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It has been more than 2 decades since the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but Oswald still remembers.
“Do you want to see the pictures?” he asks me. He opens the file and turns the laptop toward me. They are pictures of him as a 10-year-old in a hospital in the south of France, 4 nurses surrounding him. He is wearing a broad smile that says nothing of what had just happened to him. It is the same smile he wears today.
What had happened to him just weeks before that picture in the hospital in France is nothing short of tragic and miraculous. Oswald, now 32, is a Tutsi. His family members were among the estimated 800,000 killed in the 100-day massacre that continues to define much of today’s Rwanda.
“All the Tutsis knew that something bad would happen, but we didn’t believe it would be as tragic as it was. We had seen many signals telling us that Tutsis have to die.”
Oswald remembers the identity cards that required Rwandans to register the ethnic group of their fathers. He remembers when the Hutu extremist group, the Interahamwe, began to make night-time visits to Tutsi households in his village in the Eastern province of Rwanda.
“They used to go singing and visit Tutsis’ houses. One time they came to our house singing that they would exterminate us. Another time they came to see if there were RPF soldiers (the Rwandan rebel army that sought to overthrow the extremist Hutu government) in our house. When my father tried to avoid them, they beat him right in front of us. That shocked me. The man I saw like a second God to me, the man I adored, was being beaten in front of me without resisting.”
On the morning of April 7, 1994, the genocide began. Oswald’s father reminded them that when there was anti-Tutsi violence in 1959, Tutsis in their area sought refuge in churches and were spared. But 1994 was different. The Hutu extremists chased the priest away and, Oswald says, “they started killing and killing.”
Oswald and his family were inside the church when the killing began. The instruments were machetes, rifles and grenades. Oswald was badly injured in one leg from a grenade blast and hit by gunshot in his right arm.
“I was shouting: ‘Dad, can you help me?’ But then I realized that there were many fathers in there so I called him by his name. He called back to me. ‘I can’t help you, son. Be strong and know that I love you.'”
He is wearing a broad smile that says nothing of what had just happened to him. It is the same smile he wears today.
He doesn’t know how long he was under the bodies in the church. Some time later — a few days, maybe more — RPF soldiers came (the rebel group of Tutsis and moderate Hutus who drove the Interahamwe out of power, and from which Rwandan President Paul Kagame emerged as leader). The rebel soldiers separated the dead from the wounded. Oswald was left in the church with the dead bodies.
Days later, the church, reeking of dead bodies, was to be cleaned by the RPF soldiers with help of the community and the bodies buried in a mass grave. Survivors from his community began moving him, mistaking him for dead. He does not know how he had the force to talk; he surprised those who were carrying his body.
He was taken by RPF soldiers to the nearest hospital where the number of casualties overwhelmed the few remaining nurses and doctors. They left him in the hospital courtyard where he spent 3 days without attention. Then came the next miracle: his uncle was a driver at the hospital, recognized him and negotiated to have Oswald seen by the doctors.
One leg had to be amputated; the other was heavily infected. His arm was broken in addition to the gunshot wounds. The doctors failed to properly clean the wound in his arm and infection set in. They were planning to amputate his right arm when the next stroke of good fortune came to him.
An international NGO arranged to have him flown to Belgium where they managed to save his arm. Once he was stable, he was taken to Marseilles, France, where a family was to adopt him. His first 6 months there were spent in a rehabilitation hospital where he learned to walk with a prosthetic leg and gained some strength back in his right arm. That is the hospital in the photo of him and the smiling nurses.
He adjusted to life in France, enrolled in school, and became attached to the family that had adopted him. But when he turned 11, he knew he had to return to Rwanda.
“As life was coming back to me, I was turning up memories, thinking about Rwanda. I had no news about my family and I thought maybe there are some who had survived and I imagined how they lived. The houses were destroyed, all our cows were eaten. When I was in the hospital, they collected money for me and so I thought I could bring that money and help someone in my family.”
“I had no news about my family and I thought maybe there are some who had survived and I imagined how they lived.”
At first neither the adopted family nor the NGO that arranged for his treatment encouraged him to return. They told him it might not yet be completely safe for Tutsis. Eventually, it was so obvious how strong his desire was to return home that his adopted family helped him make the journey. The NGO helped him find the few surviving members of his family, an aunt who took him in, and a surviving sister and brother (out of 8 siblings in total), who had managed to hide under bodies like he did.
