Heroes Day in Rwanda: An ode to the giants that got me home

On Saturday, I woke up in sunny, green Kigali. As someone who was born in exile, stateless and forbidden from ever entering Rwanda (it said so right in my UNHCR-United Nations High Commission for Refugees travel document) the fact that I can even wake up here is a miracle. When my grandparents fled this country in 1959 with four young children (including my own father) in tow because of anti-Tutsi violence unleashed by their Hutu neighbors, drunk on the sectarian poison that they’d imbibed from opportunistic politicians attempting a power grab from the monarchy, they did not for one second think that they would be stateless until 1994.

They thought that it would be a few months in Uganda and then as things settled down and the politicians settled their

Kyaka II refugee camp was home for many years for hundreds of Rwandan refugee families

Kyaka II refugee camp was home for many years for hundreds of Rwandan refugee families

differences, they would be allowed home. That would be the furthest thing from the truth. In decades of exile, they would lose the vast majority of their livestock, live in huts unfit for human beings, almost starve because the UNHCR stopped giving them rations, be moved into an area filled with dangerous wild game, see their children educated under trees, be forced to work for slave wages and feel powerless to determine their own future. They saw friends and family bullied and sometimes killed by Ugandan security agents and suffered through two civil wars.

But despite all of this, my grandparents were able to send their children to school through their own sweat and tears and the goodwill of certain non-governmental organizations and church groups. These children (including my own father) excelled in high school and received scholarships to university. After they graduated and started working, they went back to the camps and pulled their siblings out of that misery by giving them a chance to educate themselves as well.

I was born in a proper hospital in 1980 with doctors, nurses, running water and electricity. This was something that many of my peers were unable to have. My father had a good job and my mom was going to school. We were the lucky ones. The vast majority of Rwandan refugees were still languishing in the camps with no hope for the future.

An RPA solidier about to fire a 82mm motar infront of Chez Lando in Remera in 1994

An RPA solidier about to fire a 82mm motar infront of Chez Lando in Remera in 1994

 

Amidst all this misery came another anti-refugee pogrom. This time the target was the small group of Rwandan intelligentsia that had started to agitate for better treatment of the refugees by the Ugandan security apparatus and government. My father, given 24 hours to leave Uganda and never come back, fled to Kenya and then Canada, the place I then called home for almost a decade.

In 1986, things took a turn for the better as National Resistance Movement rebels, led by now Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, ousted Milton Obote’s government. The rebels fighting ranks were filled with young Rwandan men and boys who saw in Museveni, a solution to the constant mistreatment of their kinfolk. These young men, who triumphantly marched into the Ugandan capital of Kampala, became the cornerstone of the future Rwandan rebellion and government. They included names like Rwigema and Kagame. Yes, that Kagame.

Canada was a haven for me and my family. Canadians are known for their kindness and hospitality. I played hockey, went trick or treating and did all those things that Canadian kids did. But even in this Eden of sorts, racism reared its ugly head. No matter how Canadian I got, it would never be enough.

Its been 20 years since then. Rwanda went through an invasion led by the children of the 1959 refugee crisis, a civil war, a genocide that killed a million innocents, a military defeat of both the Hutu government and its genocidal ideology. Rwanda has seen millions return home since then. I among them.

On Saturday, Rwanda celebrated Heroes Day. On this day, we remember the men and women who fought and died to make this country better. Some of them died in battle like Major General Fred Rwigema, the man who led the 1990 invasion, while others such as the Nyange School students died because they refused to separated into two groups, Hutu and Tutsi, by marauding Hutu militia, choosing instead to die together. We celebrate Agathe Uwingiliymana, the moderate Hutu Prime Minister, who was killed in the most horrendous way, by government troops because she would not support the agenda to kill Tutsi’s during the days preceding the start of the Genocide.

Today, I wake up in sunny Kigali, a fully integrated member of Rwandan society because of these heroes. I shudder to think what my fate, and the fate of the rest of us, would have been without the sacrifices that those men and women made. How many would have survived another couple of decades in those camps?

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