Rwanda: 101-Year-Old Wwii Veteran Relishes Life After Exile, Offers Advice to Youth

From Rwanda's last three kings - Yuhi V Musinga, Mutara III Rudahigwa and Kigeli V Ndahindurwa - through to each of the presidencies of Dominique Mbonyumutwa, Gregoire Kayibanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, Theodore Sindikubwabo, Pasteur Bizimungu and Paul Kagame, 101-year-old Epimaque Nyagashotsi has seen it all.

Born in 1920 in Gahini, currently in Kayonza District, Nyagashotsi spent a good part of his youthful life on the battlefield, first as a World War II combatant in Kenya and later, in 1960s, as a member of the Inyenzi warriors.

"I was one of the three young men who were selected from our village by regional chiefs and sous-chiefs (local rulers) and sent to Kenya to fight in World War II. We were all physically strong, one of the other young men was my cousin.

"I was around 20 at the time. It was tough on the frontline, many died and I still have many scars on my legs. I stayed in Nairobi all through but some of my colleagues advanced further north to Sudan and Egypt," he recalls.

After the war, he says, he was bestowed with a rank he reckons is equivalent to the modern-day army captain and received a medal for his service. The returning combatants were also exempted from taxes.

Life immediately changed for the better, at least momentarily, thanks to his newfound status as a World War II veteran, he says. "We lived a good life after returning from Kenya and later I couldn't bring myself to return to farming."

"Having tasted 'money life," he recalls, "I couldn't settle for farming anymore."

Inside Nyagashotsi's new home_ (L-R)_ Gatsibo Vice Mayor for Economic Development Theogene Manzi, Lt. Col. Vicent Mugisha, Gatsibo Mayor Richard Gasana and the 101-year old World War II veteran

'Forced into exile'

He ended up in Rwinkwavu concessions and got involved in mining wolfram, coltan and tin. Nyagashotsi worked in mining for six years before returning home to Gahini.

He later married and he and his wife and their firstborn relocated to Mamfu in Muhura in Gatsibo. Shortly after, the 1959 pogroms started, eventually forcing him and his family to flee across the border to Uganda in 1960. During that episode of early ethnic violence against the Tutsi his house was set ablaze. "That's how I lost my World War II medal, it was burnt in the house."

In Uganda, the young family first settled in the south-western refugee camp of Nakivale (Nyakivala). Later, they relocated to Tooro refugee camp where his family stayed until 1994.

But Nyagashotsi would join Inyenzi guerrillas in the years that followed the expulsion of thousands of Tutsi. "We were determined not to lose our beloved Rwanda without a fight," he insists.

"We were leaving behind our dear country where everyone spoke the same language and people whom we had lived together for generations. We dreaded the idea of being uprooted from our country and seeing our identity and customs brutally stripped away for good and condemned to a life in exile where we tried to fit in with foreign cultures and hostile people."

After it became clear that the political leaders that were in charge back in Rwanda were unwilling to allow the refugees to return home, hundreds of men organised themselves and launched cross-border attacks pushing for repatriation.

Nyagashotsi was a member of the Inyenzi.

"We were forced into exile and had no choice but to try to return by force. We used whatever weapons we could get our hands on, mostly traditional ones, like spears and bows and arrows," he recalls.

"We attacked but many of our comrades lost their lives and we eventually lost the war, largely because only a handful of us had guns."

Inyenzi attacks, defeats and refugee life

That was around 1962. Two attacks were repulsed quite easily but, in the third attack, the Inyenzi were able to advance to Kiziguro, some 100 kilometres inside Rwanda from the Uganda border. But they were soon beaten and retreated back to Uganda, he says.

"Kigeli V was in Uganda at the time, and after our third defeat he called us to a meeting and said that there was no way we were going to win a war in which we were fighting with traditional weapons against people who were using guns. He advised us to instead go and teach our children, assuring us that ultimately we'd return home."

That's how we started looking for land and owning property in Uganda, he said.

"We started taking our children to school."

"Although life in Uganda was generally not too bad, he says. However, "any Ugandan citizen could harass you, kick you and even take what belonged to you with impunity, you'd constantly be reminded that Uganda was not your home, so you had to be extra careful to avoid trouble at all costs, you always tried to be friendly to even those who abused you and buy them drinks and so on."

Some 30 years later, a young generation of refugees became of age. Some of them would end up launching the liberation struggle that eventually brought the Rwanda Patriotic Front-Inkotanyi to power, bringing to an end the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Returning home - at last

The new government in Kigali facilitated the return of Rwandan refugees.

Nyagashotsi was one of them.

After staying in the capital for a short time he and his family returned to Kiziguro, where he first settled when he got married before he fled Rwanda.

Today, Ngashotsi is a grateful senior citizen, a proud resident of Ndatemwa, Kiziguro in Gatsibo District.

Just recently, he received a gift from President Paul Kagame, whom he considers to be the greatest president Rwanda has ever had: a fully-furnished house. He also received a half-hectare piece of land and a cow thanks to the Head of State.

"With a roof over my head and a cow to give me milk - my favourite drink - I cannot ask for more," says a beaming Nyagashotsi.

The President reportedly learnt of Nyagashotsi's struggles through the media and subsequently instructed the Rwanda Defence Force and Gatsibo District authorities to follow up on the issue and address his plight.

Nyagashotsi's new housing unit, which was handed over to him late last month, is worth Rwf16 million, officials said.

Nyagashotsi bore a dozen children but three of them passed away, one of them during the armed struggle that brought Uganda President Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986, he says.

He stays with his youngest child, a daughter he fathered when he was 75.

The senior citizen estimates his grandchildren to be around 40 although he doesn't know how many great grandchildren he has. "Maybe some of my great-grandchildren have children too," he joked.

Protect "our shared identity, values"

When we visited him more than a week ago he said he had taken his first Covid-19 jab and was awaiting the second.

Asked about the secret to his long life, he cited God and a stroke of luck. "I survived a lot of things, the bullets, accidents during my years working in the mines, predators like lions when I was growing up as a child because we lived in the woods and lions and hyenas were always visiting targeting cattle for prey."

"My simple life was also helpful, I grew up eating cassava and drinking milk, which I think are healthy for the body."

His advice to young people?

"You should be united, you should be one people and love one another, you're lucky to have a country that cares, Rwanda has never been a better place, young people should be humble and committed to our shared identity and our values."

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