“I was able to unburden myself of guilt and disassociate myself from her crimes … I forgave my mother and was able to visit her, take care of her with a healed heart and today I even take my children to visit her. At the end of the day a Mother is a mother and ever irreplaceable.”
“I am one of those who have parents who took part in the destruction of this nation and today am more than committed to rebuild it for me and the generation to come. Sasa mwebwe mwibwira ko gupfobya Jenocide biza- duca intege muragosorera mu rucaca! Those of you who think that by denying the genocide you may discourage us; you are wasting your time!” – Nelly Mukazayire, a daughter of a genocide convict serving life imprisonment.
Genocide perpetrators have sought to extend their criminality to their offspring and relatives, inciting them into denial. However, increasingly, as their offspring come of age and are able to look for and find the facts of the genocide against the Tutsi themselves, they have declared in no uncertain terms that, while they can never denounce their parental relationship, they are within their rights to denounce the criminality of their parents. Mr. Habumugisha told us that those who chose to distance themselves from the crimes committed by their parents are in the majority, although some, such as members of Jambo Asbl (an association of siblings and offspring of perpetrators), have decided to keep the criminal association through denial.
Pan-African Review (PAR) caught up with Innocent at his home in Kigali.
PAR: We have seen you giving testimony about the importance of offspring of perpetrators rejecting the criminal association with their relatives. Could you tell us about yourself?
Mr. Habumugisha: I was born in Huye, in the former commune of Maraba, former Butare prefecture. I left Rwanda with my parents when I was a still a young kid in 1994 after the genocide against the Tutsi. We went to Zaire (now DRC) in the city of Uvira. Later, as war broke, my family and I left Uvira and moved to Tanzania. We only stayed for three or two months. We then left for Zambia, where we arrived on the 1st of January, 1997. In Zambia, life was not as easy as we had expected.
When we reached the city of Kapiri Mposhi, all of us, my parents, my siblings and other Rwandan and Congolese refugees, were arrested and imprisoned for three months. After that episode, we were transported to the Maheba refugee camp. There, my siblings and I started school.
Later, we finally left the refugee camp and went to live in Lusaka. My siblings and I continued our studies and my parents went into business so that they could earn a living. I have to mention that my father was also a teacher. During our stay in Zambia, we moved a lot, from Lusaka to Samfya I Luapula, to Mansa, and finally we settled in Kasama, where my father got a job as a teacher. When he died in 2010, we had finished our studies.
Soon after, the international community had assessed that Rwanda was a peaceful country and decided that no Rwandan should remain a refugee [Editor’s note: on June 30, 2013 UNHCR declared the cessation clause for Rwandan refugees meaning that reasons that qualified them as refuges ceased to exist in their country of origin].
Rwandan refugees had to return home. For those who didn’t want to return for reasons related to work or studies, they could be given Rwandan passports and remain where they were. In our communities, there were mixed feelings about this news and a lot of rumours began circulating.
I decided to come to Rwanda to see for myself so I could know the truth about this country because I had the impression that a lot of what we were told, especially in relation to the country’s history, was not true. Indeed, what we knew about Rwanda was from accounts we had from people who had participated in the genocide against the Tutsi; they were genocide perpetrators. These accounts were filled with genocide denial. They could not understand my decision because my father was a local leader, the bourgmestre of Maraba commune, and he was among those accused of having participated in the genocide against the Tut- si. Because of this, they would tell me that if I returned to Rwanda, I would be killed. I told them that if indeed he had committed these crimes, then he should have been punished.
When I arrived in Rwanda, and after talking to some local authorities and even ordinary Rwandans, I was reassured that, as a rule, the responsibility for criminal offenses is individual. It is worth noting that during a visit to my birthplace, I found out that my father had been sentenced to life in prison in absentia for crimes of genocide. Most importantly, I found a peaceful and safe country where people were happily living together. I decided that I would return to live in Rwanda for good and help build the country.
PAR: How did your family react to your decision to return to Rwanda?
