Kigali, April 7, 2015 (FH) – “What we are giving them, what we are doing is very little compared with their gestures of humanity towards us,” says Charles Habonimana, head of the Groupe des anciens étudiants et élèves rescapés du génocide (GAERG), an association of student survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. “It is to recognize that they were a light amidst the shadows of death.”

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He was speaking about a campaign that has been under way for a month, as Rwanda on Tuesday marks 21 years since the start of the genocide.

For this genocide commemoration, young Tutsi survivors including many students have chosen to pay tribute to the “Righteous”, that is Hutus who saved Tutsis in 1994, often at the risk of their own lives.

These Rwandans are thus following the example of survivors of the Holocaust. In 1953, when the Knesset (Israeli parliament) created the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem to victims of the Shoah, it also decided to honour “the Righteous among the Nations” who risked their lives to save Jews. The name of Righteous is awarded by the Yad Vashem memorial in the name of the Israeli State. It is currently the highest honour granted by Israel to civilians.

The action of courageous Hutus, according to Rwanda’s anti-genocide commission CNLG, is also proof that there was indeed a genocide against the Tutsis. For as Rwanda marks this 21st anniversary of the genocide (kwibuka, meaning 21 in the Rwandan language), one of the concerns is “negationism” , according to the CNLG.

The campaign by these young survivors started at the beginning of March. For the launch, they went to a remote village in Kirehe district of eastern Rwanda to pay tribute to the heroism of an old lady named Alvera Kankindi and present her with a heifer. In Rwandan culture there is nothing more precious than a cow, as it is seen as a sign of prosperity.

“I am overwhelmed!” the old lady exclaimed. “Do I deserve this cow just because I did my duty as a human being? After all, their blood is red like mine.” This simple country woman without education opened her small house to Tutsi refugees and fed them with the little she had. Those she protected survived. Attackers arrived too late to get them, but killed Kankindi’s husband in revenge.  “21 years after the genocide, we are now adult and so we have responsibilities,” says Habonimana. “It is our duty to ensure that the heroism of these people is recognized.”

Dozens of people have thus been honoured since the beginning of March. Young survivors have given cows and repaired people’s houses.

In 2011, the main survivors’ group Ibuka (meaning remember in the Rwandan language) conducted a survey and published a list of 265 “Righteous” people. According to the survey, it was uneducated people who participated most in saving Tutsis during the genocide. Out of the 265 people in the survey, 74% were peasants making a living from traditional agriculture. Some had not even been to primary school.  85.4%  are men and 14.6 % women.

Frodouald Karuhije, a small builder in the southern district of Muhanga, saved 14 Tutsis, some of whom he did not even know.

In the same district Sula Karuhimbi, an old lady who gave medical care using leaves and tree roots, saved about 100 people.

The survey also mentions Josephine Dusabimana, a peasant in Kibuye (western Rwanda) who defied her husband to evacuate about ten Tutsis to the former Zaire. She had to row for hours in the dark across Lake Kivu.

Then there is Corporal Silas Ntamfurigirishyari who, during lulls in fighting with  Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels, helped several Tutsis from Bugesera region escape to Burundi.

According to the national anti-genocide commission CNLG and the GAERG, the campaign recognizing the “Righteous” is to continue during and after the genocide commemoration period. “If one Hutu in every village throughout the land had had the courage to do the same and save five Tutsis, the tragedy would have had a less cruel face,” say the two institutions.

As every year since 1995, Rwanda is marking a week of national mourning from April 7 to 13, launched officially on Tuesday with a speech by President Paul Kagame.