Bugesera swamp
2 min 33Approximate reading time

Bugesera (southeast Rwanda), April 21, 2015 (FH) - “Kayitesi Alice, Mukagasana Vénantia, Sebigimba André, Semutabaruka Straton… ”. Names of men and women engraved on memorial tablets erected on the banks of a moving swamp in Ntarama which consumed more than 2,000 Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.And as each name is read out, there is sobbing amongst the hundred or so survivors come to honour their dead in this eastern region of Rwanda.

President Paul Kagame officially closed a week of national mourning to commemorate victims of the genocide on April 13 in Kigali. But as every year, commemorations will continue until July.

The bodies of those consumed by the Bugesera swamp will probably never have marked graves. All efforts to recover them have so far been in vain, according to the authorities and the survivors. “It has always proved impossible to recover the bodies buried by water and heaps of papyrus,” says Bugesera district mayor Louis Rwagaju. “Maybe some of them were carried off and ended up further away, towards the Akanyaru river.”

For Rwagaju, this monument erected on the banks of the swamp is testament to “the real history of the Tutsis’ suffering, not only in Ntarama but also in the whole Bugesera region”. “And,” he says, “this swamp itself should be considered as a genocide memorial.”

In Bugesera region, as almost everywhere in Rwanda, most people were Christian. So when the genocide started, Tutsis fled to the churches, hoping to find refuge there like in the pogroms of 1950 to 1961. But they were attacked and massacred in the churches of Ntarama and Nyamata. On April 15 the survivors, surrounded on all sides, fled to the swamp.

“Those of us who hid in the swamp were only about 100 men with thousands of women and children,” says Innocent Gapita, a country farmer who with his bow and arrow led the resistance of those under siege. “We launched a determined and desperate resistance against the soldiers and militia,” he says. “We didn’t know what date or day it was, we only knew death.”  According to him, the attack of April 30, 1994 alone, which was reinforced with heavy weapons and militia from Kigali, left 2,000 people dead. Only about 50 men survived.

“Dying like a Man”

Completely cornered, the survivors decided to come out of the swamp to “die like men” on a neighbouring hillside, according to one of them, Alexis Habarugira, who shot dead a soldier with an arrow and grabbed his gun. This gun, which he knew how to use, held off the attack for a while until the arrival of soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Then, the vulnerable people still alive in the swamp were able to come out. And 21 years later, everyone has a painful story to tell. “Something wounded me on the sole of my foot in the middle of the swamp, but I tried not to feel anything,” says Chantal Mwamina. “My little sister’s life was more important. I had hidden her under a mass of papyrus and bushes. People were walking over her, but she didn’t cry out.” 

Alice Mukarurinda, 25 at the time, had her arm cut off by the attackers and got a violent blow in the head with a machete during the day of April 29, 1994. “I was pulled out of the swamp, but 16 members of my family and 18 members of my family-in-law died along with thousands of others,” she says. “Others were lucky enough to be able to bury their dead, but not us. Every day, my heart is heavy because of that.”

All the survivors also remember Asantisana, a young man of 23 who wanted to be a priest. This religious and studious young man kept a diary of the events, noting each fact and detail so that “I or others, if God wills us to live, may be able to tell the whole world about the suffering of the Tutsis”. He paid with his life.  

According to official figures, 75,000 people died in the Bugesera region during the genocide. The region was one of those that had the highest concentration in Rwanda of ethnic Tutsis.