From death to life: a widow’s story
by Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, SURF April 2004

Ten years after the genocide in Rwanda, memories of what took place are still raw. This testimony, collected by the UK-based Survivors Fund, is part of a wider Remembrance Initiative, which aims to help the healing process by recording the experiences of the survivors in their own words.

In 1994, I was married and had a baby. We were living at Muhima, near the Kabuga business building. It was on 7 April 1994 at 5.30 in the morning that we first heard that President Habyarimana was dead. Immediately my husband became terrified and said that he knew the Tutsis would not survive; he went to hide at our neighbours’ house, but I stayed at home. My husband was right, and that morning the worst things happened. People were herded into a beautiful new big compound near our house to be killed. We could see the killings through the windows of our house. Men armed with machetes, sticks and pangas hit people until they dropped down dead. Then I began to pack things in a suitcase in order to flee that evening. I bathed my baby and dressed him.

Widowed

A directive was issued, telling all men to go on neighbourhood security watch. My husband went, but before leaving, he told me ‘I am going but I am not sure I will be coming back.’ Indeed, they did not take long: men including my husband were immediately attacked and killed. I was frightened to stay at home alone, so I went to a lady who was our neighbour. She told me someone had just been killed: it was my husband.

Before I could gather the details, a very big group of more than 30 killers came to our house and asked, ‘Where is Kabanda’s wife?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said. ‘Take us first to your house and give us money,’ said one of them. ‘There is no money at home,’ I answered. They told me to go with them. I was carrying my baby on my back. On the way, I saw a neighbour called Papa Neema and I took off my baby and asked him if he could keep him. Papa Neema was seriously injured and could not manage the baby, so I had to put the baby on my back again. We continued, and when we arrived at that beautiful compound, me still with my baby on my back, a group of male killers immediately struck me with whatever they had to hand: machetes, axes, clubs, sticks, swords and spears. I knew that I was going to die and prayed, asking God to forgive me all my sins.

Bereaved

Then I heard a voice saying, ‘And this baby who is shouting and must be silenced.’ They hit him just once, and he died immediately. After killing him and leaving me for dead, they closed the gate of the compound and went to bring other people to kill. I heard people crying out in agony, calling for help until one by one they breathed their last breath. I was badly injured and covered in my own blood, blood from my baby and blood from other people. I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. I took my baby off my back, made a small bed with the clothing I was carrying him in, and put him to lie near his father. I covered him and felt he was safe with his father. It was then that I realised I was not dead. I was the only person in the compound still moving; everyone else was silent because they had died.

I left the compound without knowing whether I should go home or elsewhere. People saw me and it was a miracle that no one shouted at me. I was covered with blood and my brain had come out of my skull. I was numb and had not begun to feel pain. Then I saw a lady staring at me and asked her if she could take me to her house. She was my neighbour and a wife of one of the men who had tried to kill me in the compound. She shouted to her husband to come and finish me off. The husband came and said, ‘If it is this one, I know that she is going to die very soon; I will not waste my energy on her.’ He left me.

Hidden

I continued walking aimlessly, and saw a boy and asked him to hide me at his house. He told me he couldn’t let me in through the back compound because the killers were at his gate. He eventually agreed to let me in to his compound, saying that he was going to check the situation and would come back for me in the evening. There were many people hidden there and when they saw me, they were afraid. I too was shocked to see them and I fainted. When his father came, he found me in the compound and, thinking I was dead, they put me in a small house where they kept turkeys. The other people who were hiding there were afraid and went to find somewhere else to hide.

I heard people come to the turkey house debating whether I was dead, but I couldn’t move, let alone speak. They forced tea down my throat to see whether I was dead or not, and I swallowed a little. They kept giving me tea and on the following day I regained full consciousness. Then they told me that they were planning to go, and so had to find another place for me. I was too weak to go anywhere.

Their grandmother had a house nearby behind their compound, and the next evening they broke down the fence that separated the houses and took me to her. She was poor and there was no light in her house. When the grandmother saw me, she was afraid because she said I looked like an animal. I told her I had been asked to come to her and hide because I was too weak to go anywhere. She took pieces of wood and made a fire. Then she cleaned me, put some of her clothes on me, and dressed the wound on my head where my brain was exposed with a piece of cloth. When she gave me food, I could not lift my arm to eat. She saw milk coming out of my breast and asked me if I was pregnant or had a baby. I said, ‘I have left my baby with his father where they were killed.’ She was very sad.

Refuge

In the morning, she washed my clothes, which were covered with blood, and tried to take me to the dispensary. There were roadblocks everywhere and Tutsis were being killed everywhere. People were crying in pain while others were singing and dancing every time a Tutsi fell and died.

The old lady waited until evening and asked a soldier who was their neighbour to take me to the dispensary. He came with his car and took me in with the old lady and two of her grandsons. The old woman put clothes over my stomach and pretended I was pregnant and in labour. When we reached the roadblocks, the soldier said he was taking his pregnant wife who was about to give birth. We arrived at the dispensary and they covered my wounds. I was admitted to the dispensary and my rescuers left me there, promising to come back to visit me.

