From the summit of the Mount Ibisi, I gaze in contemplation at the distant hills and valleys. What greets me from below is literally the silence of the dead. The sound of the blacksmiths’ anvils of my native village of Gishamvu no longer reverberates. The neighboring village of Sheke, formerly full of people, is deserted.
The flour mill has ground to a halt. Its owner, François Mukimbili, was assassinated during the first days of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. He had survived a horrible motorcycle crash 15 years earlier, that had left him crippled, but he was a very popular man. Mukimbiri was not originally from Gishamvu, but he had settled there in the ‘60s and he worked as a tailor for the seminary of Nyakibanda.
He was born in Nyarurembo, in the region of Bufundu, about 20 km southeast of Butare. François was a true gentleman. For years he was a reference point, a role model, and the village bread-winner. Since there was no ambulance in the area, he would use his van to drive pregnant women and sick people to the local free health center of Sheke or the main university hospital of Butare.
In addition, he was the first businessman to open a pub, called ‘Bon Sejour ‘in our local small burg. Anyone visiting Gishamvu would definitely stop there for a pint of Primus, the national brew. In my life, I spent many long evenings talking with François.
He, who had given me a cow as a sign of our friendship; he, who had entrusted to me his daughter Christine Murekatete and the bride price that would one day come with her marriage. Now, he is no longer there. Neither is Christine.
Neither is my childhood friend Lambert Rugamba. They are all dead. In a few minutes, I will begin the descent down Mount Ibisi to pray at their tomb. They were targetted and killed, simply because they were Tutsi.
Farther away, beyond the hill of Muboni, the church spire in Nyakibanda points up from the horizon. The corrugated iron roofs that covered the Grand Seminary buildings have been painted blue.
I recognize the building where I stayed for four years studying philosophy and theology. In my mind, I can still hear the inspirational hymn of Nyakibanda, that beautiful valley chosen by God to train the shepherds of his flock. But the tears that well in my eyes stop me from singing that tune which was a symbol of our pride.
I am in tears for the hundreds of innocents who were massacred in the chapel where I recited from my prayer-book every morning when I was a seminarian; for the women raped in this house of God, for the children thrown into nearby mass graves. I have walked barefoot from Butare, to remember all those who were slaughtered to death in only 100 days,
As I turn my gaze to the left, I see the hill of Nyumba, my parish building, my primary school and Alexis’s bakery, where as a young child I would go to buy bread, especially with my friend Rugamba. Lambert, I have missed you for the past 23 years and so do I today.
Now that I am there, rather than counting the deserted hills that breathe nothing but death despite the presence of survivors, I am going to leave my mountain and descent to touch, for the first time, the soil that covers the graves of my father Ndekwe, my brother Kayanza and my sisters Shamagira who had survived in 1994 but died a few years later, and Concessa, whose children, born Tutsi where also murdered at the beginning of the genocide in April 1994.
Now, I am going to her tomb to speak with her, the sister who I played with in the tall grass of my hill, an accomplice and friend who died too young and had a lot to teach me, as she remained in the country when the genocide occurred, while I was in Nairobi where I had been evacuated by the United Nations, powerlessly watching the death of my people.
For me, my homecoming represents a return to my roots and a communion with the enchantment of an eternal Rwanda. I feel a duty to bear witness to memory so that no one forgets the thousands of victims and so that their names may be written in golden letters in a new history of a Rwanda that has reconciled with itself.
Venuste Alexandre Nshimiyimana