Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," opens Leo Tolstoy in his 1877 novel Anna Karenina.

Since you are reading this, unlike the boy in this story, I suppose you are currently meeting essentials in your life, if not fairly comfortable. Obviously, you can read, and you currently maintain a decent dose of serenity which allows you to spare some time to read. If your country is not entirely peaceful; at the very least your household and yourself currently exercise a fair amount of freedom and security, enough for you to take the time to surf the web and read. Unlike the boy in this story nor his mother, you are not currently running for your life from extremist killers chasing you with machetes, clubs, and spears — all determined to kill you and your entire family. Further, I suppose you have not just witnessed your own father's beheading, unlike the boy in this story. Neither are you only five years old, nor are you currently starving, exhausted, traumatised, and barefoot as you trip and fall along the way to your next hideout in bushes and marshlands.

This boy's story takes place in April 1994, in Rwanda, along the journey to Burundi, a neighbouring country south of Rwanda. On the seventh of April in 1994, the Rwandan people embarked on a tragic calvary of horror and agony, when the Genocide against the Tutsi started, claiming the lives of over one million people within just three months.

The boy who, at just five years old, did not understand ethnic segregations which had built up to this time, simply enjoyed a happy village life in a remote countryside of Rwanda. The boy's family enjoyed a respected social position in the village and ranked high in terms of wealth, notably land and cow holdings. The boy idolised his father. He was impressed by how often throngs of family friends would come to visit his family in order to further cultivate friendship and family ties. On each one of such visits, it was customary for these guests to bring gifts of honey, crops, more cows, pledge more lands, and other gifts signalling their commitment and loyalty to the boy's family.

Then the seventh of April strikes hard. Rwanda falls victim to the tragic consequences of bad politics fuelled by toxic divisionism in which a minority ethnic group, the Tutsi, is targeted by the majority Hutu. For a long time, Tutsis had been subject to dehumanisation, notably being referred to as devils, snakes, and cockroaches, who deserve nothing but to perish. Killings start nationwide, perpetrated by extremist Hutus who are determined to kill every Tutsi, village to village, district to district.

The boy's family is Tutsi. The modus operandi is to kill every male Tutsi first, followed by the rest. Therefore, the father and sons in the boy's family are urgent targets. From April seventh to ninth, the boy's family spends the entire time in hiding, alternating between nearby marshlands and any bushes they can find. On the tenth of April, the family returns home very early in the morning to pick up a few provisions in order to flee far away for safety. They find their home already rooted. Most valuables such as crops, clothes, bicycles, and even cows at the farm have been taken. While at home gathering everything in hurry, the boy's father takes the boy with him to the family farm nearby where he had hidden some extra money. No one in the family had thought that there could be someone on the lookout watching the house, overnight, on behalf of killers. Unfortunately, there was. Within a short period of time, the father and the boy return home in hurry, only to find the home empty. The rest of the family has left, doors open, and they don't know which direction the family has taken nor whether they are still alive.

Suddenly, the father hears voices of people approaching the house from far away. He hides the boy behind the hedges of the house, covers him with the dry leaves of banana trees, and tells him to keep silent as he hides on the opposing side of the compound. It is the killers. They move in fast with their arms, enter the home compound and capture the father almost immediately. They pressure him to tell where everybody is. "Where is your son, the one with a big head?" they shout as they shove him. They mean the boy in the story. The boy is watching every scene through the hedges and listening on. While the father tries to negotiate with the killers by offering them money for his life, one of them brutally hits him with a club in the back of his head. The father falls to the ground, his knees first. As he tries to stumble up, begging them to spare him, two of them brutally hit him with machetes on the neck several times. In a matter of seconds, the father is laying on the ground, drown in his own blood, as his head barely clings to his body by mere skin. The killers move on, while the boy watches on traumatised. The once innocent boy has just witnessed his father, his idol, being brutally beheaded by some of the people who, just a few days ago, were regular workers on the family farm. The boy has recognised their faces.

Sometime in the evening of the same day following the father's death, his body is still laying on the ground when a benevolent Hutu neighbour enters the compound, and covers the body with a woven rug. When she is about to leave, the boy unintentionally makes loud sobs. The neighbour hears the sound and finds the boy exhausted, and traumatised. The neighbour takes the boy and hides him for the night while she inquires where the rest of the boy's family is hiding. She ultimately reunites the boy with his mother and his two younger brothers, ages three and one. She breaks the news of the father's death. Over the course of the following few days, the boy's family continues to move around, from bushes and marshlands to the next.

One day, the boy's mother learns from other Tutsis whom she had met in hideouts that several people are moving to Burundi for safety as the killings continue to aggressively reach farther. News broke that the Red Cross and other international humanitarians have set up refugee camps in Burundi, therefore those who manage to make it there are ensured survival. The mother decides to join others on this three-day journey to Burundi. On the way, she will carry her youngest son (one-year-old) on her back, the next youngest (three years old) on her shoulders secured by one arm, while the other arm carries a bag containing a few essentials such as medications, currency, and some food provision for the journey. Therefore, the only way to make it there is if the already frail, sick, barefoot, and traumatised five-year-old boy manages to walk three days, non-stop, from one country to another. It is very unlikely, but she is faithful.