Mr. Habumugisha: My family did not react well, especially my mother who did not want me to come back home. They followed me to the airport and tried to dissuade me from coming until I told them that my decision was final. In other words, I came “by force.” My parents and siblings were not happy at all. There was even this neighbour of ours, one Froduald, who begged me not come, asking if I was lacking anything in Zambia, saying the community was ready to give me everything I needed. But I told them I had to go because Rwanda is home. But remember, at the time I was only coming to Rwanda to assess the situation for myself.
PAR: How did things go after that initial visit?
Mr. Habumugisha: Things did not go well at all. I had become a Rwandan citizen with all the privileges associated. For instance, I had my Rwandan passport. I could visit Rwanda anytime I wanted. I did several times. But in Zambia, genocide perpetrators started accusing those among us who had taken the same decision to come to Rwanda (we were many by then) of being government spies. They reported us to Zambian authorities. One day, as I was watching a Premier League football match when unknown people came and said they wanted to talk. I stepped outside and they told me that they were Zambian government intelligence officers and showed their work cards. They told me that I was under arrest and had to go with them. I was not worried because I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I accepted. But they blindfolded me. I couldn’t see where they were taking me. Next thing I know, I find myself on a plane to Kigali. I had been deported; declared persona non grata. It’s been six years that I have been here.
PAR: Why is it so easy for genocide perpetrators to manipulate other Rwandans that they would be killed if they came back home? It is understandable that a genocide perpetrator would be arrested if he or she set foot in Rwanda, but why do those who had nothing to with the genocide believe them?
Mr. Habumugisha: You have to understand that there are people who were born in exile. Others, like myself, left Rwanda when they were still too young to understand the truth of what was happening. Ideally, they would get the truth from their parents, but some parents are suspects or known perpetrators of genocide. This means that the parents are the ones hiding the truth, transmitting a distorted history, and planting harmful ideas in their children. These children grow up with these ideas in mind and it’s where the fear to return home comes from.
PAR: What objectives do those who tell this to the children have?
Mr. Habumugisha: Their objectives are many but let me point to two or three. First, to evade justice. Second, they want to keep the youth hostage, thereby betraying them because they only want to use them as human shields to maintain the appearance that Rwanda is not safe. I would add that the other thing is the hatred they have for Tutsi, Inkotanyi, and the RPF, whom they portray as inherently bad people. They planted this hatred in the hearts of young people and they want to keep it that way.
PAR: How many of your friends have you convinced to come home?
Mr. Habumugisha: There are many now. Since the beginning of governments programs to repatriate refugees there are over 600 who have returned home. Those who have requested and acquired passports are more than a thousand.
PAR: Can you tell us more about these programs?
Mr. Habumugisha: At the beginning, the government had initiated a program called “Come and See, Go and Tell”. On my first visit home, I came in the context of that program. There was no Rwandan embassy in Zambia at the time. I came on my own. But when I came back the second time, in April during Kwibuka commemoration, I was accompanied by 10 friends. When we returned in Zambia, we mobilized others and on the next visit, we were a hundred. That is how many acquired their Rwandan passports. But there are others who have refused to start the process of acquiring passports. They say that if they tried, people would know that they were either officers in Habyarimana’s army or burgomasters, and they would be arrested. But it’s only because they know that they committed crimes.
PAR: You talked about Kwibuka. There are genocidaires who want to hide their role in the genocide and want to criminalize all Hutus, saying that all of them are killers, guilty by association. When commemoration time comes, they say that Kwibuka is like holding grudges. I’m sure they told you this, how did you respond?
Mr. Habumugisha: First of all, there is a small group that denies and minimizes the genocide against the Tutsi, despite all the evidence; these are genocide deniers. It would be surprising if perpetrators admitted their role in the genocide. This is why they try to bring the double genocide theory as a means to divert attention and to cause confusion. For them, when they learn that you came to Rwanda to commemorate, they see you as someone who is crazy or who has mental issues. This is why, to date, we still have a genocide ideology issue, which I mentioned earlier in relation to children raised by genocide perpetrators. Being fed with genocide ideology inevitably leads to genocide denial. But when the youth come to Rwanda and learn the truth, they go back with different ideas that embarrass some of their parents who have a case to answer.
