Voices from the Archive

In The Mountains of Western Rwanda, a Resistance Led By Elders

Thu, 04/07/2022 - 9:23am
Narcisse Gasimba still lives and farms in Bisesero. He recorded his testimony at the Bisesero Genocide Memorial.
Narcisse Gasimba still lives and farms in Bisesero. He recorded his testimony at the Bisesero Genocide Memorial.

At one point in the horrific spring of 1994, Narcisse Gasimba had given up.

Since April, Gasimba and other resistors in the mountains of western Rwanda had been using stones and spears to fend off wave after wave of Hutu attacks against Tutsis on the Bisesero hillside, but by the end of June their efforts felt fruitless. Tens of thousands, including members of Gasimba’s own family, had been massacred by Hutu attackers. 

Gasimba, who was 24, headed to Lake Kivu, where he planned to drown himself rather than be murdered by machete-wielding Hutus. But there were roadblocks along the route to the lake, and Gasimba and his group turned back. Many were shot to death. 

Gasimba managed to make it home and would eventually be one of around 1,000 survivors in Bisesero, where more than 50,000 people were murdered. The area is remembered as both one of the bloodiest sites of the genocide against the Tutsi and one of the strongest examples of resistance. 

The genocide, which took more than one million lives, began on April 7, 1994, a date that is now observed as a day of remembrance for the survivors and victims of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. 

Bisesero, a symbol to many, was Narcisse Gasimba’s home. He was born there in 1970, on a farm where his family grew crops and bred animals. He had one older brother, three older sisters, and one younger sister, and they lived in a close-knit community.  

"We shared everything. People supported one another in case of need, such as weddings. It was a united family, and that was amazing,” Gasimba said. 

Gasimba told his story at the site of the Bisesero Genocide Memorial in 2014. Recorded by the Kigali Genocide Memorial, his testimony is now contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive

At ten years old, Gasimba began to notice the effects of ethnic segregation. Rwanda had gained independence from Belgium in 1962, after which the ruling Hutu discriminated against the Tutsi minority. (The Belgians had elevated the Tutsis over the Hutus during the colonial period). During the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were forced out or fled Rwanda’s systematic discrimination and periods of anti-Tutsi violence.  

In school in the 1980s, Gasimba recalled, Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa students were told to stay separate from each other. Eventually, the Tutsi children were not allowed to continue their education beyond primary school. 

In 1990, a rebel force of exiled Tutsis called the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) invaded Rwanda demanding their right to return to their homeland. A subsequent civil war reached a stalemate in 1993, and Hutu and Tutsi leaders signed a peace agreement that would transition Rwanda to a government of shared power. 

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down, and Hutu extremists who had opposed the peace agreement used the power vacuum to launch a carefully planned campaign to wipe out the country’s Tutsi population. Violence began that night and spread quickly from the capital to the rest of the country. 

At first, when mobs from the army, national police, and militias began to rampage through the country with machetes and firearms, Bisesero, a remote mountainous region, was spared and Tutsis from surrounding areas sought refuge there. But mobs reached Bisesero on April 11, 1994, and Gasimba and his community, along with the newly arrived displaced people, had nowhere else to flee. At first, Gasimba and his family stayed in the home of a Hutu neighbor who helped them fight off the attackers. But after two days, their neighbors joined the Hutu mobs. Gasimba and other Tutsi families decided to fight their attackers. 

They began to organize under the leadership of older men who had defended themselves against Hutu attacks for decades. Among them was Aminadab Birara, a 68-year-old from Bisesero. Birara urged everyone, including children and women, to move to the mountains and position themselves to throw stones down at the approaching the militias. He mobilized strong men to use spears and large rocks. Gasimba was among them, fulfilling what he saw as his duty to protect his people. 

“He was somehow unique, he was fearless. Birara has never done military training. Birara divided us into groups and gave us instructions that we respected. The first one was to get rid of fear. He had taught us to avoid fighting while standing up, that as long as [the attackers] were not yet close, we had to lay down and not react. He just told us once and we obeyed,” Gasimba said. 

For weeks the attacks came in waves. Gasimba said there were many occasions when the people in Bisesero thought that the attacks had ended, but they would eventually resume with even greater violence.

Some people hid in churches, but the attackers found them. They rounded up elderly women into a house and then set it on fire. Gasimba recalled Hutu militia members forcing children to breastfeed from their dead mothers. 

Even as the killing continued, others from the surrounding area streamed into Bisesero. Those who were strong were asked to fight and others were enlisted to help collect stones for weaponry. 

On several occasions French soldiers arrived to offer aid but then inexplicably departed, leaving the Tutsi open to the next attack. By late June, the situation seemed hopeless. Tens of thousands had already died. 

“It had lasted for so long, and we were wondering what we could do. Some felt helpless and decided to flee to the Nyungwe forest, thinking they could cross it. About 300 people went there, and only three came back. They were killed in the forest,” Gasimba said. That is when Gasimba decided to take his own life. 

“We decided… to go and throw ourselves into Lake Kivu instead of being tortured to death, instead of being slashed with machetes and our fingers cut off by killers, as they were angry with us since we tried to protect ourselves,” Gasimba said. But instead, they were turned back at a roadblock, and many more were killed. 

On June 25, Birara, a leader of the resistance, was killed in an attack along with some 5,000 Tutsis in Bisesero. 

Gasimba attributed much of the success of the resistance to Birara. “He was fearless, he loved people, he was strong. He was old, but you couldn't know he was old, unless you saw his grey hair. ... He was a legend.” 

The violence subsided after the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front liberated the capital city of Kigali on July 4, 1994. 

After the genocide, Gasimba learned that his mother, his father, and his four older siblings, along with many members of his extended family, had been killed. Only his younger sister, two of his older brother’s children, and his future wife survived. He was never able to locate the body of his mother so that he could give her a proper burial, one of his greatest regrets.

More than one million Tutsis were killed in 100 days in the spring of 1994. In the years that followed, international tribunals and Rwandan courts found tens of thousands of people guilty of planning and executing the genocide. 

The Bisesero Genocide Memorial Centre was established in 1997 in an area thought to contain the remains of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people.

Last year, officials in Paris named a street in the 18th Arrondissement in honor of Aminadab Birara, citing his leadership and courage.  

At the time he gave his testimony in 2014, Narcisse Gasimba was living on his farm in Bisesero, where he was growing crops, breeding animals, and along with his wife, Mukamunana Bonifride, raising their five children, Niyonshuti Regis, Muhongerwa Seraphine, Ishimwe Patrick, Mutesi Aline, and Uwase Yvonne. 

Learn more about the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda