Turi Kumwe, the Rwandan phrase for ‘we are together’, was truly embodied yesterday with Solange Impano and friends. It was a day to remember with such a range of intense emotions for all of us who accompanied Solange to the place where she witnessed, as an eleven year old, the killing of her mother by the Hutu militia eighteen years ago. Solange had shared her genocide survivor story with me in October 2011 when I first arrived at Gardens for Health, but being with her as she retold and relived the series of events that week in April 1994 was deeply moving as well as inspiring.
A few months ago Solange had determined that she felt emotionally ready to return to her hometown of Kibuye for the first time with friends to share the commemoration and leave flowers at the church. Ever since, she has been planning the day with attention to every detail. Yesterday it all unfolded and became a reality which was very healing for her. Fathoming the incomprehensible events of those 100 days when 800,000 people were massacred makes one question many aspects of humanity.
Solange with her nine year old daughter Liza, and eighteen of her close friends crammed into a mutatu (large van/mini bus) early in the morning and drove three hours through the verdant Rwandan countryside to Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu. We were dressed in the appropriate purple and black mourning attire. En route we passed several large parades of people walking solemnly in the streets commemorating the anniversary.
Upon arrival in Kibuye Solange led our group up the road to the church where 10,000 people had sought refuge from the Hutus, including Solange and her mother. That ‘refuge’ turned out to be a Hutu ruse, as almost all were eventually slaughtered indiscriminately. Her tears were contagious as she told her riveting and soul wrenching story with deep emotion and detail, interspersed with historical anecdotes outside of the church. A warm breeze enveloped us as we all stood in a circle around Solange with the beauty of Lake Kivu as our backdrop. In the bus to Kibuye she had asked us to write our definition of freedom. With remarkable ability and poise she turned her story into a lesson for all of us about the luxury and value of freedom as she read our words from the small folded papers clutched in her fist.
Later we walked from the church to her house where she shared happy childhood memories as well as the horror of her mother’s death. Afterwards we walked through the town of Kibuye to the home of Ancila for a poignant reunion. Ancila is the extraordinary woman who took Solange into her home and raised her as her own daughter, protecting her from the Hutu’s madness. We all gathered on benches on her verandah and listened to Ancila’s story. Ancila was a Tutsi, but married to Hutu and had five children who were also Hutus, and as a result they protected her, but were also prominent perpetrators of murder in Kibuye. Solange completed the story, as Ancila was too humble to relay her intractable and courageous acts that helped save Solange’s life. Ancila had managed to alter Solange’s ethnicity to Hutu on the school records, thereby saving her life.
Driving back in the van we were all emotionally drained, but also felt a close bond from sharing the day’s intensity. Naomi, Claire and Annonciata sang lovely Kinyarwandan gospel songs that soothed us as we wended our way back to Kigali. It will be a day to process for a long while.
Thank you, Solange. It’s an honor to be your friend and learn from your courage, resilience, wisdom and love of life.
Matatu filled to the brim
Walking to the church
Walking to the church
View of Lake Kivu from the church
Never again. . .
Solange & Liza
Solange & Ancila