The adjustment was not easy. He went from a middle class family and European schools to the rural poverty of Rwanda.
“Once I was back, really I could not see how my future was to be. I will be that disabled person on the road who begs. Then I saw that I have nothing but my brain. That’s why I got focused on studying. I thought: ‘I will study until I will have ways to go further.'”
He managed to finish in the top of his class in secondary school, his fees paid by a government fund for genocide survivors and then managed to get a slot in university to become a teacher.
He was worried how we would fit in, who he would turn to living in a city where he knew no one. But then he met a group of fellow genocide survivors at the university. They all had similar problems and hardships — no families who could support them, and the trauma of what they survived. They had formed an association of orphans, and elected “parents.” Although Oswald had only been at the university for 6 months, he was immediately chosen as a father.
It is a vocation he has continued ever since. After leaving university, he went to work as a headmaster at a rural school and adopted his houseboy, child of a family affected by genocide. More recently he adopted the child of relatives whose mother died. The mother was Tutsi and her husband was Hutu, and her family did not approve of the marriage, nor the child. So after her death, the child was alone and Oswald took him in his house.
But even with all these adopted children in his life, Oswald longed more than anything else for a wife and having a child with her; he said he thought of this desire every time he remembered his father.
“I can say he loved me so much. Sometimes when he used to come late, he could not sleep without seeing his children. He would come, he would sit by his children and he would say: ‘How are you?’ and he would be hugging us. He gave us all nicknames. He called me kibwa, which is a very big dog. Because I was very big for my age.”
When I first met Oswald more than 4 years ago, he had not yet fulfilled his dream. He openly confided of his insecurity if a woman would find him sexually attractive.
Then, life took yet another turn in his favor. He was invited to be a speaker at the 2012 annual genocide memorial ceremony in Kigali’s stadium, an event attended by more than 10,000 people, including President Kagame. Oswald recounted some of these experiences and after the event, he found an entry level position in the ministry of education.
He shows resilience, an eternal optimism, and an empathy that almost defies understanding given what he has seen.
This gave him the boost to tell friends he was ready to marry, and that he would be a good husband. They agreed and put Rwandan matchmaking to work. A friend introduced him to Renata. He courted her through meals, phone texts and presents and with the amazing smile he has today. At first her family was reluctant to allow their daughter to marry a man with a handicap. He counted on friends who negotiated the bride price — money or cows or some other valuable assets customarily given to the bride’s family. And Renata told her parents she would have no one but Oswald.
I have met many genocide survivors in Rwanda and war survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My organization works both in Rwanda and DRC with communities affected by conflict and the genocide. The effects are frequently devastating and life-lasting: depression, trauma, suicide attempts, physical health problems, family violence, limited ability to work, alcohol abuse. Even those who don’t show one of these acute problems, often show sadness in their demeanor and in their eyes — a sadness that seems to color every moment of their lives. We often build on the powerful bonds of fatherhood to help families rebuild. In Oswald’s case, he found that solution on his own.
How to describe Oswald? His eyes shine. He is disarming in his frankness about his wishes, desires, his disabilities. He shows resilience, an eternal optimism, and an empathy that almost defies understanding given what he has seen. He shows a keen appreciation of every stroke of good fortune that has come his way. And he knows the power of being a caregiver.
“When I was in the church (after the massacre), I wasn’t sure if I was dead or alive. I wasn’t even hungry. So I told myself, I will cross my eyes and if I open my eyes and they are still crossed, it means I am alive. And I was. Since then, when I was headmaster at a school and then when I started my master’s degree, I thought like that: is this the real me? And yes, it is the real me. Then when I married Renata and when my daughter was born, I thought again: is this the real me? And it is.”
I met with Oswald during this year’s genocide remembrance month. His daughter had just turned 2 and he had — this same week to the day his of the genocide 22 years before — achieved the dream of building his own house. He was proud to show it.
“It is important that I could do this now, during genocide remembrance. Something could happen to me. If I die I want my wife and daughter to know they will have a house and it will be paid for. Their future will be safe.”
It is the end of the day and we stand for a moment looking over the green hills in the distance. I tell him congratulations for all of this — his daughter, his wife, this beautiful house, with its breathtaking view of a few of the thousand hills of Rwanda. He nods and smiles. And I am sure it is his smile that lights up the hills.
Gary Barker is the International Director for Promundo.