Finding Strength in Testimony – An Interview with Edith Umugiraneza

This is the dress that I wore for three months during the genocide.  My mother gave me this scarf and said, "If anything happens  to us, you will have this."

This is the dress that I wore for three months during the genocide. My mother gave me this African wrap because it was the rainy season at the time.  She also gave me a necklace and said, “If they kill me, have this in remembrance of me.” – Edith Umugiraneza

April 2014 Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future

A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children

Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public.

Below is an interview with Edith Umugiraneza, a Rwandan genocide survivor who will be a featured speaker at the Rwanda genocide event.

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An Interview with Edith Umugiraneza

Birth Place:  Kigali, Nyarugenge, Rwanda
Occupation: Indexer for USC Shoah Foundation
Degree: B.A. in Social Work from Laval University, Quebec, Canada


Q:  What was your life like before the genocide?

A:  I was 17 years old when the genocide started.  Before that, life was good.  I was a high school student with six siblings.  My mother was a widow.  We had a normal life.  I was the youngest.

Q:  Prior to the genocide did you have many Hutu friends?  Did you notice divisions between the two populations?

A:  No.  And yes, when we were in elementary school they used to ask us which group we belonged to.  Each year they would ask this to find out who people were.  They were practicing segregation to choose who would go to public and private schools.  The Hutus were chosen to go to public schools. The Tutsis would be sent to private schools, and many of them didn’t have money to afford the tuition so they didn’t go to school at all.  Before the genocide, in the political parties, we could see people being jailed because of who they were.

Q:  What is the first thing you remember about the start of the genocide?

A:  I remember it was in the night, and I was listening to the radio.  My mother was in the living room.  I heard on the radio that the president had been killed.  I told my mother and she said, “Are you losing your mind?”  She kept saying “It’s not possible.  It’s not possible.”  She was denying.  For her it was not possible for the president to be killed.  The following day they started telling people to not get out of their houses.  People were calling our home and saying that people we knew were being killed.  My mom said we have to all go to different places (my brothers and sisters) because now they are killing people.  For me, I didn’t think it would last that long.  I figured after a couple of days, one week, maybe two.. it would be over.  But then after one week, seeing people I knew being killed all over the place, my uncles… I knew it would be longer.

Q:  Did you know where all your siblings went to hide?

A:  I had one sister living in Canada already.  Two more sisters and two brothers were married and not living at home any more.  It was myself, my mother, a niece, a brother, as well as my oldest brother and his family.  I went with my niece to my grandmother’s.  We didn’t know where each other were, but my mother knew.

Q:  Did you and others you knew expect the outside world to put an end to the genocide?

A:  Yes.  Because of all the UN soldiers in Rwanda, I was expecting them to do something, praying that the soldiers would come quickly to save us, but it was not the case.  When we heard that the international soldiers were leaving the country, it was a disappointment.  We were discouraged then. It was like a betrayal.  They were betraying us.

When we heard that the international soldiers were leaving the country, it was a disappointment.  We were discouraged then. It was like a betrayal.  They were betraying us.

Q:  How do you think the world responded to the genocide?

A:  They ignore.  They didn’t really care about seeing people dying… just watching people being killed, but they didn’t care.

Q:  Were any of your friends or family members killed?

A:  My uncles were in the same neighborhood as my grandma’s.  They were killed while I was at my grandma’s, and then I had to leave to go back home.  On my mother’s side, all her siblings were killed, my grandma, and my mom as well.  They killed my in-laws and their kids, one brother, and my cousins.

Q:  How many of your siblings survived?

A:  Four.

Q:  Could you tell me more about your personal experiences during the genocide?

A:  When we left my home, it was still kind of okay, but when we got to my grandma’s and saw people killed (including my uncles) and the way they were killed, that was a trauma.  Then, it was rainy season, and we had to hide in the water channel (like a large drainage ditch).  One night it was raining very badly.  I was with my niece who was the same age as me.  We were good friends.  She had asthma, and she had a crisis there.  I was telling her, “Please don’t cough. Please don’t sneeze because they will find us. If they come to kill us it’s your fault.  At that time I was blaming her, and she couldn’t do anything.  When I remember that time, I wish I could go back and apologize to her.  It wasn’t me, it was the fear.