The journey starts late at night. As time goes on, other refugees join in. By the end of day one, what started as a small group of a few dozen of refugees on the move has grown into a caravan of thousands of people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. Most refugees are Tutsis. They also include some Hutus who are legitimately fleeing worsening situations in the country as some of them are also being targeted by their fellow Hutu extremist for hiding and protecting Tutsis. On this journey, based on what is being said among the people, there are also some Hutu extremist killers, in disguise, who are mixed in the crowd, hoping to see some Tutsis they can recognise, follow, and ambush them whenever they would seat down for feeding or wait for their nightly rest stopover to kill them. Therefore, it is highly advised among the refugees to not stop under any circumstances, until they make it to the border.

By the middle of day two, the boy is already exhausted. His feet, cut by stones and thorns, are swollen, bleeding, and infected. He can no longer bear the excruciating physical and emotional pain he has endured so far. The boy has not said a word since his father's death. He is mute for several days, in agony and sorrow. The mother clearly sees that the boy can no longer walk. The time is around sunset on day two. Refugees are in a hurry because rumour has spread that due to a high influx of refugees coming in through the small border, Burundian authorities there have been overwhelmed, and have decided to stop receiving refugees through that small border, hence using the main border much farther away. Therefore, the last intake cut-off for the small border is that day. Whoever does not manage to make it by the end of the day wouldn't be admitted in. Such news (or rumour) rattled everybody, already desperate and tired. Along the journey, the boy's mother has seen weak and sick elderly people and children who have been left behind by their families due to their inability to carry on.

Then it happens. The boy faints and collapses on the ground. The walk is over. The pain has overtaken every bit of energy and courage a traumatised five-year-old can possibly summon. The mother stops as she begs her fellow refugee group to take some time to rest so that she can nurse the boy into recovery. The group refuses to take rest as they urge the mother to decide whether she leaves the boy behind in order to save the rest of the family, or risk the lives of everyone. They must cross the border by end of the day. The mother starts crying as she looks at the boy's frail body laying on the ground. Several strangers are passing by, all urging her to leave the boy behind. Her group, with which she has been in hideouts and on the journey for the previous week is also about to leave her behind. She doesn't know what to do. She cannot carry all three boys herself. She is tired herself. None of the other parents can help either as they are swamped with their own burdens.

Suddenly, a familiar face pulls up on a bicycle. She knows the man on the bicycle. In fact, she recognises the bicycle. It is her late husband's, the boy's father. The bicycle is among the valuables which were rooted in the family home on the first day of the genocide. The man is an extremist Hutu. Certainly, she knows him to be among those who had been hunting the family to kill everyone. "Could this man now be among those who are following the caravan, in search of whom they ambush and kill?" she wonders. The man states that he is also fleeing as he extends his arm, offering to carry the boy all the way up to the border. He swears that he will leave the boy at the main entrance of the processing area at the border, where the mother shall join the boy. The man starts moving some baggage away to make space for the boy on the bicycle. The mother must make a decision. Either she stays with the boy and risks the lives of the whole family, or puts the boy in the custody of a man who, just a few days prior, had been hunting the boy to kill him, while she continues the journey to safety with the rest of the family. As her group watches on, they murmur that the boy is going to be killed as soon as the man leaves the family's sight.

The mother is in tears. She summons her courage and faith. She looks at her boy on the ground, turns, and look at the man in the eyes as the man nods in approval. She then drops to the ground, picks up the boy, hugs him, and hands him to the man. The man takes the boy, puts him on the bicycle and fastens him up to stabilise him since the boy could barely seat still. He jumps on the bicycle and moves on fast. The mother, still in tears, joins her group in hurry and carries on the journey in silence.

As you hear this story, I imagine you wonder what ultimately happened to the boy. What impresses me the most, however, is the mother's faith and courage in such a critical moment. Having just lost her husband at the hands of Hutu extremists did not supersede her faith that the boy is destined to not only survive but thrive. She had heard that the father had sacrificed his life in order to distract killers from further searching the compound and finding the boy. He had given his life for the boy's. Therefore, she understood that the boy's life also carried the weight of his father's. She believed the father's life shall not perish in vain. So, instead of leaving the boy behind, she sent him forward led by faith. And the boy made it indeed.

As I tell the story for the first time, nearly thirty years later, I strive to emulate the mother's courage and faith, for she is my mother. My name is Parfait Mutimura. I am the boy in the story, whose mother's forward-looking courage not only saved my life then; it is, in part, because of hers that my residual melancholy, when properly channelled, yields such sheer will and drive.

Taking from Leo Tolstoy's opening, I say the horrific suffering of myriad genocide survivors is "all alike" — and yet, every survivor bears the pain in his or her “own way.”

I write this essay of reflection in the loving memory of my father, Dominique Mutimura.

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