France’s role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was evoked yesterday at a commemoration event to mourn and remember over 50,000 Tutsi who perished at the former ETO Murambi in Nyamagabe District.
When the Genocide began, Tutsi in the former Gikongoro Prefecture were told by the genocidal authorities to flee and take refuge at ETO Murambi, then a technical school under construction.
Leaders falsely told Tutsi that they were unable to protect them if they remained dispersed. In reality, ETO Murambi was chosen so that the killers could gather the victims and kill them systematically. Over a period of two weeks, Tutsis were sent or taken to Murambi until an estimated 50,000 was gathered at the school.
The site filled up because even Tutsis who had survived attacks in neighbouring communes fled to Gikongoro; they assumed it would be safer.
Local officials and then government soldiers set up roadblocks to control the movement of Tutsi. Many were murdered or raped before they had reached the school.
Simeon Mutangana, one of the few survivors of the massacres in Murambi, recounts the circumstances in which thousands of Tutsi were killed in the region.
“When we arrived here (at Murambi Technical School), genocidaires cut off the water pipes leading to the school and deprived us of water and food. In the following days, many succumbed to starvation,” recalls Mutangana.
On 18 April 1994, the interim President of Rwanda during the Genocide Theodore Sindikubwabo held a meeting with administrative leaders and military officials in Gikongoro. The following night, the first attack to Murambi took place.
“We defended ourselves using stones and bricks. We repelled the first attack,” narrates Mutangana. A similar attack the next day was also repelled.
After two days, on 21 April 1994, the main assault began. Armed with guns and grenades, the first attacks started in the wee hours of the morning. A substantial force had been assembled, enabling the militia and then government soldiers to encircle the school to prevent escape.
ETO Murambi is on a hill with open sides and no cover. Surrounded by killers, Tutsi were unable to defend themselves or escape.
“The attackers approached the school in a tight circle from adjacent hills. They could see and kill anybody trying to escape down the hill. We were outnumbered. Tutsis were killed in the main school building, in the classrooms and outside where they had been hiding,” recollects Mutangana who is one of the only 34 survivors of Murambi massacres in which approximately 50,000 innocent lives perished.
The next day, on 22 April 1994, government officials brought bulldozers to dig mass graves.
In June 1994, when ‘Operation Turquoise’ started, French armed forces established their headquarters at Murambi. After an undignified burial of the Genocide victims, French soldiers built a volleyball court on top of the mass graves where they played.
As Murambi had subsequently become a refugee camp, French soldiers who controlled its access asked people their ethnic group. They mingled indiscriminately Tutsi survivors, former government soldiers and Interahamwe. The coexistence allowed militiamen to continue killings in the camp.