One night it was raining very badly.  I was with my niece who was the same age as me.  We were good friends.  She had asthma, and she had a crisis there.  I was telling her, “Please don’t cough. Please don’t sneeze because they will find us. If they come to kill us it’s your fault.”  At that time I was blaming her, and she couldn’t do anything.  When I remember that time, I wish I could go back and apologize to her.  It wasn’t me, it was the fear.

Sometime later, we went back to my mom’s place.  One night a group of killers came to our house searching for my oldest brother.  My brother went to a neighbor’s house, and the soldiers went to a different neighbor, but finally they found him.  They took him far away to kill him.  Then they came back to loot the house, searching for my mom.  My mom wanted to go let them kill her because there was no point in surviving.  I said “Mom, I don’t want you to die before me.”  I ran to them.  I was in the middle of 20 of them.  They had machetes, guns… the same guns they used to kill my brother.  I didn’t have any fear.  I just wanted them to kill me.  I don’t know how, but they didn’t do anything.  They were looting the house, and I was just standing there amongst them.  One of the men who was leading the militia, was a man who killed many people in Rwanda, famous for killing and raping many young girls in Kigali.  Everyone knows him, but he didn’t touch me.  They took everything they wanted.  My brother had a new car from Germany, and they wanted it.  I hid the keys and papers for the car between some plants.  They asked, “Do you know where are the keys, the papers, the money?”  I kept saying “No, I don’t know”.  I think maybe my brain was turned off so I didn’t feel the fear.  They took everything they wanted and left.

Two days later, one of our neighbors came and told us they were planning on raping all the girls in the neighborhood.  My mom told him, “We have a neighbor who is a militiaman, but I know him. He is nice.  Tell him to come here.”  When the militiaman got to our house, my mother gave him a car and told him to take me to Kabgayi, a city where many Tutsi were hiding.  One of my brothers had already been brought there by this militiaman.  We got through all the roadblocks because he told people I was his daughter.  He said, “Don’t kill her.  She looks like her mom, who is Tutsi.  Her mom is dead so if you kill her I will bring all the militias from Kigali and kill all of you.”  But he still had to give money to bribe them to not kill me.  Normally, it only takes an hour to get from Kigali to Kabgayi, but it took us all day.  We tried to go into a school, but it was not possible.  He went to find someone in the neighborhood that he knew to take care of me and said he would come once a week to check on me.  The person he left me with was an old lady.  Her son was one of the people in the area who was killing.  He would come home every night with a machete covered in blood.  He would say to me, “You are the next one.”  I would say, “Why don’t you finish with me?  I am already dead, and I don’t have fear.”  He wouldn’t do it, maybe because he was afraid of the militiaman who brought me there.

I decided to get out of my hiding place in this house because it felt like I was dying every day, dying every minute.  So I went out and asked a woman I found, “Do you have something I can eat or drink that will kill me?  Bleach or something?”  I begged her.  She said, “No, no.”  She refused, but I knew of a roadblock nearby where they were killing many people so I went there.

And they were killing people right in front of me, but no one touched me.  There was a man there (a friend of my brother’s) who was Tutsi but had a Hutu I.D., and he looked Hutu.  He asked me what I was doing there, surprised to see me alive.  He put me in his car and said he would find a way to take me far away from here… That is the short version of my story.

Q:  How does it feel that you survived when so many of your loved ones were killed?

A:  For maybe five years after the genocide I would ask, “Why did I survive?  I didn’t want to.”   My mother and niece were both killed sometime after my mom had me taken away from Kigali.  My niece was always so happy, smart, she did very well in school, had a lot of friends.  She was someone who everyone expected to do something with her life, to go far.  I would think, “She was killed, and she was better than I.”  I was condemning myself.  I was asking God too many questions. For me, surviving was suffering.  The people who died were done and not suffering.  But me, I was always thinking about them, having nightmares and memories. It was killing me that those people were gone.   But now, I think if I survived, there is a reason.  There is something I have to accomplish.  There is a book by a survivor called  Left to Tell.   I thought maybe that is why I survived.  I am here to tell what happened, to testify.

For me to be alive is a victory.  Those people who killed us wanted to finish us, but now I am here.  It’s a victory.  And I’m not just sitting around, being sad, crying, depressed.  I have to stand up tall and fight for something, and have positive dreams that I can accomplish.  I want my children and myself to be happy, not thinking about what happened to me because that is what the killers would want.  I am training myself to be positive.  I can’t bring back my people, but what can I do?  People have to know what happened in my country.  We can help those who suffered in the genocide.