Many people had taken refuge at the dispensary. Then the Interahamwe came to kill people there. All the people left, including those who were in-patients. I immediately felt as though I had died again: I cannot say that I was sleeping; it was as if I was dead. After some days (I don’t know how long I lay in the valley of death), one of the dispensary workers came to me and recognised me. He went and informed my husband’s relatives. They didn’t come to my rescue, nor did the dispensary worker.

I stayed at the hospital and lost count of the days. My body, which had wounds and injuries everywhere, began to rot, and there were maggots on my head, my face and other places where I had been injured. I was covered in maggots and I smelt badly. It was at that time that I learned the difference between body and spirit. The body was completely dead but my spirit was still alive inside that rotten body.

Then I began to reflect, ‘I thought I was still alive but I realise I am dead. Is this how all the dead people are? Do they see their bodies?’ A miracle had happened to me because I had not eaten for days; I learnt that one can live without eating. I prayed to God to lift my spirit out of my maggot-ridden body. I don’t know how, but most of the maggots disappeared, except in my head and on my right hip where the wounds were excessively deep and open. Other dispensary workers came to watch me die, refusing to treat me. They could see my eyes were open, looking at them.

Paralysed

Maggots surrounded me where I was lying: they had made a trail from my body to the ground outside. The dispensary workers put on rubber boots and gloves and pulled me out. They did not lift me up but instead dragged me on the ground like a dead animal. They put me outside and cleaned the room. While I was outside, it rained and it was good for me because I found water to drink, although it was painful because I could not move my arms and was drinking like an animal.

When they had finished cleaning the room, they pulled me back in again, but after some time the maggots came back. The workers cleaned the room again and this time shaved my hair with a brand new razor blade. They discovered that my head was full of wounds, which they disinfected, and they tried to give me porridge, saying, ‘Tutsis are special. They die and come back again to life. But let us see what will happen to this person.’ After I was treated I tried to sit, but my right side was completely paralysed. It was as if I had no right arm, no right leg and no right side. People, especially children, would come to see me through the glass in the door. They had never seen anything that looked like me locked up in a room.

I was very thirsty and whenever I heard somebody passing I shouted for someone to bring me water, but this cry was in vain as no one did. Then I heard the sound of many boots, so I shouted loudly, ‘You people!’ One worker came and told me to be quiet because it was soldiers looking for Tutsis to kill and they would shoot me. But I kept shouting and some soldiers came and saw me, a dead body who could not even move. ‘How are you?’ They asked me. ‘I have been locked up in this room and some people won’t let me out,’ I said. They ordered the workers to open the room.

Pity

When the soldiers saw me they had pity. But the workers thought that the soldiers were going to kill me. ‘When did this lady come here?’ asked the soldiers. ‘On April 8,’ replied the worker. ‘What does she eat?’ they asked. I shouted that they had refused to give me water and tried to crawl to them, begging them to kill me. I tried to go out but the soldiers pushed me back into the room and angrily ordered the workers to find me some food. They said that if I died they would be in trouble.

The worker brought water in a small five-litre jerry can and I drank it as if I had stolen it, fearing that they would stop me drinking. They gave me food once a day but because my arms were not functioning I could only eat with my mouth like an animal. After nearly two weeks I was able to sit despite my injuries, and the workers said this meant that I would not die. They stopped giving me food and water. As I could not walk, I crawled slowly on the ground like a reptile and arrived at the road. I continued and came to a place where aubergines were planted. When I saw children passing, I asked them to give me some aubergines to eat. I continued crawling and when I arrived at the main road, people came to see me because I was something interesting to watch. Even the Interahamwe came to look at me, but no one could kill me because no one kills a dead person.

Then a soldier came, and when he saw me he said, ‘This thing is making our town dirty. Let me kill and remove this dirt.’ He took his gun and loaded it, but then immediately his colleague came running, took his arm and said, ‘Can’t you find people to kill? Is this someone to kill? Do you want to put this one on the list of those you killed?’ He left me. After that, it rained heavily and the people left me alone in the rain. When the rain stopped they returned and took me back to the dispensary. It was difficult to carry me. When the workers saw me, they insulted me because they hadn’t given me the authorisation to discharge myself from the dispensary. They tried forcing me back into my old room, but I didn’t want to go in. I wanted them to kill me and end my misery, but they couldn’t.

Recognised

I crawled back to the main road, hoping to meet angry Interahamwe who would kill me. Some ladies saw me and had pity on me and told me where I was. I saw many Red Cross cars passing, and hoped one might stop and take pity on me, but none took me. Some even stopped, came to look at me and almost vomited. From morning to evening I waited by the road, cars passing and leaving me there.

Then late in the evening some policemen passed and one hit me with his gun. I looked at him and recognised him because he used to come to my house. When he hit me for the second time, I asked him why he was beating me if he knew my father, Bakundukize Jacques. He became afraid and they left me. I decided to cross the road where there was a house and a lady who recognised me from sitting by the road. She had pity on me and gave me a sweet potato. Then she took me into her kitchen and made a fire for me. I slept by the ashes and had a nice sleep.

