Thursday 12 December 2019

The Weekly Read: Dublin college student tells of how she survived the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

Seraphine Habimana survived the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and after a chance encounter with a Trinity College academic, is now studying an MA in journalism at DIT, here's her story...

Seraphine Habimana is now studying in Dublin
Seraphine Habimana is now studying in Dublin

Seraphine Habimana

When the Rwandan Genocide began in April 1994, I was just six years old. For the 100 days that the Genocide lasted, during which an estimated 800,000 were killed, we spent our days and nights hiding in bushes, and in maize and banana plantations amongst other places, hoping not to be seen by the violent extremists (Interahamwe). Some of the Interahamwe were our neighbours, people whose animals my father used to treat as a vet.

When my five siblings and I were fleeing with our father in the early days of the Genocide (our mother was visiting family in another part of Rwanda at the time), we encountered the Interahamwe more than once.  One time they caught us and told us to dig a hole with our hands where they would put our bodies after killing us. That time we were lucky: someone interceded for us and we were released.

Desperate choices

When our lives were threatened in this way, my father faced the desperate choice of having to elect how we would be killed: preferably with a gun because machetes or other traditional tools would mean a more painful death.

It was very hard to find food during the Genocide, and we had more or less forgotten cooked food. My younger brother, who was just three years old, suffered kwashiorkor.  We all suffered from hunger, which is why my sister and I went to steal maize and potatoes during the nights. We put them in the fire and then ate. When we couldn’t find other things, we’d eat dried herbs.

My father managed to arrange separate hiding places in which I and my brothers and sisters survived the Genocide. I survived with one of my sisters on Kirwa island on Lake Ruhondo in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

The Genocide begins

It was at around 2pm on April 7th1994. We were all at home; my sisters and brother were just preparing to resume the second term at secondary school in Mataba.

My older sister, younger brother and I were playing with other children in the banana plantation near our home. While playing, we saw the house of a man named Charles (we used to call him Karoli) burning.  Karoli had many cows. He used to put on a long coat and yellow hat.

We were told that after him, it would be our turn.

We were told we had to pay for what we did to President Habyarimana who had just died, his plane having been shot down arriving into Kigali the day before. 

Children of our age told us all that. They also told us that we, as Tutsis, deserved to be killed. Instantly, my father rushed into the house and called to us to get inside. He told us we were in danger, that this was the revelation of the hatred we had been facing for a long time. He told us we were on the list of people who should be killed that day, adding that the Interahamwe were on their way to our house.

We remained inside.  After a few hours, we heard people outside pushing the door, calling us inyenzi (cockroaches). 

There was a crowd of over 50 people, carrying machetes, knives, trees, amongst other things. They were guided by Byetete, a man who owned a restaurant in Mataba. Byetete recognized our dad, they were acquaintances. Dad asked Byetete to save us, his children, asking him to kill dad alone and leave us: “Please save my children at least, remember our friendship and value it above anything else. My children are the only thing I have in this world, let them live I beg you.”

Byetete shook dad’s hand, told him to calm down, said that he would try his best to save all of us. “You are a good man, you do not deserve to die, I will try my best, trust me,” said Byetete.

Byetete went back outside and asked the crowd to leave in peace, adding that they were wrong to put us on the list of Tutsi.

Byetete promised our father that he would come back later that day. He locked the door and went with the key. When Byetete came back, he told us that there was no way we could stay there because everyone suspected that we were Tutsi and that we had to die.

In order to escape the killings, Byetete advised us to flee Mutaba for Ruhengeri, where things were not bad yet. He swore that he would take care of us all night so we could flee under cover of darkness. At around 2am we left for Ruhengeri, where we thought that we could survive. We children made it through those 100 days, but my parents did not. 

The full story of how we lived through that time and in the years after is for another day.

Even though for much of our lives we have not had parents to advise us how to behave and how to grow into good people, my siblings and I have tried to live in the way that we think our parents would have wished.

My father was adored by everyone in our village, he was nice, wise and respectful to everyone, and my mother always tried to help people and treated them by giving them first aid when they needed.

Years later, I was very proud to complete my undergraduate studies at the National University of Rwanda in Butare with the highest grade in my class. It was a huge struggle even finishing school and getting to university after the Genocide. 

My brothers and sisters have been a major support.

From Rwanda to Ireland

My journey to Ireland began in 2009 with a chance meeting with a Professor from TCD who was on sabbatical in Rwanda.

He used to come for his breakfast to a coffee shop in Butare where I was working to raise some money to help my family. The Professor realised I had good English and offered me a temporary annual job as interpreter and facilitator for his students during their field trips in Rwanda. Through these field trips I got to know many students and lecturers from Ireland.

After my undergraduate degree I started working as a journalist for the New Times, Rwanda’s main English language newspaper. One of my lecturer friends from Ireland offered that if I could find a place on a Masters course in Ireland then I could live with his family for the year.

Having researched courses and discussed with friends, I was drawn to DIT, but it remained an unimaginable dream.

When I emailed the Head of the School of Media to enquire about the possibility of studying on the MA in Journalism course, I didn’t have high expectations of receiving a positive reply. 

It was a miracle and I was very excited when the course coordinator Barbara O’Shea replied, ultimately offering me a place. 

It really was a dream come true after all hardships I went through after surviving the Genocide.

After being offered a place my lecturer friend and other TCD alumni helped me to raise funds to get here. 

The campaign remains ongoing – you can find details at

I’m loving Ireland and DIT so far, and I hope to meet many of you while I’m here.

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