The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Nyange Survivors - Unity Is an Important Aspect of Life

Tuesday, March 18, 1997, was a cold, rainy day at Nyange Secondary School, Ngororero District.

Students and teachers at this boarding school went about their business normally. But shortly before 8 pm, after they had had dinner, the students were surprised by a number of unknown 'visitors', some in military uniforms.

The strangers, were armed with automatic firearms and other traditional weapons, according to eyewitnesses.

After killing a night guard at the school, the infiltrators - commonly known as Abacengezi - ordered the students to separate themselves according to their ethnicity.

Separation along percieved ethinic identities would have seen the attackers slaughter Tutsi students.

Young, vulnerable, unable to physically protect themselves and with no weapons to use for self-defence, the school boys and girls immediately understood what that meant.

But, to testify to their unity, oneness, solidarity, love, moral righteousness, and patriotism, the students defied the orders and refused to separate.

Between unity and disunity or division, they opted for the former: stick together and perish together with, their dignity.

The infiltrators then shot indiscriminately at the students. Six of them - Sylvestre Bizimana, Chantal Mujawamahoro, Beatrice Mukambaraga, Seraphine Mukarutwaza, Helene Benimana, and Valens Ndemeye - were killed immediately.

Around twenty others were left in critical condition after being wounded in the shooting spree.

Almost 16 years after the fateful night, bitter memories still linger.

But, the teenagers' bravery is celebrated and serves well as an inspiration for so many people who wish to emulate their deeds.

A monument at the school campus serves as a reminder of the sad events that took place not in 1994, but on a single day in 1997, three years after over a million lives were taken during the Genocide against the Tutsi.

Taken for regular army

Father Jean Baptiste Mvukiyehe, 35, was at the time a Senior Five student at the school. He was at the school on the fateful night and witnessed the bloody night attack. As he recounts the incident, he divulges every single detail as if the attack happened yesterday. Mvukiyehe remembers how he first spotted the assailants on his way back to classrooms after dinner.

"Our dining room was about 250 metres from classrooms. As we finished dinner and headed back to class, I saw a group of about six men in military fatigues. At first, we thought they were regular soldiers. They even told us to hurry up and go to our classes," he recalls. "Until then, nothing strange or suspicious had happened".

But, as they reached their classrooms, the armed infiltrators suddenly became violent.

"They pushed the classroom door with such violence that we were all frightened," he says. "We took cover under desks."

The assailants were armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades and traditional weapons.

"One had a lengthy machete and another welded an object that looked like club," he remembers.

After entering the classrooms, the assailants gave their orders.

"Tutsis on one side, Hutus on the other", they said according to Mvukiyehe.

But, the students opted to stay together rather than separate. The infiltrators threatened the young students with their weapons, ordering them to separate but to no avail.

"They shot the first student. A girl. They shot her in the head and she instantly died," the priest remembers. "May be they wanted to coarse us into submission, but no one moved."

"We are all Rwandans"

Realising their failure to separate the students, the assailants started shooting randomly.

Thereafter, the order was repeated. But, the students remained firm.

"There are no Hutus or Tutsis here, we are Rwandans," a girl in the class shouted, according to Prisca Uwamahoro, another survivor who was shot at thrice - in the head, on shoulder and arm.

"We had made it clear that we shall not separate. We kept telling them that we are all Rwandan, which increased their frustration because it was clear that they would not achieve their objectives."

After the shooting, the assailants ordered the students to stand up so they can choose Tutsis by themselves.

But, the students took the opportunity to run for safety, and more students were killed in the process.

"They [assailants] kept shooting and hurling grenades at us", the clergyman says. 'They were so many. At one point we just saw bullets and not the shooters."

The exact number of the attackers remains unknown, but estimates put it to over 20.

"I managed to escape and hid in a nearby banana plantation till the next morning."

Others survived by hiding in bushes around the school premises.

"The next morning, everyone was left devastated. We could no figure out what happened. It was and it remains so hard for us to comprehend," Mvukiyehe observes.

Responsibility

But, what was the force behind the students which helped them dare to defy the armed assailants whose intentions was clearly to kill innocent teenagers?

According to the survivors, the unity and love which existed between them was the main force behind their resistance.

"Our leaders always told us that unity was our strength," Uwamahoro narrates. "Due to the education we were receiving at school, we entertained brotherly relations between us. We were not just friends, but rather it was as if we were relatives. The mood at the school was like that of a family."

"The attack is one of the darkest moments of my life," Father Mvukiyehe notes. "But, it has taught me that unity and oneness are important aspects in life".

"Getting a national hero accolade comes with new responsibilities rather than it being an achievement. It is a call to uphold that unity and oneness, the love for human life and remain brave during difficult situations," Mvuyekure says.

"March 1997 is gone but we always face situations which require us to remain united."

Sixteen years after the gruesome incident, survivors of the Nyange school attack have started a new life.

The former Nyange students are now scattered across the country, contributing to the national development in one way or another.

But, their bond remains.

In 2002, the survivors of Nyange attack started an association to uphold their legacy and named it Komezubutwari (Uphold heroism).

The association is engaged in keeping together Nyange Heroes and their families and promoting the culture of peace building and heroism.

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