There is a reference I like to give to those who refuse to accept the truth. It is Leon Mugesera’s speech in 1992 in which he said “We will kill them and throw them in Nyabarongo River so that they return where they came from”. Mugesera was extradited from Canada to face justice for inciting genocide. This already shows that genocide was not something that happened by accident; it was planned. When commemoration time comes, we have to bow and pay respects to the innocent victims who perished; we have to remember them so that their lives are given the value they deserve.
PAR: What would you tell Jambo ASBL and others walking in the criminal footsteps of their parents?
Mr. Habumugisha: When you look at Jambo, you find that there are Mbonyumutwa’s children; you all know his history in Parmehutu. There are others. I think they operate from Belgium. I would tell them to change their mindsets because theirs is a lost cause that won’t get them anywhere. The genocide against the Tutsi was not decreed by the government of Rwanda, it was recognized by the international community.
Whether they accept it or not, the facts are there. I gave you the example of Leon Mugesera, but there are many others who have admitted their role in the genocide, such as Kambanda, Akayesu Jean Paul, etc. Many others were convicted by the Gacaca tribunals. Therefore, Jambo members should come to terms with these facts and stop spreading lies.
PAR: Distancing oneself from the crimes of parents is not easy, especially when they try to falsely equate it to distancing from them as parents, but you did it. What does it take?
Mr. Habumugisha: It takes courage. You have to have courage and a clear idea of the path you want to take. It is undeniable that our parents raised us and gave us support, which means that there is something you lose when you take such a decision. Knowing you may lose something but being clear about what you stand for matters more. It is important to distance ourselves from the crimes committed by our parents. It is equally important to reject the ideology that led our country to the path of destruction. If parents want their children to be against criminality, they shouldn’t be selective. So, rejecting the ideology does not mean whatsoever that you are rejecting your parents.
With regard to the genocide against the Tutsi, I would add this: people have to realize that even though criminal responsibility is individual, denying and minimizing the genocide are also criminal offenses. They should avoid engaging in such criminal actions. They do it thinking that it won’t carry any consequences, but they might find themselves in courts, even if they do it on the internet. So, people should really avoid these things. There is nothing positive in genocide denial.
PAR: You said that in 2010 there was no Rwandan embassy in Zambia. Now that it has been established, how important is it in the lives of Rwandans there and in providing information that helps to counter genocidaires manipulating their children into genocide denial?
Mr. Habumugisha: First and foremost, Rwandans in Zambia can now have access to government services without traveling, something that was impossible before and would require a two-week stay in Rwanda. Given the expenses, it was difficult. But also important is how mindsets have been changing progressively in the Rwandan community, especially for those who have realized the importance of having a passport. We still have some who hold on to the genocide ideology, but things are changing.
PAR: What should be done to sensitize more Rwandans to come home?
Mr. Habumugisha: We must continue to bring reliable information closer to these communities in the diaspora. There are indeed vulnerable people who are exposed to denialist propaganda. So, the government will have to do whatever it takes so as to engage them and reassure them. In the same vein, we shall produce magazines such as this one where we give our stories. Tomorrow, two or three will read it, and maybe the story can change their worldview. So, such magazines and similar initiatives must be encouraged. We should also use social media platforms to tell inspiring stories and testimonies of different people, who have broken with the genocide ideology, like I have done despite my up-bringing, so that the youth know the truth about their country.
PAR: There are many who return to Rwanda, but the few who talk about breaking with the genocide ideology and expose themselves to the attacks of genocide deniers, which is something that is so inspiring about your story. The risk you took putting yourself out there is courageous. What is your reaction to the attacks that inevitably come your way in attempts to silence you?
Mr. Habumugisha: I would say that no amount of lies will extinguish the truth. I know they will attack me but they cannot win, simply because I tell the truth. I didn’t invent anything. I can repeat it all without shame and with a clear conscience.