Growing Up In Rwanda – Denise’s Story
My name is Denise Mwenedata and I was born in Rwanda in 1985. I am the fourth child of eight so our home was always full of people. I loved playing with my siblings. My parents were both teachers, and my dad became a headmaster when I was young. They encouraged my siblings and I to study hard. I always thought that I would be doctor when I grew up, but in April 1994 everything in my life changed forever.
Our family had heard rumours of conflict and unrest between the Hutu (the major ethnic group in Rwanda 85% of the population) and the Tutsi minority (15% of population). There were reports of mass killings in Kigali the capital, but we lived three hours away from there and we didn’t really believe that it would spread through the country. I was only eight years old however, so I didn’t know too much about what was really going on.
One day in April 1994 a friend of my father’s came to him very distressed. He was a Hutu and our family were Tutsi. My father’s friend had seen a list of all the people in our town that the Hutu extremists were planning to kill. My fathers name and our family were number one on the list.
Immediately my mother and father arranged for my siblings and I to leave our town and go into hiding. My mother and three youngest siblings, including my eight-month-old baby brother, went to stay with a Roman Catholic family that had been promised protection from the massacre. My three older siblings were sent to live with a Hutu friend of my mother and my six-year-old brother and I went into hiding at the home of a Hutu lady who had helped my mother with housecleaning and cooking. My father decided to stay at our house. I never saw him again.
I spent the next year and a half living in fear. My younger brother was so distressed about being separated from our mother that he wouldn’t stop crying. After a few days the lady we were living with took him to where my mother was hiding. That was the last time I ever saw him.
The family that I was staying with were Hutu. The wife had worked for my family for many years and her husband and three sons were subsistence farmers. The father and two oldest boys hated me. Every day for three months, they would leave the house during the day and join the others who were killing the Tutsi families in our community. Using machetes, knives and guns they murdered our neighbours, friends and family. Anyone who was a Tutsi was a target. Some days the oldest son would tell me to leave or he would kill me. He terrified me. I would run and hide in the bush until it was safe to come back into the house. I am still not sure why this family protected me but killed so many others.
After three months of chaos and death the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) gained control of the country. More than 800 000 Tutsi were dead, including, as far as I knew, my entire family. At just over eight years of age, I believed that I was the only living member of my family left in Rwanda.
With the RPF now in charge the Hutu family that had sheltered me fled the country to a refugee camp in the Congo (Zaire). I had no option but to go with them. We joined close to 2 million Hutu who left Rwanda, fearing that they would be killed or imprisoned for their role in the genocide. The camp was awful. People were still being killed. As a Tutsi I was still a target. I barely slept and lived in a constant state of fear. After six agonising months the wife took her youngest son and me back to a camp in east Rwanda. Her husband and other sons remained in the Congo.
While we were living in the Rwandan camp I heard the incredible news that my mother was alive. She had been searching for me for months. A few weeks later she arrived at the camp to take me. I didn’t recognise her. It was almost one and a half years since I had seen her and she was very thin and unwell. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy to see her. My father had a brother who had been studying in Burundi during the time of the genocide. He returned to Rwanda and set up a home for my mother and my brother and I. Over time we discovered that one of my aunts was still alive as well as a number of younger cousins. My older brother who was 10 at the time of the genocide had run away from the place where he was hiding with my sisters. They were killed and he survived. Over time we were all reunited and lived together with my uncle. Three adults and eight children, we were all that remained from both sides of my family for three generations.
Eventually we went back to our hometown to locate the bodies of our family members so that they could be properly buried. There were more than a hundred bodies found on our street, in toilets and bushes. My sisters, brothers, aunty, grandma, cousins and some friends were all there. It was so traumatic and painful to find just the bones or bodies with body parts missing. I will never forget what I saw there. We never found my father, or either grandfathers or some of my other aunties, uncles and cousins. It is difficult to accept that we may never know exactly how they were killed or where their bodies were left.
My mother went back to teaching and I returned to school. We had a routine in our life but it was still very difficult. No one talked about what had happened. When I was 16 years old my mother took my brothers and I to a Day of Remembrance event. They were showing a film about the genocide. My mother was one of the people interviewed in the film. That was the first time I heard the full story about what happened to her and my other siblings in the genocide.
We all got on with our lives but there was anger and sadness deep inside of me. I was disruptive, rude and sometimes violent at school. There were Hutu children in my class and I was deliberately offensive to them. There were so many emotions swirling around on the inside of me. I spent the final years of my high school education at boarding school. Because of what had happened with the Catholic Church during the genocide none of us had any interest at all in going to church and were very suspicious of any church activities.
One Sunday afternoon a friend from school and fellow survivor invited me to attend a concert. It was Christian concert with a speaker. The speaker told us about his life, how he used to be angry and rebellious but then how things had changed when he became a Christian. He said that he now had peace in his life. What I wanted more than anything else was peace. When he asked us if we would like to come to know Jesus I said yes. I had tears in my eyes and didn’t really know why. When I opened my eyes I saw that three of my closest friends and fellow survivors had said yes too.
From that time I started attending church and Bible study. I wanted to know more and more about God. The more I knew about God, the greater the peace that entered my life. The next four years were spent studying at university and working. I received a Bachelor’s degree of Business and worked in a variety of administration jobs. While I was at university I became friends with another student who was a Hutu. The more I got to know her the less concerned I was about her background and ethnicity. My mother had always warned us to only be friends with people who ‘had the same story as us’ in other words, fellow survivors. This friendship with ‘our enemy’ opened my eyes and helped me on the path to forgiveness and healing.
In 2012 I was given the opportunity to study counselling in the U.K. It was an amazing experience. As I studied Christian counselling I was also forced to confront and process the grief and trauma of my own past. It was very difficult but also incredibly freeing. The forgiveness and release that I experienced was so great. During the summer break from my studies I returned to Rwanda to see my family. It was here that a simple dinner with friends changed my life again.
A friend of my mother, Elsie, invited me to have dinner at her home. She was hosting a group of Australians who were in Kigali doing some community development work. Elsie had seated me next to one of the Australians; a young man named Boyd. She also informed me that that she had arranged for me to teach him and a few others some introductory Rwandan to help them in their work. Elsie was not someone that you said no to and so the next day I found myself tutoring a group of Australians in the basics of our language.
Looking back now I see that Elsie had more than language lessons on her mind when she introduced me to Boyd. She was playing matchmaker and she was good at it! Over the next few weeks as Boyd and I spent more time together we both realised that our relationship was becoming more serious. The dilemma we faced was that I was returning to the U.K and he was going home to Australia.
A long distance romance began. Over the next year we spent countless hours on Skype, and phone calls. Our relationship blossomed and during a visit to the U.K Boyd proposed. We were married in Rwanda in February 2015 and in March I moved to Australia to start a new life with my husband. There is no way as an eight-year-old girl in Rwanda that I could ever have imagined the devastating challenges and amazing blessings that were ahead of me. What I do know is that without God I would not be the woman I am or have the life I have. I am blessed and I am grateful.