Her husband came early in the morning and told me to go back to the road because he didn’t want anyone to see me in the house. I escaped yet again through their back door onto a stony road, with stones entering my wounds all along the way. When I reached the road, my body was covered in blood. People saw me and recognised me from the dispensary. They wondered how I had managed to get there. A man came with his wife, cleaned my wounds and took me to a valley nearby and left me out in the sun. I was like an exhibition and people exclaimed, ‘That woman who was at the dispensary is now in the valley!’ People came to see me.

Spared

Later on, the militia came and the good man told them to spare me. In the evening a little girl came and told me her mother said that if I went to their house they would give me food. They lived up the hill, but I could not climb it as I could not walk and all my whole body was covered with wounds. I tried to crawl up but it was impossible. I asked people passing by to take me up, explaining that someone there had said she would give me food, but they refused. A soldier who had a Bible in his hand passed and I asked him to carry me, but he said he couldn’t because other soldiers would kill him if they saw him doing it. But he did give me 200 Francs to give to the children to go and buy me a drink.

He left me, and other soldiers asked me what we were talking about. I was surprised when they all came and helped him carry me. They were frightened to be seen so they left me near the house. I called the woman’s children and told them to tell their mother that I had made it to the house.

The children told their mother that I was there and she sent her daughters to bring me in. The mother prepared warm water and they washed me and took all the maggots away. She gave me clothes and brought a mattress into a room in a small house behind hers that also had a kitchen. They began to take care of me. They brought me food and after eating I slept.

Rescue

It was a very hard time when the remaining Tutsis were aggressively hunted down. The woman’s husband was a Hutu but she was a Tutsi and could not go out. The militia came every day to see whether Tutsis were hidden in houses, but they did not come to the small house where I was for some time. Then one day they came. I saw them opening the door and entering my room. They looked everywhere but didn’t say anything; I do not know whether they saw me or not.

The lady hadn’t told her husband that I was there, but she thought that now she should. Her husband took pity on me but was afraid that the militia would come and kill them. He told his wife that she had to take me to another place. She came and told me that she was going to move me but that she would continue to take care of me. She took me to a neighbouring house where the owners had fled. She continued to feed me and to do everything she used to do for me. After some time, I was better and even could get to the toilet outside on my own.

The RPF had come but we did not know. Then one day, there was an indescribable noise of guns. The following day, I waited for people to bring me food but nobody came. After a long time a child came and told me that her mother said to come. She ran off and when I went outside I could not see her. I went to the family’s house but it was closed and even the curtains were drawn. Nobody was there, not even a bird. I saw many bullets. Then I prayed and asked God where I should go, and at that moment I saw an RPF soldier. He called me and told me to join a group of people down the hill where I would get treatment.

Miraculously, among the soldiers who were supposed to treat me there was one I had previously seen at Kibogora when I was doing a survey for a Rwandan private company. I recognised him and he recognised me. He gave me powders to make drinks, and they gave me food.

Treatment

After a short time, I became very sick and was taken to Kigali Central Hospital, vomiting and suffering terribly. They took me to intensive care and I nearly died again. I was in intensive care for one or two weeks in a coma. They were expecting to see me die, but I didn’t. They decided to take me to another room where I stayed for months in a coma. No one can count the number of serums that were injected in me. Sometimes, the nurses covered me, believing that I was dead, and then realised that I wasn’t. I remained like that for months and months: not alive but not completely dead. Many doctors came and confirmed that my head could not heal in Rwanda, as my brain had come out many times. This is what people told me when I recovered.

After a long period, I began to see people but I could not recognise them or make out people from objects. I could not speak but I could hear, even though I could not understand what I was hearing. Slowly I began to communicate with people using gestures. After some time, someone asked a doctor who I was and he said that I was Godriva. I used gestures to ask the meaning of Godriva and the doctor told me that it was my name; I was amazed to learn that I had one. He began to teach me to say my name. I had forgotten how to read and write. I could not recognise people, not even my mother and my friends. Today I do not know how to read and write, but I can read and write Godriva. I plan to learn again to read and to write, and I think that I will make it.

Today, I am still suffering because the treatment I have received hasn’t healed me completely. The doctors recommended treatment abroad, but the Government Fund for Rwanda failed to send me abroad because it is expensive. I pray for proper treatment. Maybe one day someone will help me.

The Survivors Fund

The Survivors Fund (SURF) exists to rebuild a sense of self and trust in humanity among the survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Since 1997, it has helped survivors deal with and recover from their experiences, supporting a wide range of services for victims in Rwanda, and assisting survivors in the UK. SURF works in partnership with AVEGA, a widow’s association supporting 25,000 women, and through Uyisenga N’Manzi, which helps 10,000 orphan heads of households.

Contact: Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, Director, SURF, 10 Rickett Street, West Brompton, London, SW6 1RU, UK. Tel: +44 (0)207 610 2589; fax: +44 (0)207 610 3851; email: surf@dircon.co.uk; web: www.survivors-fund.org.uk.

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