Rwandan genocide through a child's eyes

Nov. 8, 2002, midnight | By Anna Benfield | 18 years, 6 months ago

One Blazer remembers surviving the horrific atrocities of civil war in his native country

From their house across the road, he watched the bus explode and burn in front of the Hutu military base. The explosions were no longer on the other side of the mountain but all around, trapping his family inside the house. They waited for four days, huddled in the corridor with mattresses along the windows to absorb stray bullets.

Twelve years later, junior Vital Akimana works intently on his AP U.S. History homework at a table in the library. But unlike other students around him, Akimana understands that what he learns now about the forming of democracy will be relevant in his future.

The horrors of Akimana's childhood in Rwanda, a country devastated by war and genocide, have inspired him to prepare for the day he will return to his native country as a leader and educator. Through continued participation in Blair's Diversity Workshop, Akimana uses personal experiences to teach the importance of fostering understanding between groups of people, whether they be white and black or Hutu and Tutsi.

Rebel invasion

Conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes has been a dividing force in Rwanda since the 1959 revolution for independence from Belgium. In 1990, descendents of Tutsi refugees organized in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and sought to regain power.

Eventually, Akimana describes, the fighting forced his family to flee their home city of Ruhengeli. He uses a key to etch their escape route into the picnic table where he sits after school at a park near Piney Branch Road. He explains how his father led him and his siblings through the cornfields behind their house. Staying out of sight of the enemy lines, they sidestepped the bodies of dead soldiers in the fields. "We didn't know which side would shoot at us; we would just hear the shots ringing out," he says.

An encounter with a family friend was cut short by the Hutu militia. "They shot him right in front of our face," Akimana says slowly. "When they shot him, I saw his eyes widen up."
Several more hours of walking brought the Akimanas to a place where they caught rides westward on passing trucks. A ceasefire in 1992 allowed them to return home and then travel across the country, intermittently reuniting with Akimana's mother.


On Apr 6, 1994, only days after Akimana and his father had arrived in the capital city of Kigali, the airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down. Akimana remembers hearing the late-night radio reports confirming the presidents' death and the sounds of fighting at daybreak.

Combat in the streets trapped Akimana and his family inside their townhouse, only blocks from the president's heavily guarded residence, where they lived off corn, beans and sweet potatoes.

Finally, the day came when the Akimanas were able to begin their 100-mile journey south to Gikongoro, his father's hometown.

Life-threatening identity

Along the road, travelers were stopped at Hutu checkpoints. While their papers identified them as Hutu, the quarter of Tutsi blood Akimana and his siblings had inherited from their mother nearly cost them their lives.

The militia had its own method of determining who was Tutsi and who wasn't. "If you had a wide nose like this," Akimana says, fingers pulling at his face, "you are a Hutu. And if you have a small nose like mine, almost pointed, you are Tutsi."

His sister and oldest brother passed through inspection without problems, but his middle brother was not so lucky. "They were about to chop him with a machete, so my father screamed out, ‘No, no!' showing them the identification card," he says.

Akimana recognizes how fortunate his family was to escape alive, considering the Hutu militia's eagerness to kill. He remembers watching as the militia caught a Tutsi at the edge of the city. "They shot him right from the back of his head, and he was lying down. I guess he was dead," he says.

Emotional and physical suffering made Akimana's body stiff. "A person would have come and nudged you," he says, "and you wouldn't have felt it."

Again, the family's travels brought Akimana to Hutu posts that screened for Tutsis. As refugees went through, not all were as lucky as Akimana's family. "They took a few of the people out of the groups, but they told us to keep walking. We'll never know what happened to them," he says. And the Akimanas kept moving, surviving on a bag of sugar that their father carried.

On the road to Gikongoro, they learned from a neighbor that a convoy of heavily armed Hutu military trucks had come to their house looking for them. "I am sure they were going to kill us," Akimana says.

By July, when it was finally safe to leave Gokingoro, the genocide had left 800,000 Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus slain at the hands of the Hutu military. "So many victims. So many bodies," Akimana says somberly.

Conquest for change

Ethnic conflicts continued after his mother's diplomatic work for the Tutsis brought Akimana to the U.S. in late 1995. He believes that peace in Rwanda will be impossible as long as the people cling to their tribal identity. "Rwandans die, Hutu and Tutsi alike. I learned that when it comes to restoring my country, not to call myself Hutu or Tutsi, as I am both, but a citizen of Rwanda," he says.

Before the outbreak of war, Akimana's mother spoke out against the hatred and killing. Her example proved to Akimana the power of speaking up for peaceful alternatives. "Weapons are a shield for a coward. Where you have opposition, you can change it with your words," he says with conviction.

Learning from such role models as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Akimana dreams of saving today's Rwandan children from the violence of his own childhood by teaching citizens about democracy and negotiation. "[They] should learn it through history, not by living it every day," he explains. "I want to educate people in my country so that their words will be more powerful than the guns used by their government."

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Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »

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