Rwanda: How a Nine-Year-Old Boy Survived Genocide at Gisimba’s Orphanage

After Interahamwe militia had murdered his mother, on April 9, 1994, Johnson Mutibagirana, then a nine-year-old boy, was advised by his grandmother to go to Gisimba Memorial Centre in Nyamirambo, a Kigali suburb, “because the owner was a good man” who loved children and would protect them.

Tutsi parents in the neighborhood were sending their children to the oldest children’s home just a few meters off the main road from Nyakabanda Sector offices, in Nyarugenge district, for safety.

Earlier, on the fateful April 7 when the genocide against the Tutsi started, with targeted en-mass killings, all over the city, Mutibagirana’s family was preparing to celebrate Easter. A couple of relatives had visited to rejoice together with them, not knowing the misfortune about to befall them.

On the night of April 6 to 7, 1994, after President Juvenal Habyarimana’s Falcon 50 plane was shot down, Interahamwe militias and members of the Presidential Guard placed numerous blockades in the city of Kigali and began to kill the Tutsi. The extermination of the Tutsi began, nationwide, after the death of Habyarimana was announced on the night of April 6 through radio Rwanda and RTLM broadcasts.

On the morning of April 9, Mutibagirana’s home, near the area commonly known as Tapis Rouge, was attacked by the killers. His mother, an aunt called Rehema, and her two children – a two-months old baby and a two-and-a-half-year-old one called Farida – were taken away.

“Mum told me not to follow them, but I insisted and went after them. Along the way, the Interahamwe stopped. One of them pointed his gun at my mum and auntie Rehema and shot them. My mum died there and then. Auntie Rehema did not die instantly,” he recollects.

Their corpses remained in the same place for three days until some area residents, Muslims, buried them.

Later, news trickled in that his aunt’s baby was picked up from the murder scene by Red Cross employees and taken to Gisimba’s orphanage. Mutibagirana eventually joined her there after his grandmother instructed him to go to the orphanage, along with a 13-year-old niece, Zuruphat, and the other baby, Farida.

“When we arrived at the orphanage the guard at the entrance told us that the compound was full. We told him that if he would not allow us in then they had to give back to us our baby who had been brought to them by the Red Cross workers. It is at this point that he told us to wait for Gisimba,” Mutibagirana recalled.

Moments later, Damas Gisimba, a very light-skinned man with a moustache showed up. On learning about the baby who was already in the orphanage, Gisimba then instructed his workers to write the names of the three new children and let them too.

“When we entered, I saw very many children. Dormitories meant for about 30 children were housing about 200. The children called him Papa; they loved him.”

Life at the orphanage was not easy. Lack of water, dirty toilets, in addition to lack of food were some of the problems.

“Children would have all meals, but the adults would only have porridge in the morning and food in the evening.”

The lack of milk for the little babies became a problem as the genocide escalated. Mutibagirana recalls that some babies died of malnutrition.

Inside Gisimba Memorial Centre’s compound stands a special monument, erected in 2018, in memory of nine babies and nine adults, including two employees, killed in April 1994.

“At some point, workers at the facility started to cook guinea pigs and give the soup to the little babies as a replacement for milk. That’s how many little babies survived,” he noted.

At night, gunfire illuminated the sky. For the young Mutibagirana, it was fun to gape at the night sky. But for adults, it evoked great fear. During the day, Interahamwe roamed the streets, killing people. On a number of occasions, the killers came to the orphanage, suspecting that there were Tutsi hiding there.

“Whenever Interahamwe attacked the orphanage, the adults would hide but the children stayed around. Then Gisimba would face the Interahamwe. He had no weapon but he knew how to protect us. Sometimes he would offer the attackers food, or money, to make sure that they go their way and not kill the children. It is hard to explain how we survived; it was a miracle,” Mutibagirana said.

While Gisimba fought to protect them, his own life was gradually getting in danger. The government started perceiving him as an enemy. He, therefore, fled to St. Michel church, in Kiyovu, for some time. Miraculously, the children and adults from the orphanage joined him later.

“We spent some time without seeing him. We thought he had been killed. But one day, buses were sent to the orphanage and we were taken to St. Michel where we met him again. The children were so happy to see him again. We climbed him, hugged him, calling him ‘papa,”‘ Mutibagirana recalls.

Along with hundreds of his counterparts, Mutibagirana stayed at St. Michel until the RPF-Inkotanyi stopped the genocide.

Later on, he found out that many of his family members had been killed.

His father was murdered in Butare, southern Rwanda, along with his grandparents.