I have an emptiness in me because I don’t have those people (family members who were killed) any more.  My kids are always saying, “Mom we don’t have grandparents.  We want to see our grandparents.”  They are always asking questions.  At the same time, I think of those who did the killing.  Maybe they are going through something too.  They were pushed into that.  Maybe they were thinking of something positive like: “If we kill all of them we will be happier and have all their houses and belongings.”  But now they are still alive and cannot go back to Rwanda, or they died in refugee camps.  If they are still in Rwanda, they have to go through the courts.

Q:  At the end of the genocide, when did you know you were safe?

A:  After I was taken from the roadblock in Kabgayi, a few of us went together to Congo, hiding under the seats.  When we got to Congo we stayed far away from the refugee camps because the militias were there and would kill us.  I met someone else I knew who had escaped to Congo.  He went back to Rwanda, met one of my brothers and brought him to Congo with one of my cousins.  When I saw them, that is when I survived.  They brought me back to Rwanda.  But when I got home and saw the house empty and didn’t know where my mother was, who had survived and who didn’t, that was… very hard.

Q:  Do you feel that justice was achieved in Rwanda for the victims and their families?

A:  No. For me I am not expecting people to do justice.  Only God can do justice.  I know the country is trying to put those people in jail.  But still, people are not satisfied.  There are those that had connections and got out of jail, those that confess with their mouth but not their heart.  I know the man who killed my uncles and my grandma has said,  “If I get the chance to kill the rest of you guys, I will.”  He is in jail but alive, eating and sleeping.. so there is no justice.  Not that I want them to be killed, but there is no justice.

Q:  When did you come to the U.S.?

A:  2004.  I have two sisters in Canada, and a brother and sister in Rwanda.  My husband came to visit the U.S. and fell in love with CA.  He was tired of the snow and cold in Canada.  We left Rwanda in 1994.

Q:  Why did you decide to leave Rwanda?

A:  During the genocide, I was thinking if i survive, i will never ever live in this country again.  I remember my mom calling my sister in Canada and saying just in case any of my grandkids or kids survive, bring them to Canada.  So my sister promised, and for me it was the right thing to do.  When I came back to Rwanda, going in my mom’s bedroom, just seeing the place where she used to sit, was a trauma.  I was expecting her to come back.  I would think, “Maybe she didn’t die.  Maybe they didn’t kill her.”  I was in denial, but at the same time, it was too much.  For me, it was better to leave Rwanda.  My sister took myself, another sister and my nephew (who was in the orphanage saved by Carl Wilkens) to Canada.

Q:  What was the most difficult part of adjusting to life outside Rwanda?

A:  In Canada, it was January when we got there.  I was wearing my shorts.  A woman in Canada who I think worked for immigration saw me and went to storage and brought out a long coat and boots.  In Rwanda, to be with other survivors who went through the same thing was helpful.  In Canada, there were other survivors who came there, but I didn’t want to go back to school or do anything.  My sister pushed me to go to counseling.  The counselor I met there, didn’t even know where Rwanda was or anything about the genocide.  So for me, it was like, “What am I doing here?”  Not having the resources to help me heal, to express my experiences, was hard.  But the other survivors I arrived with were all in the same neighborhood.  Getting support from my teachers and friends who were Canadian is where I got to be accepted as ‘who you are’.  That is so important.  I got really good support there, at school.

Q:  Do you think the world has gotten better or worse at responding to genocide and human rights violations?

A:  If they don’t have a political or economic interest they are not doing anything.  See what is happening in Sudan.  If there is no interest then they leave people behind.

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Alicia Buly works in San Diego County and volunteers for Living Ubuntu.

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3 Responses to Finding Strength in Testimony – An Interview with Edith Umugiraneza

  1. Pingback: Finding Strength in Testimony – An Interview with Edith Umugiraneza | Orange County Storage Space

  2. Pingback: “An interview with…” — survivors of genocide | Orange County for Darfur Blog

  3. Pingback: Interviews with Survivors | April GAPM film series starts April 1 (tomorrow) | Living Ubuntu Blog

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