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When a school in Rwanda became the scene of a massacre

Juliet Mukakabanda was hiding with her husband and three children in a small church in southern Rwanda in 1994 when the family was taken to a nearby school by local leaders who promised them “protection” from the ongoing genocide in that country.

As a Hutu married to a Tutsi, Mukakabanda and her husband were prime targets for the Hutu extremists who were spreading terror in the country.

An estimated 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis, died between April and July 1994 in the Rwandan genocide.

Some of the darkest episodes took place in Gikongoro Prefecture, where the family took refuge.

There they found themselves facing a bloodbath allegedly orchestrated by local leaders, including Mayor Laurent Bucyibaruta, who will be tried from Monday in France for genocide, complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity.

The terrified family first took refuge in a local church in Gikongoro (since renamed Nyamagabe) after Hutu mobs set fire to the homes of Tutsi villagers in their village.

They then joined the crowd taking shelter at the Murambi Technical School of Gikongoro, convinced that the hilltop complex was their best chance to avoid the militias patrolling Rwanda with guns and machetes.

But it was a trap. A few days later, around 3:00 am on April 21, his supposed shrine was attacked.

“We heard shots. The killers had revolvers, grenades, clubs, machetes, all kinds of weapons. My main concern was my children, I didn’t know how to protect them,” Mukakabanda told AFP.

At 58 years old, Mukakabanda recounts his memories of that same school, now converted into one of the main memorials of the Rwandan genocide, with rows of black granite monuments with the names of the deceased.

– ’34 survivors’ –

With militias surrounding the school, her husband and other men decided to go out and fight, leaving the women locked in classrooms with the children.

“They fought with everything they could, with stones and sticks. But they couldn’t match the bullets and grenades”, he says.

When the mob broke down the door, Mukakabanda remembers kneeling on the floor, her one-month-old baby swinging on her back and starting to pray and beg for mercy.

Seeing his Hutu identity, the militiamen told him to stay outside as they entered the building, going from room to room and massacring everyone, including her husband and two of her children.

According to witnesses to these events, local leaders assured the Tutsi population that they would be better protected by staying in one place rather than dispersing, and promised food and water.

Instead, the authorities cut off the school’s water supply and deprived the refugees of food, making it harder for them to resist the onslaught.

Mukakabanda points an accusing finger at Bucyibaruta, who denies the allegations and any involvement in the massacre, according to his lawyers.

“It was he who ordered the police and security forces to find the Tutsis who were hiding in churches and other places and gather them in one place, under the pretext of protecting them,” he said.

The former employee, now 78, who is under judicial control, faces life in prison.

Mukakabanda and her baby are among 34 survivors of the Murambi massacre in which, according to the Rwandan Genocide Archive, some 50,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed.

His daughter Pauline is now a 28-year-old mother studying business administration in Kigali.

The widow still lives as a peasant in Nyamagabe, where she is preparing to travel to Paris to testify at the Bucyibaruta trial. One hundred witnesses will participate from Rwanda or by videoconference.

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