The heroes and heroines of Rwanda

The burial site of Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema at the heroes’ mausoleum in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Faustin Mugabe

What you need to know:

As we conclude the series on the Rwandan Genocide 20 years later, Sunday Monitor’s Faustin Mugabe looks at some of the people who made a milestone in Rwanda’s history. The numbering is not in order of significance.

On October 1, 1995, Major General Fred Rwigyema was laid to rest at Remera heroes’ mausoleum in Kigali. Although other heroes and heroines of Rwanda are buried there, Rwigyema is more prominent at the mausoleum. His tomb stands out from the rest.

Recently, senior Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) officers visited the site.

At Remera heroes’ mausoleum, other Rwanda heroes and heroines are buried.

There are three categories of heroes buried or can be buried at Remera, an official from the Chancellery for Heroes and National Orders and Decorations of Honour, says.

The Imanzi is the highest category. Heroes classified in this category are only those who executed unprecedented and extraordinary accomplishments for Rwanda. Rwigyema belongs to this class as well as other known and unknown soldiers of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) who risked their lives to liberate Rwanda. It is only departed heroes that can be put in the Imanzi category.
The second category is known as Imena. It is reserved for heroes known for making great sacrifices. King Charles Leon Pierre Rudahigwa III belongs to this category for he vehemently opposed the Belgian colonialists’ divide and rule system. Another hero in this class is Michael Rwagasana, killed in the 1960s for opposing divisionism and the Hutu dominance ideology.

Others are prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana killed in 1994 for opposing the genocide ideology against the Tutsi, and Felicite Niyitegeka who was also killed in 1994 for hosting Tutsi refugees.

The six students of Nyange Secondary School in Ngororero District killed by the Interahamwe in 1997 for defying their orders to separate according to their ethnicity also belong to this category.

The third category is the Ingenzi which is for the men and women who have led an exemplary life. Heroes are vetted by the Chancellery for Heroes and National Orders and Decorations of Honour, a body that falls under the ministry of culture and sports. The government has plans to expand and construct a modern mausoleum.


He was born on April 10, 1957 to Anastasie Kimonyo and Catalina Mukandilima in Gitarama, now Kamonyi District, in southern province.

His family fled to Uganda following the 1959 uprising that erupted in Rwanda against the Tutsi and settled at Nshungezi refugee camp in south-western Uganda.

He was still in secondary school when, in 1976, he was recruited into the rebel ranks of the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) led by Yoweri Museveni, now president of Uganda, and was taken to Tanzania and later to Mozambique for military training.

He was among the FRONASA rebels who together with the Tanzania army waged a war against the government of President Idi Amin and toppled him in April 1979. After the war, the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) was formed.

But because of the mistrust between Kikoosi Maalum (allied to Obote) and FRONASA – the two groups that formed the post-Amin national army – Rwigyema, who was close to Museveni, was dismissed from the army ostensibly for being a Rwandan.

However, Museveni – who was a government minister – retained him as his escort until February 6, 1981 when the 42 fighters, that included Rwigyema and his childhood friend Paul Kagame, attacked the Kabamba garrison.

When the NRA captured power in 1986, he was appointed deputy army commander and overall operations commander. He commanded many operations during the Luweero war.

He also commanded other operations in northern Uganda including one against the ‘Holy Spirit Movement’ led by prophetess Alice Lakwena.

In February 1988, Rwigyema was made the minister of State for Defence for a year. He was also among the 38 “historical” members of the interim legislative body, National Resistance Council (NRC).

On June 20, 1987, he got married to Janet Urujeni and together, they had two children - Gisa Junior and Teta Gisa.

On October 1, 1990, he led Rwandan soldiers who defected from the Uganda army to wage a war that over threw the regime in Rwanda. Unfortunately, he died on October 2, 1990 on the second day of the attack.

He was born to King Yuhi IV Musinga and Kankazi Nyiramavugo. He succeeded his father on November 16, 1931 after he had relinquished the throne three days earlier.

Rudahigwa is remembered for advocating for the welfare of all Rwandans, but more so, his fight for the independence of Rwanda.

He also worked hard to educate Rwandans through the establishment of the Mutara Fund and called missionaries of the Jesuits to build a college in Gitarama, but was instead built in Bujumbura in Burundi.

When the Christian missionaries refused to build a college in Rwanda, he asked Muslims who built an Islamic college at Nyamirambo.

Because he wanted Rwandans educated, he offered scholarships to many Rwandans to go to study in Europe. On October 15, 1933 he married Nyiramakomali but the marriage did not last long.

In 1940, the two separated and on January 18, 1942, he married Rosalie Gicanda. King Rudahigwa died on July 25, 1959 under mysterious circumstances in Burundi where he had gone to discuss the independence of Rwanda with the Belgian colonial leaders.


