Clarisse Mukashumbusho, a petite young wife and mother in London, Ontario, Canada laughingly declares to Canadians who struggle with all those Kinyarwanda syllables that her name is taller than she is. Today, her radiant smile and sparkling brown eyes follow the antics of her toddler as he runs with unrestrained glee into her arms, “Mama, mama!” Her quiet grace and joy offer no hint of the fact that twenty years ago this month her life was torn apart by violence and death.
On April 17, 1994, ten-year-old Clarisse huddled close to her parents and siblings on the dusty grass of the hospital compound in Ndera, a small village just outside Kigali, Rwanda. They were part of a group of Tutsis who had fled their homes and gathered together to stay at the hospital, hoping to find sanctuary there. But local members of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia, tossing grenades ahead of them as they approached, had broken in and driven everyone outside. Now, the refuge-seekers were bunched together, surrounded by the Interahamwe who had been joined by armed government soldiers.
The soldiers shuffled restlessly, waiting to begin their killing spree until they had found all of the “cockroaches” as the Tutsis were disdainfully called. They had to make sure of everyone’s identity first so that any Hutus in the crowd could be spared. One of the killers approached Clarisse’s mother,
“Where’s your ID?” he demanded. She handed him her identity card. Folded behind was all the money she had: a tattered 500 franc note. Would it convince him to spare her life and the lives of her family?
“Don’t be crazy, Tutsi woman!” he hissed in Kinyarwanda – “you need much, much more than that.” Taking the money, he turned his back and walked away. Scanning her mother’s face, Clarisse understood that something important had been lost. The dark fear inside her rose, and she pulled her little brother closer.
The tropical sun was beginning its rapid descent. The soldiers finished their rough sorting of the crowd, and those with Hutu identity cards were released.
“All Tutsis on that side” they ordered. Then they asked the Interahamwe, who knew all the faces in the crowd because they were their neighbours, colleagues, friends…
“Is this all of them?”
Satisfied, the soldiers formed a line, hoisting their guns. The Interahamwe gathered round too, readying their machetes.
The older Tutsi people conferred in low voices. Everyone must lie down. Not being able to see what happened would perhaps lessen the pain of the slaughter that was obviously now imminent. Families drew close. Clarisse’s parents gathered their five children and positioned themselves as best they could. Clarisse snuggled up against her aunt. All through the crowd she could hear the murmuring of gentle goodbyes, and words of reassurances to loved ones that they would meet again in heaven.
A radio crackled. Then, silence. The sound of gunfire split the unnatural quiet of the evening as the soldiers raised their guns and fired into the mass of prone bodies again, and again, and again. Clarisse squeezed her eyes shut and held tightly to her little brother’s hand that desperately grasped for her. The bullets continued in a hailstorm that seemed it would never end. She tried to block out the anguished screams. Her brother’s hand loosened its grip. She felt something warm and wet –her aunt had been shot in the head. In a moment of strange clarity, it occurred to Clarisse that if she were covered with blood the soldiers might believe she was dead. She pushed her head against her aunt’s in desperation. Her parents were silent. Finally the shooting stopped, and Clarisse heard the soldiers say:
“I think everyone is dead.”
The Interahamwe insisted they should check. They slashed through the pile of bodies with their machetes and nail-studded wooden clubs. Clarisse lay stock-still, paralyzed by the shock of what had happened. The only thought she had was that if she could still hear she must be alive. Just then, she felt as though something were lifting her up. Was she on her way to heaven, she wondered? The next moment, she felt as if her body had been returned to earth. No heaven in sight. A club had connected with the back of her head, breaking off a piece of her skull, though at the time she didn’t even realize that she had been injured.
Satisfied they had now completed the job, the Interahamwe and soldiers were in a hurry to leave. Rumour had it that the RPF (rebel Tutsi forces led by Paul Kagame) were on their way to the area.
When she was sure everyone had left, Clarisse slowly lifted her head and saw one of her schoolfriends sitting up and staring at her. She would soon discover that four others had survived the massacre: her schoolfriend, a cousin, an old man, and an old lady.
