“Being a hero is being able to give a smile to the person who sold you death,” said Frida Umuhoza, who was barely a teenager when her entire family – including her grandparents, parents and five siblings – were killed in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Her relatives are among the estimated 800,000 people who were systematically murdered throughout the country. The vast majority were Tutsi, but moderate Hutu, Twa and others were also targeted.
Starting on 7 April, the genocide lasted 100 days, ending on 4 July – which is considered Rwanda’s “Liberation Day.”
Ahead of that Day, Ms. Umuhoza, now 36-years-old and living with her three young children in the United States, shared her remarkable story with the UN News Centre.
Rwanda is a country where you actually meet those people that killed your family. You go to school with them. You go to market with them. You go to church with them.
UN News Centre: Tell me about what happened to your family.
Frida Umuhoza: It was the 7th of May, 1994, in my village of Nyanza, about two hours from the capital, Kigali, and my family already knew that we were in trouble. We’d been running around already for the whole month. So, very early on that morning, when we heard our neighbour’s children crying, we knew. We were about 18 people in total, hiding in my grandfather’s house: my mom, my brothers, my aunties and some of their extended families and my grandparents. We were just praying in that room. When we heard the screaming of the neighbours, heard them saying “Oh please forgive me. I will never be a Tutsi again” we knew what was coming, but we couldn’t run away.
My father was hiding on the roof. He’d been there for days. And then we saw this young man coming in the room. He came in, and he had blood on his clothes and a machete in his hands. When we saw him we were all scared and we covered our faces. I think he must have had a little bit of compassion left in him, because he went out and told the group that we were not there. But the guy that was leading the group did not believe him. So he came in the room. And when he saw us he just mocked “Oh, you mean you wanted to save these cockroaches and snakes. There are so many of them!”
Then he told us to come outside. We were hiding behind my grandfather, who had nothing to help us but a Bible in his hands. My father, who was hiding on the roof, could hear everything that was going on but could not come down. We were then led to a ditch right behind the house where my father was hiding. That was where we were given a chance to choose what was going to kill us. You had a choice between a spear, a club, a machete or a knife. But there were no bullets, because in my village, to be shot, you had to pay. They said we were too cheap for a bullet. My grandfather tried to beg them again for the last time, but before he had finished what he was saying, one of the guys jumped in the ditch and hit him with a club on his shoulder. He fell forward, and that’s when everyone suddenly jumped into the ditch and started hitting us, clubbing us, killing us. The image that really traumatized me for many years was seeing my mom’s head being chopped off. I was hit in the back of a head with a club. And I was unconscious.
I don’t know how long for, but when I woke up, everybody had died. I realised when I woke up that that they were burying us, bringing the soil down. And I thought, if I show them that I am alive they will see me and kill me so badly. So I waited, staying in that shallow grave for hours and hours, before screaming and praying and screaming and praying and not knowing if anyone was going to hear my voice.
Amazingly there was a lady who heard me, and she ran and got the guy that came and dug me out. As I came out I found out that my father also had just been killed because I heard the singing and the celebrating of the people that had just killed him. I guess he came down and offered himself to die because he had seen what had been done to his entire family. And so that’s how I survived and left my whole family in that ditch. I had just turned 14.
UN News Centre: Did you know the people that attacked you and your family?
Frida Umuhoza: We knew our attackers. Neighbours were killing neighbours. In fact most of the attackers that came that day to kill my family were on my dad’s soccer team in the area. My dad loved soccer and had started that group. So we knew the people that came to kill us very well. They were people we had been to school with and had over for parties.
UN News Centre: People often talk about the genocide as being something that happened very quickly, and it did. But the roots of it went back much further. When was the point when your family knew something bad was going to happen?
Frida Umuhoza: Genocide is not something that happens in a set way. It’s not something that if it’s thought about yesterday, it happens tomorrow. It’s something that is about propaganda and brainwashing and hatred being planted in people’s heads. I can remember when I was six-years-old, going to school, and discovering for the first time that there was actually a wrong tribe, a Tutsi tribe. I heard this not from my parents or my grandparents but the school. The Principal of the school would come in and ask how many Tutsis there were in the class. Even as a child you were taught that you are a “snake,” that you’re the wrong tribe. That’s how the children felt. Even the radio stations taught people that the Tutsi was the only enemy that they had, encouraging them and telling them about “the lists.” In school we heard of children telling us “Oh, you are in the list. We’ll kill you one day.” So we already knew things were not good in the country. But no one thought, not even my parents, that a genocide could occur that would take one million people in three months.
