19 May 2014

Rwanda: A Family's Joy As Brother Resurfaces After 20 Years

Photo: Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert
Jean-Marie, an ex-prisoner.

The tale of young Genocide survivor Frederic Simpunga, born Elie Kwizera, who found his family 20 years after they were separated from him during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, left many stupefied.

His homecoming left many wondering how 'the miracle' happened.

The New Times recently documented the circumstances under which Simpunga, who was about three years at the time of the Genocide, managed to survive, and how he embarked on an audacious journey to find his blood relatives.

The real search for his relatives began mid-last year when the young man, together with a school friend, embarked on a lengthy journey from Nyamagabe District to the rural Rusatira Sector, in Huye District, where he believed his family lived before the 1994 Genocide.

After several unsuccessful attempts and while on the verge of abandoning his search, Simpunga and his friend came across a carpenter who gave them the all-important information.

After listening to the youngsters, the unidentified man gave them an account of one Rwagasore who was killed during the Genocide, and whose last born was aged about three years. The old man gave the other name of Rwagasore as Yasson.

Simpunga's instincts told him the man's account matched the scanty recollections he had as a three-year old.

With a mobile phone number provided by the old carpenter, Simpunga later met a lady who turned out to be her blood sister.

It was a memorable moment as the two interacted and later discovered that they were actually siblings.

Tales of survival:

The lady Simpunga met is Charlotte Uwizera.

At the time of the Genocide, Uwizera was nine and was in her Primary Three. When the killings erupted in April 1994, the little girl, her relatives and parents fled their home village in Maza, in the then Rusatira commune with hope to escape the killers.

But their parents and a number of relatives were caught along the way and killed.

Their mother, who was carrying Simpunga on her back, and their father were thrown in a pit-latrine with the infant, according to testimonies.

Luckily, his father, Yasson Rwagasore, who was still breathing but was taken for dead by the killers, managed to climb up from the pit, also bringing out with him the young Simpunga.

Simpunga survived and has faint memories of white people who nearly ran over the kid with their car but stopped and took him to an orphanage in the current Huye District.

Rwagasore is said to have met another bunch of killers who executed him.

Later, the young Simpunga (who was named so at the orphanage because his real name was not known), found himself in an orphanage in Kigeme, now in Nyamagabe District.

Around 1996, a couple of "Good Samaritans" showed up at the orphanage and expressed willingness to take up one of the many orphans. Simpunga was thus driven to Mugano Sector in Nyamagabe where he got a new home.

On her part, Uwizeye managed to flee to Songa Hill, in the current Kinazi Sector, where thousands of Tutsi had gathered and were bravely fending off attacks from the marauding killers.

But as the attackers increased in number, armed with sophisticated weaponary, the Tutsi were mercilessly massacred. Uwizeye recalls that she was among the few lucky ones who managed to flee the area.

Over a hundred of them, under the guidance of Karate master Tharcisse Sinzi, managed to survive by crossing the border to Burundi.

But Uwizeye got lost along the way and survived after hiding in bushes and shrubs. She was later offered shelter by a family which protected her against the machete-wielding militia until the Genocide was halted.

After the Genocide, Uwizeye managed to find her elder sister who had also survived. Unfortunately, she passed away in November 2011 of natural causes, leaving Uwizeye a lonely soul with the thought that she was the sole survivor in a family of eight.

Unexpected surprise:

For 20 years, Uwizeye and a few surviving relatives believed Simpunga had perished in the 100-day manslaughter.

So whenever they went for commemoration events in the area, they also prayed for her little brother's soul to 'rest in eternal peace".

But Uwizeye says she believed she will one day come across one of her siblings.

"I listened to radio announcements of lost children regularly with hope that one of them might be my sister or brother," she says, adding that she had the conviction that some of her siblings could have survived the slaughter.

But after about 13 years of waiting in vain, Uwizeye says she lost hope.

So she started a journey to accept her fate. For her, it became clear that none of her siblings was lucky to survive as she and her elder sister had been.

But last September, Uwizeye received a call that both frightened and surprised her. A man at the other end of the call asked to meet her. She agreed. They later met in Huye town where she lives today with her husband. When the man said he was her youngest brother, Uwizeye at first doubted.

"I first thought he was a conman," she says. "But as we talked, I closely observed his mouth and teeth and saw the traits of the real Kwizera I remembered."

Uwizeye was also struck by the man's resemblance with her and their late mother. The way Simpunga's story seemed to relate to that of the lost Kwizera also left her certain that she had met her 'lost' brother.

Testimonies from Genocide perpetrators, survivors and residents also convinced Uwizeye and his other relatives that the man they had met was Rwagasore's youngest child.

"It was a surprise for me. It is by God's mercy that I came to meet my real brother after so long," she says.

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