“Why was I one of them?” Clarisse muses today, her eyes filling with tears of remembrance. “I only know that it was not my time to die. God had a plan for me.” Being left alive, though, was just the beginning of a road to survival marked with more horror, trauma, pain and loss. But Clarisse never doubts that God’s hand was with her all along the difficult journey that was also filled with a succession of miraculous coincidences, and divine providence, evidence to her that God had saved her for a purpose.
“With the strength of a little girl, I couldn’t have gotten through it. So many things happened that only God could have done.” One example she relates: the irony of being sheltered for a time by a Hutu man who was himself a genocidaire, “Imagine, being hidden by a killer?!”
Another time, she and her one remaining sister who had been miraculously reunited in the chaos, were travelling across the country on foot when they were captured again by the Interahamwe. Ropes around their necks, the sisters were about to be thrown into a river already bloated with Tutsi bodies when a passing car stopped and the driver, who recognized the girls from a far-away school, negotiated their release and drove them to a convent where they were safe.
The story, of course, didn’t end there. As Clarisse reflects,
“It was one thing to survive the genocide, but another to live with the consequences of the genocide.” There were times, she says, when she felt almost thankful that God had spared her parents and four siblings the horrors of war and then the post-genocide struggles of life during Rwanda’s re-building. “At least they were at rest.”
But how does one deal with the loss and sadness and arrive at a place of wholeness?
“I don’t think you get over the sadness, ” she says, “but it helped me to know that I was not the only one who suffered. When I heard the stories of others, many of them suffered ten times more than I did. And I believe God helped me to focus only on the positive – on what I had rather than what I had lost. So many people were kind to me – the nuns who kept us safe during the war and the families who took me in after the genocide. And my one surviving sister and I were eventually reunited with our cousins – they became my siblings. If I kept thinking about my loss and feeling sorry for myself I wouldn’t get anywhere.”
And what about the perpetrators? How was forgiveness even an option for Clarisse and so many others?
“What happened wasn’t just caused by humans. People that I knew who were really kind changed in just a few days. Looking at their faces, even as a child, I could see a crazy change. For some, it was as if dressing up as Interahamwe turned them into demons. That hatred was so powerful that I know it was evil using them to do those things. I look at the evil and the cruelty of people at that time and see some of them today looking vulnerable and sad and miserable. Some of them regret what they did, others may not, but I know that is caused by evil, too.”
“God helped me to think positively and after the genocide I always focused on the people that I still had and was able to see the positive side of things. I knew I should move forward and not just stay stuck in the past and focus on hatred, payback, or revenge. I just thought that whatever happens, and what comes next, I know that there was a reason God saved me and He gave me knowledge and wisdom. With his guidance I can move forward.”
As a survivor, Clarisse also felt that she had to take every opportunity that came her way:
“I took all the chances that I got – any chance that was offered to me, knowing that God was guiding me and I had somewhere to get to, even if I wasn’t sure where.” Clarisse graduated from high school and college in Rwanda, and was selected to attend a special international arts camp in Belgium because of her skills as a traditional dancer. She had determined to apply for refugee status while in Belgium, but at the last minute felt constrained to return to Rwanda. A year later, she met a young man from Canada who had come to volunteer in her country, struggling to find God’s pathway in his own life. Differences in culture, language, and history would prove no barrier to a love that was part of God’s plan for both of them and they were married in December of 2010.
Today, Clarisse says “Now I know that God had reserved a new family for me in Canada. From the moment I arrived I wanted to call my husband’s parents ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ – names I had never been able to use since the death of my parents, though foster families had encouraged me to.” Clarisse continued her education in Canada, mastering English and achieving a diploma in Early Childhood Education.
But her new life has not erased the old: “What I have gone through that that’s who I am – it made me who I am and I try still to learn lessons from it — the positive things.” She scoops up her wriggling son, Noah Raphael “peaceful, rest and comfort: God’s healer”, and holds him close, one part of the fulfillment of God’s plan for the little girl who survived.