Nyange School: In the darkest hour, teenagers showed us the way

Phanuel Sindayiheda sits at the desk where he was that fateful day in 1997.

Phanuel Sindayiheda sits at the desk where he was that fateful day in 1997.

Ethnic politics have been the bane of the vast majority of African nations.  These sectarian divides led to civil wars in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia…the list is seems endless. Rwanda is probably the place where sectarianism reached its zenith with the fastest genocide in history; one people million died in only one hundred days. If one is to believe all the reports, tribalism, sectarianism and all the other ‘isms’ are a chain that Africa cannot break free from.

However, that pessimism should be challenged with stories that go against overwhelming narrative. Here in one Western Rwanda close to Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of Congo was known) . Nyange Secondary School. March 18, 1997. 8pm.

The boys and girls studying at this school have just left their dormitory rooms to go back to class for a couple hours of evening prep. And just like any other evening, they shuffled to their desks, some quietly conversing while their more studious colleagues concentrated on their reading material.  It seemed like just another day, but in only a few minutes an unspeakable horror would engulf the school, shattering lives and snuffing out hopes and dreams. Phanuel Sindayiheda, a 36-year father of two, was sitting in class that fateful day. “I was in Senior Six in 1997. It was around 8pm, the main gates were locked, we had finished dinner and some of us were back in our classrooms revising, then we started hearing gunshots, but thought it was nothing big, that it was just rebels fighting the Government soldiers”, he says.

Rwanda is known as being one of the safest countries in Africa today. It is admired around the continent for its stability, reconciliation, economic growth and social advancement. But in 1997, it was like a different place. Bloodthirsty bands of machete wielding and gun-toting former Interahamwe, the militia responsible for the deaths of more than one million Tutsi’s, still roamed the country, killing genocide survivors in their homes and attacking buses and cars on the highways in an attempt to make the country ungovernable. Those were scary times. I was barely sixteen but I can still remember just how jittery the situation was. While those living in Kigali could pretend that there wasn’t an insurgency in the country, those living elsewhere could not forget that fact. One of the most infamous tactics of the insurgents was stopping buses, ordering the passengers out and then asking the Hutus to stand on one side, and the Tutsis on the other. They would then mow the Tutsis down, letting the Hutus go. Stories like those got plenty of media coverage. So, on the 18th of March 1997, when the three men, toting grenades, machetes and automatics weapons rushed into one of the schools

Picture dated 12 June 1994 showing an Interahamwe Hutu militiaman holding a machete in Gitarama, central Rwanda.

Picture dated 12 June 1994 showing an Interahamwe Hutu militiaman holding a machete in Gitarama, central Rwanda.

classrooms, the students must have known what would follow.

The one who looked like the leader said, “I want you to help me, to facilitate me with my job. I want Hutus in this room on the right, and I know we have Tutsis here, so Tutsis go on the left. We all heard him clearly and knew what this meant. There was a deathly silence. So he repeated his command”, Sindayiheda remembers. “We do not have Hutus or Tutsis here, we are Rwandans,” Chantal Uwamahoro, a young girl said. The men went out and threw two grenades inside the small classroom.  After the smoke cleared, the men went back inside. Once again, they ordered, “Tutsis here and Hutus there”. The teenagers stood firm. “We have already told you, we are not Hutus or Tutsis, we are Rwandans”.

This time it was Sylvestre Bizimana, a boy who had survived the Genocide, who spoke for the rest. Outraged, the three pulled out their guns and started shooting indiscriminately, killing six teenagers; Sylvestre Bizimana, Chantal Mujawamahoro, Beatrice Mukambaraga, Seraphine Mukarutwaza, Helene Benimana, and Valens Ndemeye. Today, these teenagers are remembered every February 1st when Rwanda celebrates Heroes Day. They remind us that even in the darkest times, there is always a light that is stronger. On Heroes Day, Rwanda celebrates the life of true heavyweights like Fred Rwigema (the first chairman of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front), King Rudahingwa (the second last monarch) and Agathe Uwilingiyimana (the first female prime minister, who was assassinated at the onset of the Genocide) among others. These were all leaders and military men who fought and died for their country. However, the students in Nyange Secondary School were nothing like them. They were simply teenagers who dreamt of the things that teenagers dream about. But when they were put to the test they choose unity over division and sacrifice over selfishness. And if these teenagers could do it, I don’t see why the rest of us can’t.

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