The night of April 6, 1994, in Rwanda was like many others for Hadidja Nyiransekuye and her family. Yet the next morning when they awakened, turned on Radio Rwanda, and heard nothing but dead air, Hadidja’s husband had a premonition—something was wrong. It turns out, he was right. Overnight, the Rwandan President had died in a plane crash, Prime Minister Agathe had been shot, and the killing of innocent people had already begun.
In her memoir, The Lances Were Looking Down, Hadidja shares her incredible journey before, during, and after the one hundreds days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Nothing had prepared Hadidja, her family, and other Rwandans for the magnitude of the carnage and the barbarism that followed the death of the president. When all was said and done, more than eight hundred thousand people would lie dead in the streets; their country would never be the same.
As Hadidja leads others through the heartbreaking, shocking, and disturbing events that caused the self-destruction of a beautiful country and its people, she also shares her hopes and fears for her fellow Rwandans, proving that no matter what the tragedy, an unyielding love for family, friends, and country will always triumph over evil.
In all that confusion and panic, I did not realize that teams of killers were everywhere. As the minivan was coming to my house, a group of ten or twelve men went to my neighbors who lived across the street: Aristarc, the accountant, and Christine, his wife. I learned the next day that Christine’s sister had called the night before to warn Aristarc and Christine of the killings and ask them to flee to Goma. Christine had decided, “Yesu ni muzima” (Jesus is alive) and they were not going anywhere because once you fled the country it was impossible to come back. They had locked their house and were praying when the mob showed up. Forcing the door open and breaking the windows, the mob got inside and started beating the couple that afternoon. I could hear Christine begging for mercy the whole afternoon until I could not hear her anymore. I had never seen anything like this before. I have carried that memory with me for the last 15 years. Every time I try to close my eyes to go to sleep each night, I hear her. I hear the echo of that agonizing plea for mercy. That nursing mother’s howling call haunts me to this day. What I find amazing is that—according to the maid’s account—while Christine was pleading for the killers to spare her husband, saying she would not mind dying, not one sound came out of Aristarc’s lips. He lay still while they beat him, until he died. Our neighbors were being beaten mercilessly and pleading for their lives, and nobody was doing anything. There were two babies in that house. Ishimwe, the older one, was Jasmine’s age. Tete, the younger one, was only six months old. Was the mob killing the babies, too? But that was a curse, and Banyarwanda did not do that. They would bring a curse on all of us. “Please, God, do something,” I prayed. “Mana unamura icumu” (God, please, unbend the lance). But that Mana had become deaf. I thought maybe I was praying in the wrong language. Our Imana understands Kinyarwanda, and that is what I needed to use in my prayers. Then, somebody surely would do something. It was then past seven, and no more sound was coming from our neighbors’ house. The street was quiet. Shadrak, who had come back from my parents’ house was as upset and shaken as I was. He offered to go over, just in case the family needed help. Jumping over my fence, he entered Christine’s house. Inside, the babies were crying softly. While beating the parents, the killers had locked the little ones in a room. The baby, six-month-old Tete, had fallen off her mother’s back and was covered with blood. The maid was carrying her, trying to soothe her. Shadrak checked on the parents. Aristarc was dead, but Christine was still breathing. She spoke to Shadrak and told him to take the babies away in case the killers came back. She said she was a lost cause and was not interested in a life without her husband. Shadrak brought the kids to my house. I was not going to cook, or even try to clean up the mess, or give Baby Tete a bath. She was hungry and would burst out crying whenever she looked at me. We spent the rest of the night that way. As I watched the crying baby, I felt a stab-like pain in my stomach. I had just remembered a terrible prediction I made when Tete was teething. Christine came to my house one evening. “Maman Achille, I consider you an older sister to me, and I trust your judgment.” Trying to soothe her, I said, “Of course, I’m an older sister to you, and don’t you know your sister and her husband are family friends (in fact, Liberata, Christine’s older sister was married to a man whom people usually mistook for my husband, calling him Mwene Luwi (Luwi’s son), as Luwi was what people called my husband. That made each of them try to find out about the other, and eventually they became friends). “I know that,” Christine replied, “but I’ve been preoccupied with Tete’s teething.” Tete had her upper teeth before the bottom ones, and Rwandans viewed that as a bad omen: Ubukenya (something that causes premature death). “What do you think of a baby whose teething begins with the upper front teeth?” Christine asked me. “It all depends on what people believe. My sister’s second child began teething the same way, and the whole family was horrified. My sister would take an Umwuko (wooden spatula), lay the baby on her back, and push on the teeth with the spatula. Actually, we had all forgotten about the upper teeth incident, and my sister had two more children after that. Unfortunately, she, her husband, and the child died a few years apart, but I know of other cases where that did not happen.” Laughing, Christine asked, “Are you saying, then, that Tete, my husband, and I will die?” “I’m not saying anything, as it depends on what people really believe.” It was around 2 a.m., and I was reminiscing about those somber thoughts, when some soldiers came to my house. They asked why there was so much noise, and where did that blood come from? I said that the baby had knocked her head against the wall. “Where’s your husband?” “At a night watch.” I was a becoming an expert liar and would tell them whatever came to my mind to make them go away for at least an hour. A day? “You never know how to trust Muslims,” declared one soldier who checked my ID and looked at me suspiciously. “They’re all affiliated with cockroaches, and this ID is just another lie.” Just then Andre came to my house, pretending he was my husband and wanting to know why those soldiers were not on night watch like everybody else. The soldiers left. He returned to his house and told my husband about the soldiers who had come to my house. My husband figured that if another group of killers came and did not find him, they might go on to search even neighbors’ houses, killing everybody, including the kids and me. He did not want to risk his children’s lives, so asked Andre to let him go to the Catholic Church two blocks away.
Hadidja Nyiransekuye was born in Gisenyi, Rwanda, and lived in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. She immigrated to the United States in 1998 and graduated from the University of Denver with a MSW and a Ph.D. She lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.