UN News Centre: Do you know what happened to your attackers?
Frida Umuhoza: Yes. I know that most of the attackers have been tried and are out now. I’ve been able to actually speak to the ones that came out of the jail, including the man who killed my father. I knew how everyone else had died but my father’s case was distant because I wasn’t with him. So I had to go and meet this man and to ask him all the details. Rwanda is a country where you actually meet those people that killed your family. You go to school with them. You go to market with them. You go to church with them.
What was it like to speak with the man that killed your father?
Frida Umuhoza: The very first time I met this man it was very emotional: anger, bitterness, fear. I couldn’t even shake hands with him for the first time. It took me years and years to be able to go back again after he was out of jail and ask him for those details. And, even then, you have a man who’s telling you “Yeah I killed him but I don’t know where he is.” They can’t give you exact details so that you can give them a decent burial. So it was very challenging. It was very hard. And I’m pretty sure all other survivors have similar issues because living with the same person that killed your family is not an easy thing to do.
UN News Centre: When you think about yourself as a young girl now, the 14-year-old that endured so much, what do you wish for her?
Frida Umuhoza: I wish that things had been different for me and my generation and for my family. What happened in Rwanda didn’t only take my family away from me, but it took all the important points of life as a teenager away. Growing up, no one wants to be called a “snake” or a “cockroach.” The genocide didn’t only take people. It took our dignity. It took away our rights to have parents and have guidance and have the happiness that a child deserves. I wish that the world that watched could have done something earlier, when killing was planted in the minds of the Hutus that carried the genocide out. Genocide is something that takes a long time. I wish the world had stopped it at the beginning.
UN News Centre: Around the world, in conflicts like Syria and Central African Republic, many children are still forced to live in terror and lose their families, just like you experienced. What’s your message to those children?
Frida Umuhoza: In times like that it’s not easy to find words to tell someone who is going through the same things that you have been through. But all I can say is that whatever happens, if you get a chance to get out, it’s like you’ve been given another chance or a second life. They will have to face a lot of traumas and issues. But my prayers go up to them and my heart goes out to them and I will say that once a survivor, always a survivor. Me and my fellow survivors in Rwanda have a lot of psychological issues- things like anxiety and depression, that we still have to face every day. But you have to wake up in the morning for yourself. You want to be a better person instead of a bitter person. I wish strength to other survivors of genocide. Stand firm and walk with your heads up- not knowing what tomorrow may bring, but knowing that having hope is a solution to everything.
UN News Centre: After the trauma you have been through, what is it that makes you able to cope and forgive?
Frida Umuhoza: The one particular thing that has helped me cope is prayer. I pray about everything. And I cry. But then I get up, wipe off my tears and tell myself I have to be better. Keep going. Feel hope for a future. Feel faith. I pick up my discouragement and turn it into strength. Being a hero is being able to give a smile to the person who has sold you death. And knowing that no matter what has happened to you and no matter what you’ve been through, your future isn’t going to be the same as your past. I don’t want my kids to live through discrimination. I don’t want my children to be called “snakes.” I don’t want my children to be called anything else but valuable children, and valuable human beings. So that keeps me going and gives me strength, knowing that we are raising another generation and that there’s another generation coming after them that will survive.
UN News Centre: Have you travelled back to the house you were in that day?
Frida Umuhoza: The first time I travelled there, in 1995, it was very disturbing. My house was still demolished at that time. It broke my heart, looking at my room and my brother’s rooms and this happy childhood home that I had. But in the end I was able to rebuild it. That was one of the signs that I wanted my children to see. That no matter how much one wants to break you can build yourself again. So I rebuilt my home. Exactly the way it was. I help a family who lives there now. I made sure that I put every animal we had as a child and put a family there. As I was building the house I was thinking about my brothers, my happy childhood, running around outside playing with them and thinking about how my father worked so hard to build that house. Thinking about my mom, how she had all kinds of people in that home. And knowing that we had parties in that house-parties that we will never have again, but still I wanted to feel the dignity and value that my father always gave our home. That’s what I wanted.
UN News Centre: What do you think is the one thing the world can learn from your story?
Frida Umuhoza: Every time genocide happens in the world we say “never again.” But it’s not a matter of just saying it; it’s a matter of doing it. And I believe that the international community has the power, has what it takes to stop genocide when it starts to boil up. When the world is watching, that’s the time to take action. Instead of waiting until a million people are gone, and saying “never again.