Last week, Damas Gisimba Mutezintare, the Director of the Gisimba Memorial Center, talked to Sunday Times' James Karuhanga about events 25 years ago when he, against huge odds, saved hundreds of orphans at the height of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Today, the 58-year-old says, he is happy seeing his country is in a better place. He is filled with joy knowing that the children he saved are happy adults who remained close knit loving family.
Some have faced challenges due to trauma, he revealed. Despite all, however, the man who was their father at a time when nearly the entire world had forsaken them is happy that God could not allow the genocidal government's Colonel Théoneste Bagosora's apocalypse mission to happen as the latter had imagined.
Twenty five years after the Genocide against the Tutsi when you saved children, especially orphans, how do you make of the modern day Rwanda?
Life is good after 25 years, considering where Rwanda was back in 1994. If you look at the catastrophe and how things are now, you see development and many positive changes, all in a short time.
During the war and the Genocide, heavy weapons were used to destroy buildings and massacre people. When you look at how towns have been rebuilt and are full of life, this is fast development. Life is good. Our country is in a better place.
Before the genocide actually started, you had 80 orphans but when the carnage started many more sought refuge here. How many people survived in your compound here?
At the end of the genocide 405 people survived from here. You know, 100 days are very many days. To me, at the time, it seemed like three years. People came in here day and night. Things were very bad; death, suffering and despair everywhere. In just three months we had got to that big number in a small compound and there were more children than adults.
How many children?
About 325; from babies of one week to one month old, two months ... and up to teenagers of 17, 19, and so on.
Gisimba shows photos of children who were rescued during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Where are they, these children, now?
These children are now living their own lives. You see, it is 25 years past now. A child who was five then is now 30, and a man or a wife somewhere. Probably it is the girls who marry early. Maybe few of the men are married but now as we speak some are getting married.
In July, I have two weddings of two girls who will wed on the same day and they were orphans here. Every year I have a daughter getting married [laughs].
Some were lucky and were able to trace and find some relatives; a cousin here, an uncle or aunt there, or any other distant relations, after the genocide. But they continue to call this place home, and me, their parent. Wherever they are, they still feel that we are one family.
Some are abroad?
Many are abroad.
What do they do there?
Many are working, many others are students. Many are married too. I have married some off to whites [laughs], Ugandans, Congolese, and others. It is something I feel happy about. It means that everywhere I would go, be it Canada, USA, France, Kampala, or somewhere else, I have someone to welcome me. The family was extended and I now have a bigger family given to me by God.
Ok, you say our country is in a better place today, but how about yourself? How is life treating you these days?
I am doing well really, even though I am ill. I later on, perhaps because of the hardships I endured, learnt that I had very bad diabetes. It makes life hard for me since it weakens me and brings other ailments such as heart diseases.
But that aside, I am doing fine. I thank God that the country is prospering and my family too is peaceful. I am happy knowing that all the children I saved are well wherever they are and have grown up and had a good education.
That is the most important thing. I know they will care and advance themselves as well as help the country grow. When children are many, there will be some who encounter challenges but these are not the majority. Ninety five percent of these children are out there enjoying a good normal life. We meet, they visit me, and whoever has a problem is helped by the others.
They have an association, and are in constant touch with each other then?
They have a network and this pleases me so much. They love each other. When you raise orphans in the right way, they will do things that make you happy. They love each other as if they were born and raised by the same mother.
They look out for each other. And they inform me. When I get ill they all endeavor to visit me, and you can see that they are all very concerned, to the extent that sometimes when I am ill I keep it a secret. I don't want them to worry a lot.
I often don't want them to worry and get destabilized at their jobs. Many have jobs, families and kids of their own. But the love they have amongst themselves really feels me with happiness.
It really is sad when a parent raises children who later on become bandits. But again, because our creator never made us similar, there will be that one child who goes astray. But for these [who go astray] we do our best to care as much as we can.
The orphanage also has a memorial in honour of Genocide victims.
Do you know these few ones who, perhaps, have gone astray?
We know them and we do our best to follow up closely, and patiently. There are very few cases. But when you look closely you observe that their situations are as a result of this situation [genocide] that befell us.
Is trauma the issue?
It is a case of extreme trauma to an extent that one goes astray completely and you see no chance of return. But there are other issues we suspect could be coming from families. You see, there are people who are harmful also; a child comes and when he starts requesting for his [killed] parents' land, for example, some people can do things that disorganize him mentally and he goes astray.
When you examine the situation you realize that it was not the child who brought it upon himself. It is something inflicted on him. You wonder how a very normal and healthy child left to go and claim his parents' assets and when you see him next he is disorientated mentally; he hates school, hates everyone and just runs away and gets lost.
When you find him again, he has lost it. He never bathes or changes clothes. These are things that people in our society do. People often shy away from mentioning it but it is a reality.
We are talking about witchcraft and related ills. Right?
Yes. I am talking about it because I have seen these things happen. We can't just dodge the matter. We are Christians and we pray a lot but in this world there are many things that are not right. There are evil people. So, we saw kids affected...
How do you help such a child?
It is very difficult. We took them to Ndera [the National Neuropsychiatric Hospital] and they really helped but you could see that they too are challenged. Our entire family looked for solutions together and we have support.
The NCC [National Children Commission] can tell you of some cases we collaborated on. They helped us; their psychologists know the situation since they are also parents and Rwandans. There is, for example, a child who we had to take back to university and NCC, Ibuka and others helped in their respective capacities.
Back to the network you mentioned. How do all of them network and keep in touch? Is it a WhatsApp group?
Yes, it is WhatsApp group but I am not on it. My wife is on though. And she informs me of things there.
Were you two married back in 1994 as you suffered and struggled to save lives?
My wife was with me. We were a young couple; who had been together for two years and had a one year old child, our first born. She suffered with me here. While I struggled to ward off Interahamwe she was busy helping care for the babies we had.
Who is your wife?
She is called Mukandanga Béatrice. I would venture outside and face off with Interahamwe attackers while she, and some others mothers who had taken refuge in our compound and had babies, would attend to the babies without mothers and other small children.
But since these other women were new in the area and very frightened she was the one largely in charge. When the babies became many she devised means to ensure they do not become dehydrated. We would mix salt and sugar in boiled water and give them. We had about 40 babies.
How many of the babies survived?
Oh, they were many. I can't count. Now they are 25 and celebrating their birthdays. There are some who were one month old at the time.
And there was your younger brother, Jean-François...
Jean-Francois Gisimba. He was also with us here. So was his wife. At the time they were still just friends. She was just a girlfriend. She also, along with her siblings, was here with us.
When did they get married?
It was later after the genocide. In 1995, when they had got jobs and life normalized again.
What are they doing now?
By then, he [Jean-Francois] left this place when he was a journalist with DeutchWelle. Even before the genocide he worked with ORINFOR. But after the genocide he worked for DeutchWelle for about a year. But he is now in Germany but no longer with DeutchWelle, or in journalism. He often comes home and, recently, he was home with his wife.
What do you make of the American, Carl Wilkens, who refused to be evacuated with other westerners but stayed to help in saving lives?
Now this man Carl Wilkens; I knew his organization, ADRA, since it helped orphans. But I had never met him before. But since he was a Director he must have known that among the homes his organization helped was the Gisimba home.
During the genocide he was curious and inquired about us. I don't know the person he asked about us and was told that we are located in Nyamirambo and things are very tough for us. He listened and decided to find ways to reach us. When he got here he found us in serious and immediate danger.
He saw it with his own eyes. I also explained to him the whole dire situation. There was no electricity, no water, no hygiene, no nothing! I took him to where the babies were. They were our biggest cause for worry. I told him they were about to die in my hands. I had little milk, that wouldn't last a week. No water. Nothing!
He told me he was going to do his best to supply me with water. If he was lucky to find milk too, he would bring. So, he left and after about two days he returned with a truck full of water. Our numbers had grown overnight and water was the main problem then. I had a container of food but how can you cook without water? And people were thirsty and congested in a small house.
Mothers and raped girls were pouring in and needed to bathe. It was horrific. Carl Wilkens would often wade through bullets, all the way from Kacyiru. Kacyiru had been captured by Inkotanyi but our side was bad.
Sometimes he could spend three days without reaching us and when he got here he would say, 'please forgive me, the truck's tires got punctures and I had to go hunt for spare tires from [abandoned] vehicles in town.'
To get a vehicle matching his and a similar tire during that time was crazy. There were no open garages. He did everything by himself.
Wasn't there any other helping hand besides Wilkens, Jean François and the adult women you were with?
There was nobody! Now, would I have been helped by the genocidal government who were the ones actually masterminding the tyranny and the killings? No one else had the heart. Those who were not killing were busy looting. Maybe even those who thought about helping feared because no one was allowed to help the Tutsi.
People considered me to be a crazy risk taker. If you were caught hiding a Tutsi, even if a small baby, you would be killed. And here I was with more than a hundred Tutsi. I had given up my life. I knew that one dies once.
You see, there is a point where your heart and body simply become a piece of wood and you feel everything is zero. The fear goes. Do you know that fear only comes to you in the first three to five minutes and later you are like a fearless unfeeling wood?
I think the reason people feared to help others was because it had been made a directive that [whoever helps Tutsi must be killed]. They [genocidal government] understood that Rwandans had lived together and shared a lot, and some Hutu would hide the Tutsi.
They decided that to prevent that, they issue a directive such that whoever is caught helping the Tutsi is killed along with their entire family. When they implemented this and people saw their neighbours killed because of this, would you do it too? They really erected a tough barrier and those who didn't have strong hearts would not act. Their plan was that no Tutsi face would ever appear again. They wanted a situation whereby even a child born to them would later on in life ask 'how did a Tutsi look like?'
That was a very bad thing they had set up to do. I don't know if [Colonel Théoneste] Bagosora's apocalypse would have been possible because God couldn't allow it. But for them in their ideology, that was their goal. But they forgot that even if they killed the Tutsi in the country, they would not kill those abroad. It was truly a question of having a narrow mind.