What you need to know:
I chose to live. Oswald Mwizerwa watched as his family was raped and bludgeoned to death during the Rwanda genocide. Taken to Europe to recuperate and start afresh, he demanded to be flown back home, to the consternation of his adopted parents. Years later, his life is slowly gaining meaning.
Oswald Mwizerwa, 27, wears a bright smile which, when added to his pleasant looks, reveals not an iota of what could aptly be described as his journey to hell and back. He is a survivor of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide in which an estimated one million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers were killed by Hutu extremists.
Oswald, then only nine years old, lost his left leg, suffered a broken one on the right just above the ankle, was shot in the right arm close to the shoulder and stabbed in the back. His father and five siblings were killed in the genocide. He narrated his ordeal to Thoughts and Ideas at the Gisozi Memorial site in Kigali:
“The history of Rwanda, thanks to the colonial policy of divide and rule, has always been characterised by hostilities between the Tutsis and the Hutus. The latter, in whose hands the Belgians surrendered power in 1962, were not only hellbent on subjugating us (Tutsis), but obliterating us from the face of Rwanda, if possible.
The colonial administration bequeathed Rwanda several distinct ethnic enclaves, a situation that hopelessly exposes either community to heinous crimes by the other.
Time for Hutus to act
A perfect opportunity for the Hutus to realise their long-cherished dream of eliminating the Tutsi came in 1994. President Juvenal Habyrimana, a Hutu, had died in a plane crash on April 7, 1994 and reports were filtering in that his people were on a revenge mission.
One of the areas targeted for mass murder was our village in Kayonza District in Eastern Province. Together with my parents and eight siblings, we first hid in banana farms. The Hutu militia (Interahamwe) soon arrived, killing those they encountered, burning our houses and looting all we possessed.
Overwhelmed by fear, we eventually sought refuge at Karubamba Catholic Church in the belief that, even in the most sinful moments, people would be inclined to show some respect for the house of God and spare our lives.
We were stunned when the priest in charge, Fr Santos from Spain, asked us; why are you here? “Father; you know so and so, a member of your congregation, has already been killed; you know others whose houses have been destroyed; and you are still asking us why we are here?”, one of our members retorted instinctively.
After consulting with the local administrative authorities, who were invariably Hutus, Fr Santos allowed us into the church compound, but with strict instructions from the former that the Tutsis be offered no material help of any kind.
But our pursuers were not relenting. On April 11, they stormed the church compound, determined to kill us. From the crowded church, the priest’s house and any other buildings on the compound where we huddled, our resistance with stones and sticks and cries of desperation were no match for the militiamen. More of them arrived with more powerful weaponry, including grenades and guns.
Several parts of the buildings in which we were holding out were blasted by grenades and the doors secured by men were forced open. When one of the grenades shattered my left leg, just below the knee, and broke an ankle bone on the right one, I shouted out to daddy for help.
No help was forthcoming, so I shouted more and louder. Then, defying my excruciating pain, I remembered that there were many dads in the crowded death chamber that the church had become, and it was virtually impossible for any of them to know whose child was crying for help.
The last call
I then called my father by name and he heard me.
“My son, be strong wherever you are. I am helpless and cannot move as I have been badly beaten,” my father responded. Those were the last words I ever heard from my dying father and whose body I would never even have the privilege of burying. It was harrowing seeing our mothers and sisters raped, not only in our full view, but in the house of God. The Hutus literally worked for 24 hours every day, killing, looting, raping and committing all manner of heinous crimes.
By the time they stormed into any building, hundreds would be already dead. Those who showed any signs of life were bludgeoned, stabbed, or shot. That was how I ended up being shot in the arm and being stabbed in the back. How I survived all those and the overwhelmingly nauseating smell from the rotting corpses, is a mystery I can never explain.
Together with a handful of survivors at the Karubamba church, we were eventually rescued by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) which had been advancing from the Uganda side, neutralising the Hutu.
I was taken to a local hospital from where the medical NGO, Medicine du Monde, took me to Uganda for further treatment. My leg, shattered by a grenade, had to be cut at several points till above the knee before a point from which the wound could heal was identified. In Uganda, I found myself in the same hospital with several other Rwandan children. My benefactors would eventually fly me to Brussels, Belgium.
A French family offered to adopt me, transferring me to Marseille to a paediatric hospital called Timone Enfanta, where I remained for six months. I was later enrolled in school.
Aged 11 and with sufficient recovery and wisdom that comes with age, I became more conscious of the fact that, though comfortable, I was living in other people’s country. My heart grew fonder and fonder for my motherland and I could not stop requesting to be taken home. How I hoped to survive there was the least of my concerns.
However, my foster family would not relent.
I eventually became hysterical. I became irritable and could neither eat nor sleep well as I demanded that I be taken back to Rwanda. The French family yielded and contacted Medicine du Monde to help trace the surviving members of my family. My mother, Mnkandori Annonciate, another survivor of the genocide, was tracked down and arrangements made for my travel back to Rwanda.
Being an amputee, life in a village in a country recovering from genocide was quite a challenge, but I was determined to soldier on.
I joined school and later benefitted from a bursary fund for genocide survivors through secondary school. In 2005, I got a government scholarship to finance my post-secondary school education at the Kigali Institute of Education. I did a course in social studies, education, geography and economics, majoring in the latter. I graduated in 2009.
Soon after my graduation, I landed a job as an accountant with the Catholic NGO, Caritas Rwanda.
From Caritas Rwanda, a better opportunity came my way and I became the headmaster of College St Christopher in Kayonza in East Province. As a head of a learning institution, I was comfortable earning a good salary, and entitled to a car. I was able to support my mother and other relatives.
However, I always felt the urge to pursue further studies. I believed a graduate degree was my best bet for a better and more secure future. Against the popular wish, I quit my job in August 2011 to pursue a Masters degree in project management at Mt Kenya University in Kigali.
I currently depend on temporary jobs and donations from well-wishers to survive. Though I am no longer able to support my 65-year-old mother and siblings, I believe that it is a sacrifice worth making. With education, one can never go wrong.
My family members
My elder sister, 32, is a policewoman while my younger brother, 22, is waiting to join college.Any plans for a family?
Not surprisingly, I have had problems with relationships as some girls are shy to be identified with a man with an artificial leg.
However, I believe my disability is not an inability in any way. I look forward to marrying some day in the future. For now, my focus is on completing my MBA degree programme.
In retrospect, I have no reason to hate Hutus. And that was my stand when we faced those who targeted us during the genocide before the Gacaca (local court). I told my mother to refuse any compensation from them as they did not seem any better than us.
I believe in humanity’s common destiny and that you do not achieve much by destroying others.