Voices from the Archive

At 14, She Searched for Refuge Along Bloodied Roads

Fri, 07/02/2021 - 11:37am

Theogene Kayitakire, a sergeant in the Rwandan Patriotic Army, helped capture the strategic high ground of the Mount Rebero neighborhood in Kigali in April 1994, just days after the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda had begun.

With the location secure and reinforcements arriving, Theogene had a request for his command: Could he go to save his relatives nearby? When given permission, he disguised himself in a government army uniform and, with a few other soldiers, went to find his uncle. But his uncle refused to flee to safety without his neighbors.

At the time, 14-year-old Yvonne Umugwaneza was hiding in the house of her aunt, who was one of Theogene’s uncle’s neighbors.

Yvonne was from another province, and in her interview with Richard Hall for the documentary film The 600—the full interview is accessible in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive—she recalls how, beginning in the first grade, she and other Tutsi children were forced to stand separately at the start of the school year. Elsewhere, throughout her childhood, she would be stopped and threatened at roadblocks. Nonetheless, she and her extended family always found hope listening to the banned radio broadcasts of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the political organization which advocated for Tutsis.

In her interview with Hall, Yvonne began singing one of the RPF’s inspirational songs but stopped midway through, unable to go on.

It was the same song that had been on the radio while she was staying at her aunt’s Kigali home over Easter break in 1994. The date was April 6, the day Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, the event used by government forces as the pretext to set in motion pre-planned massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

“The night the plane crashed, we had a power outage, and we went to buy candles from a store nearby. There were two men sitting at the bar, drinking beer and talking about how they were sharpening their machetes and getting ready,” she said.

By the next morning, Hutu soldiers and civilians armed with machetes, guns, and grenades were ransacking Tutsi homes, raping and murdering those inside.  Yvonne carried her young cousins as they escaped to an aunt’s house, where Yvonne was told there was no room for her hide. She left her family at the house and Yvonne continued on her own, sneaking along backroads. Soldiers shot randomly along the roads, and at one point, as Yvonned ducked for cover, a body landed on her. After walking for hours, she managed to find her way to another aunt’s house.

Her family was stunned she had made it through the bloodied streets alive, and that she hadn’t been raped. Over the next few days, she and her family cowered from their Hutu neighbors.

“Their routine was easy to track. They woke up and started to kill early. You heard people screaming and crying. Around 11 a.m., you heard them coming back and talking about what happened,” she said. The killers would sit and drink at a little kiosk near her house. “At 3 p.m. they would go out again and kill until 6. They called it going to work.”

But in the middle of the night on April 13, just hours after Hutu neighbors had announced to Yvonne’s family that they would be next, Theogene knocked on her window. He was wearing a scarf across his face and was disguised in an enemy uniform. Yvonne was sure that she was about to be killed—and then her neighbor told her that Theogene was a member of the RPA, there to rescue them.

“Knowing that he was an RPA soldier, that was the only thing we needed to hear. I was wearing a shirt before going to bed, and I just grabbed my shoes, and we went out,” Yvonne said.

Theogene, still disguised as a government soldier, marched his “prisoners” through roadblocks, but eventually the enemy caught on and began shooting. Some were killed, but Yvonne and her family escaped to the safety of Mount Rebero, where Tutsis were taking refuge in a hotel and restaurant.

“We got there and there were people taking a bath in the swimming pool. And the soldiers were like, ‘you can go in there now. You are safe,’” Yvonne said. “We knew we were out of harm’s way, for that moment.”

Read more about The 600

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.