us by risking their lives and I would like to ask you to help me thank them. They are people like Philbert I told you about just now, Silas and Maria, our catechists who hid more than 70 people in their homes: so brave! Now they are recognised as Righteous thanks to Gariwo Foundation.

I don’t know if you can meet where you are: with all the people who were killed at that time.... Who knows! And what do you say to each other? What do you think of us who survived? Who knows what happens when one of your killers catches up with you, do they at least apologise?

I miss you all so much!

I thought the world had learnt from what had happened to you, dear Dad, along with our relatives and friends, and yet there are still innocent people dying. You have no idea how sorry I feel every time I see people dying at sea while crossing the Mediterranean sea.

After that time, Mum tried to do your part and, like so many widows, she tried not to give up: she made us grow up, she made us study, although we made her sweat enough. As you will probably remember, when you were killed you were 44 and Mum was 42. Since that moment she has never stopped fighting for her family.

It was only some time later that I learnt that what had happened in our country, that is, the fact of wanting to exterminate an ethnic group, a people, the Tutsi, without sparing anyone, is called Genocide. A few years ago I wrote a book about it: Nonostante la Paura, genocidio dei tutsi e riconciliazione in Ruanda.

After the genocide against the Tutsi, our village literally emptied. The following were killed: your brother Vedaste together with his sons Alfred, Theophile, Albert and Alphonsine (together with their two children and her husband: a family who was destroyed ). Also your sister Maria Kampirwa and her son Ngabonziza Damascène, your cousin Frédéric with Sezariya, his wife, and their children Lini, Dalira, Alphonse. Kageruka with his wife Thacienne and his children Eurade, Martin, Buregeya and Hyacinthe. Your cousin Claver’s son, Grégoire, Anselme, your cousin, his wife Esperance and their children Adiriya and Matarata, your cousin Deogratias, with his wife Berta and their children Apolo, Teresa, Teresia, Philomene. Only Anicet managed to survive. The list is still long: your cousin Canesius and his son Otto, both killed, as well as Theodore and his wife Thacienne, together with their sons Placide, Kayijaho and Baritonda, your other cousins Sylvère and Nicolas together with their wives Illuminata and Consolata and their sons Kabiriti Uwamariya and Gashati. The family of your other cousin, Epimaque, his wife and their children were also killed. Your paternal cousin Augustin with his wife Maria and children Platini, Primitiva and Ariette were also killed. The entire families of your cousins Emmanuel and Vincent were killed, leaving only Mukamunana, Bernadette and Clautilde.

They made a carnage in Mama’s family too: they killed her brother Faustin together with his wife Thacienne and their children Bisco and Karangwa, they also killed the wife of Martin, Mama’s other brother, together with his two children, and Emerthe, her elder sister, her husband Evariste and their children Alphonse, Fiacre, Jacqueline. The list could be much longer, because unfortunately I am beginning to forget some names and it is really a shame!

I hope they do not forget me. However, I think, dear Dad, that you have an idea of what happened to our village and to our family.

You know, we are among the lucky few, at home there were nine of us and only one was killed: you.

In Mu Bacura, our village, only a few widows and orphans were left after that period of terror. The widows, like Mama, joined together in associations, the largest of which is Avega. I allowed several widows of the genocide to find people with whom they could share the drama of that experience, to feel listened to, to help each other... Association Ibuka was also born, which has helped many survivors make a fresh start by keeping their memories alive.

The new government has removed the entry “ethnicity” from identity documents, making us feel united as one people: the Rwandan people. It has also established the Genocide Survivors Support and Assistance Fund (FARG), which has enabled many survivors to study and heal the wounds that the genocide had left. After the genocide, every Rwandan had to really work hard to move forward and prevent the country from sinking into an irreversible crisis. In our house, for example, dear Dad, everything was really very hard. Starting with the reconstruction of our house, because, after destroying it entirely, they even dug into the foundations thinking that someone could still be hiding there; can you imagine?

The whole village was razed to the ground, there was no house left standing. Nothing at all. Just rubble everywhere.

At the end of the day, thinking back, one cannot understand what happened to our neighbours for them to do what they did! It was very hard to heal the physical and psychological wounds and it was particularly difficult to live with the very neighbours who had tried to kill us some time earlier. The government asked us to forgive and we accepted with great effort, as it was the only way to move on: what a struggle! Every year, the whole country gathers to remember you, the victims of genocide. At the time of remembrance, all Rwandans, both victims and perpetrators, stand together to reflect on the fact that the consequences have spared no one. Our country is trying to move forward, to think about what unites us, instead of wasting time dwelling on what separates us.

Dear Dad, if I am writing to you now, 30 years later, it is simply to tell you that I will never forget you. As I know you well, I think one of the things that can make you even prouder of me is that you managed to turn the hatred that took you away into love. Having experienced the bitter taste of hatred, I decided to teach the whole world that love is stronger than hatred.

Jean Paul Habimana is a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. He is the author of the book “Nonostante la paura, Genocidio degli tutsi e riconciliazione in Ruanda” (Published by Terre di mezzo).

Analysis by Jean Paul Habimana

5 April 2024

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