He was born in 1927 in Namagana in Ruhango district in southern Rwanda. He went to Groupe Scolaire Astrida College in Butare and got a diploma in administration.

In 1957, he married Susana Nzayire and together they had four children. Rwagasana also worked as the personal secretary of king Rudahigwa III from 1954 until 1959 when the king died. Having worked with the king, he admired his political vision and when the king died, he kept the spirit for unity and independence for Rwanda burning.

He was later killed in the 1960s during the reign of President Gregory Kayibanda.


She was born in 1934 to Simon Sekabwa and Angelina Nyiramapabuka. She was murdered on April 21, 1994 during the genocide.

She was killed because she refused to abandon the Tutsi who had sought refuge at Centre Saint Pierre in Gisenyi, now Rubavu District where she was employed as a casual labourer.

When the Interahamwe stormed the premises to kill about 30 Tutsi, they asked her to vacate the house in which she was with the Tutsi; she refused. Though a Hutu, she said that she was ready to die with them if they wanted to kill them. They killed her too.


Madam Agathe, as she was popularly known, was born on June 23, 1953 in Gisagara District in southern Rwanda. She married Ignacio Barahira in 1976 with whom they had five children. She made history when she became the first female prime minister of Rwanda.

She held that office from July 17, 1993 to April 7, 1994 when she was slain by the Interahamwe at the start of the genocide.

Before she had been the minister of education and strongly advocated for the equal rights of students which many in the government detested. She also advocated for the rights of women and fought divisionism on ethnicity in Rwanda. General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda forces in his in book, Shake Hands with the Devil, describes Uwilingiyimana as a strong and assertive leader who attempted to save her country from turmoil. She also refused to go to exile.

Brig Henry Kwami the deputy UNAMIR force commander wrote in his book, Guns over Kigali, that because Uwilingiyimana loved her country, she died for it.

Rusesabagina: The hero not accepted at home

His name is often mentioned along with that of Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali or the movie Hotel Rwanda. He is famous for bribing the genocidiares to save lives of many Rwandans trapped at Mille Collines Hotel.

Paul Rusesabagina was born on June 15, 1954 in southern Rwanda; about 50 miles from Kigali from a humble family. He is married to Tatiana and they have four children.

In 1984, he was appointed assistant General Manager of the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali. And in November 1992, he was appointed the General Manager.

Rusesabagina, as the hotel manager, courageously used his humility, hotel money and beers which he dished out to genocidaires and saved more than 1,200 Tutsis, moderate Hutus as well as human rights activists and others known to oppose Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime. None of them who hid in the hotel was hurt or killed.

While he attained world fame by the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda film, in which Don Cheadle, a film star acted as Rusesabagina, released in December 2004.

He is not cherished in Rwanda as one of the heroes during the genocide that saved many lives. Ever since he was granted asylum in Belgium in 1996 after he was threatened with harm in Rwanda, he has never made any visits to his country.

In February 2007, his biography An Ordinary Man, a 224 page book, was launched in America; but has never been sold in Rwandan book stores since its launch. People who have read the book say Rusesabagina does not extol himself for having saved as many lives as he could during the genocide. They say Rusesabagina rather indicates that anyone else could have done so given the opportunity and the resources he had at the hotel.
Awards won
For his heroism, exhibited during the genocide, Rusesabagina has since won many international awards and medals – although he is yet to get one at home.

On November 9, 2005, he together with the internationally acclaimed television star Oprah Winfrey received Presidential Medal of Freedom Award at the White House from then US president George Bush.

The award is the highest civil award in the US. The medal is a reserve for any person who has made meritorious contribution to security or national interest of the US or world peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.
Earlier on, on November 3, 2005 in the US, he received the National Civil Rights Museum Award. Other Awards and prizes he has received include Amnesty International’s Enduring Spirit, Immortal Chaplains Foundation’s Prize for Humanity, among others.

In June 2005, he launched the UNHCR World Refuge Day together with Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary, and American actress Angelina Jolie, the UNHCR Good will Ambassador.

Rusesabagina studied hotel management at Utali College in Nairobi, Kenya.


There were many rogues in positions of influence in Rwanda who propagated the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. In fact, they were hundreds who included the clergy, politicians, military, businessmen as well as the academia. But majority of those who wielded power and influence in inciting genocide have been apprehended or convicted.
They include Col Pierre-Celestin Rwagafilita, Col Laurent Serubuga, Col Innocent Segahutu, Jean Kabanda, the Interim Prime Minister after April 7, 1994, Robert Kajuga, president of the Interahamwe and recently indicted Maj Gen Augustin Ndindiliyimana Chief of Staff of the Gendarmerie recently indicted from France.
Below are some of the most popular villains, either apprehended or still at large.

