“I remember being numb. All my emotions were gone—I was in a survival mode.”
The twenty-four-year-old Rwandan genocide survivor recalled the past, with a blank look on her face, watching the steam rise from her cup of hot chocolate.
“We knew it was coming,” said Alice Tuza, now a refugee living in the Twin Cities. “We just did not know when.”
In 1994, following the murder of the country’s president, Rwanda erupted in a bloody genocide that lasted slightly over three months, and killed close to a million people. The assassination of President Juvenal Habyrarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira was seen as the catalyst that led to the genocide.
Tuza was only nine at the time. She lived with her parents and her unmarried siblings in Butare, a small town several hours from Kigali, the capital city. She remembers most of the events of those three months and the next several years in vivid detail.
“Within 24 hours of the president’s assassination, the killings had started,” Tuza says. “Our house phone rang incessantly with people from Kigali calling to seek refuge in our home.”
Militant Hutu government and militia groups set out to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Tuza’s family was both Tutsi and Hutu. Her father, a prominent Hutu businessman had married a Tutsi woman. Her family was then hunted and targeted for murder, Tuza says, since her father and his family, by extension, were seen as traitors.
It was not long before the killings moved away from the capital, Kigali, into the smaller towns, and to Butare. Tuza remembers the first person to lose her life:
“I was at a neighbor’s house … and then I heard gunshots. I thought it was soldiers.”
She later learned that an elderly woman had been shot. Her father then sent someone to pick Tuza up from the neighbors. And as they walked home, using small back roads for safety, nine-year old Tuza saw burning houses and heard screams that continue to haunt her.
“My father was convinced that the UN and the international community would do something,” she recalls. “There were seven of us in the house, and he needed to protect us.
“Every minute, we would hear that someone we knew had been killed. My parents wanted to help, but there was nothing to be done.
“We were not eating much. But we prayed a lot. It is at this time that we all became very strong Christians. What else could we do?”
Later, a sister who was married to a Tutsi man came to the house to seek refuge. Tuza says the militias had lists of people they wanted killed, and her sister and her husband were at the top of this list simply for belonging to the “wrong” tribe. Soon after, Tuza’s father’s house was full, as relatives and close friends came to hide. While they would all stay indoors and keep watch during the day, at night they would divide themselves in small groups and seek shelter in Hutu moderate homes. And then the attackers came.
“I remember once, it was a rainy day, we were trying to see who was going to go to whose house when a band of men … there was eight of them … broke into the house. My father was in the shower. One of the young men, he had a gun or a bayonet … He pushed my mother, who was pregnant, against the wall. She was trying to negotiate with them, because they were boys from the neighborhood.”
Although, the man in pushing her mother, injured her and caused internal bleeding that would a few weeks later result in her death, and that of her child, they did not kill anyone that day.
For days, her family was on the killers’ wanted list, so her father had to pay them off. However, they soon ran out of money and food. With fake identification cards, they fled Butare and begin to make their way to neighboring Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo).
“As we walked we saw hundreds of dead bodies. It became my life…. I adapted to it.” Tuza’s voice wavered as she explained how she and her family garnered strength to travel, even when seeing so much death around them.
They soon came upon their first roadblock, which she later heard was one of the worst roadblocks to pass through during the genocide. Tuza was in a pick-up truck with her mother, some of her siblings and cousins when they heard loud cheering. She froze as she stared at death: “I saw someone licking blood—it was human blood—off his machete. They were cheering and chanting: ‘Can you smell the blood?'”
Tuza’s mother once again negotiated with the killers. Once more, their lives were spared and they were sent back, away from their destination.
They soon came upon an empty school. With no food, and shelter for her children, Tuza’s mother decided to make camp at the school. Luck seemed on their side because one morning they met a Hutu militia who was her mother’s childhood friend. After feeding them, he traveled with them past roadblocks to a refugee camp in Bukavu.
As soon as they got to the camp, Tuza’s mother was hospitalized. She was bleeding internally.
“It was too late,” Tuza recalls. “They could do nothing for her.”
Floriane Robins-Brown, an older sister who had been living in the United States long before the genocide, had been working hard to get her family to safety. However, it had been impossible even to reach her family, as they had been on the run.
“Floriane finally managed to get us out of the refugee camp into an apartment in Kenya,” Tuza exclaimed, her face lighting up. “It was heaven!”
“All the things we had taken for granted before the war… showers, clean clothes, we had lice for sure,” she laughs. “A fridge full of food, buildings…. .”
She was soon enrolled in a Kenyan school where she made new friends and began a path to a “normal” life. Tuza and her family lived in Kenya for about two years when her father decided that they had to return home to Rwanda. There was some sense of security in Rwanda, her father felt, since the UN, Red Cross and other international bodies were now in Rwanda.
“I was too fragile to go back,” she says, shaking her head.
As soon as their plane landed in Rwanda, her father was detained by local authorities for several hours. A few months later her father was arrested and charged with participating in the genocide. Tuza, who was now twelve, is told by her family that she passed out when she learned of her father’s arrest. Her father is still in a prison in Rwanda.
Following her dad’s incarceration, Tuza was sent to a boarding school where she would keep her family name a secret to protect herself from possible retaliation from Tutsis seeking revenge. Her sister Floriane came to her rescue once again, and got her a high school student visa to the United States. For five years, she lived with an American host family in Wisconsin.
In April this year, Tuza was finally granted asylum. Through the Center for Victims of Torture, Tuza receives weekly counseling and therapy to help her work through the trauma of war. The genocide left a mark on her, as she finds she is constantly in a state of paranoia.
“I cannot trust anyone,” she says. “After all, neighbors, and relatives were killing each other.” She also misses her mother, who she feels died before teaching her life’s lessons.
However, she adds, “The genocide made me stronger… I have learned to be independent.”