Felicien Kabuga
Felicien Kabuga is the most infamous genocidaire though he is still at large. He was a stalwart member of the ill-famed Akazu (a system of using relatives, friends, colleagues and in-laws to govern; President Juvenal Habyarimana was accused of using this to rule Rwanda). For instance, two of Kabuga’s daughters were married to two of Habyarimana’s sons.

Born in 1935 in Byumba prefecture in northern Rwanda near the Rwanda- Uganda border, Kabuga was not that much educated. But he had a business acumen which helped him overtime to acquire many tea estates, especially in northern Rwanda and owned several other business ventures. By the early 1990s, he had amassed a lot of wealth.

Others allege that it was him who bank rolled every activity including the importation of 500,000 pangas from China which were used during the genocide. It is yet to be confirmed if he really did so.

When the RPF captured Kigali, Kabuga fled Rwanda through Zaire (DR Congo) to Switzerland but he was denied asylum. He returned to Zaire and was given political asylum until 1997 when President Mobutu Sese sseko was toppled – and went to Kenya where it is alleged that he runs a huge business empire, although the Kenyan government denies the claims.
In August 1998, Kabuga was indicted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) sitting in Arusha, Tanzania, and was in absentia charged with five counts of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, complicity in genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and extermination as a crime against humanity. But there are 11 other criminal charges involving genocide. In 2008, the US announced a bounty of $5m for any information leading to his arrest.

Col Theoneste Bagosora
Col Theoneste Bagosora was born in 1941 in Giciye Commune where Habyarimana hailed from. He graduated in 1964 with a diploma in military studies from the Ecole de Guerre in Paris, France.

Later he was made the second-in-commander of the Kigali Military School before he was made the commandant of the Kanombe Military base.

In 1992, he was promoted to Colonel and made the General Chief of Staff of the Forces Armees Rwanda.

In September 1993, he was retired from the army and made the director at the ministry of defence.

He held that post until July 1994 when Kigali fell to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Bagosora is remembered for vehemently opposing the idea of the coalition government especially with the RPF during the Arusha peace Accord.

He also publicly stated that the only solution to the civil war was the extermination of the Tutsi in Rwanda and sometimes personally organised the meetings for the distribution of weapons to the Interahamwe to exterminate the Tutsi and Hutu opponents of the regime.
Following the collapse of the regime, Bagosora ran to exile. He was on March 9, 1996 arrested in Yaounde, Cameroon and was transferred to the ICTR in Arusha in January 1997 where he was tried and found guilty for genocide, incitement and conspiracy to commit genocide.

On December 18, 2008, the tribunal sentenced him to life in prison. He, however, pleaded not guilty.

Ferdinand Nahimana
He was born on June 15, 1950 in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Nahimana was one of the highly educated Rwandans. He had a PhD in history from the University of Paris in France. He was a university lecturer and author of several books and was also an influential member of the Akazu and the MRND party of Habyarimana.
In early 1993, he was sacked by president Habyarimana as the director of state media because of his extremist views against the Tutsi. This prompted him to sell the idea to the Akazu members and to some MRND party stalwarts who became shareholders when the Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio was established. It was the thus the co-founder of RTLM radio which incited genocide against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu through broadcasts of hate messages.
He also ran to exile when the RPF captured power. It is alleged that the French embassy in Rwanda helped him escape through Burundi to Cameroon in West Africa. But in March 1996, he was arrested in Cameroon and taken to the ICTR in Arusha Tanzania.

On November 15, 1999 the tribunal found him guilty of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, persecution and extermination as a crime against humanity and direct and public incitement to commit genocide and was sentenced to life in prison however, he appealed. On November 28, 2007 the tribunal reversed some charges and the sentence was reduced to 30 years imprisonment. In December 2008, he was transferred from Arusha to a prison in Mali.

Hassan Ngeze
Ngeze was born on December 25, 1957 in Gisenyi western Rwanda. He worked as correspondent for different publications including Kanguka newspaper. He was an influential youth winger of the MRND party, and in 1992 was a founding member of the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), an extremist splinter political organisation of MNRD predominantly of Hutu from northern Rwanda that refused to sign the Arusha Peace Accord.
In late 1990, Ngeze, with the financial and political backing from Habyarimana’s government, started the infamous Kangura newspaper which published hate messages against the Tutsi. As its editor, in November 1990, Ngeze published the wicked ‘Ten Commandments for the Hutu’ depicting the Tutsi as evil and enemy of Hutu.
Ngeze escaped to Kenya but was arrested in July 1997 and transferred to Arusha. In November 1997, he appeared before the tribunal for the first time. He is serving 32 years in jail over genocide.


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