'I didn't want to make it easy for them to divide us'

March 26, 2004

Ten years after the savage genocide in Rwanda, Fran Abrams meets a woman who risked her life by standing up for her classmates. Despite losing a leg, she never gave up on her dream of finishing her schooling and is now leaving for university

It has been raining overnight and the mountainous path that links Theodette Abayisenga's family home to the nearest dirt road has turned treacherous with thick red Rwandan mud.

As Theodette wipes her shoes clean, she confesses that she doesn't often make the journey in the rainy season. Since her right leg was amputated seven years ago, such exercise tends to give her phantom pains in the toes she no longer has. But today is special, and her mother, her five brothers and sisters and a crowd of 30 or 40 villagers have gathered to mark the occasion. Theodette is leaving for university.

In this desperately poor part of Kibuye province, few families can afford even to put a child through secondary school, so this is a major event. But Theodette's departure for the National University of Rwanda at Butare has a deeper significance.

Ten years after the genocide that tore Rwanda apart in April 1994, the 26-year-old is being held up as a symbol of a new spirit of ethnic unity in her country. And her story has inspired Clare Short, Britain's former international development secretary, to fund a scholarship so that Theodette and others like her can benefit from higher education.

It was on the evening of March 18 1997, three years after about 800,000 members of Rwanda's Tutsi minority were killed by the majority Hutu ethnic group, that armed Hutu rebels burst into Theodette's classroom at Nyange school near her home. They had returned from the Congo, where they had been driven after the genocide, to renew their murderous campaign against the Tutsis.

Theodette, along with most of the 30 pupils there that night, could have saved herself by declaring her Hutu origins, but she chose not to do so.

Six pupils were killed and Theodette lost her leg. When news broke of the attack on this poor hilltop school, the entire country was moved and the pupils were declared national heroes. But Theodette's account is matter of fact. As she describes what happened, her voice is lilting but calm, and her slender expressive hands flutter around her face.

"One of the men had a gun and a chain of bullets around his neck, another was wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a machete. They asked if there were any Hutus who wished to be spared," she explains. "But all the pupils just sat and didn't react.

"I believe that nobody should be killed for their ethnic origin. I didn't want to make it easy for them to divide the Hutus from the Tutsis. If the Hutus stood up, they could identify the Tutsis and kill them quickly. We were all hoping if we delayed, someone would come to save us.

"At first we were afraid, but then we just thought, 'That's it, we're going to die.' The fear disappeared. I was hoping I would be the first to be killed because I didn't want to see all the others die," she says.

Frustrated by the pupils' silence, the militiamen picked out a girl, Seraphina Mukarutwaza, and shot her. Her body fell to the classroom floor, but still no one spoke. One militiaman with a gun tried to fire another shot, but his weapon jammed. Frustrated by this and by the pupils'

recalcitrance, he ordered them outside. Theodette was near the door.

"We ran out, but there were more of them outside. It was a trap. They started throwing grenades at us. I was among the first, and the grenade hit me on both legs," Theodette recalls. "When I regained consciousness three hours later, I couldn't feel my legs."

Sitting now in the headmaster's office at the school, she is reluctant to take credit for the bravery she and her fellow pupils showed. Instead, she talks of how she was inspired by a former teacher, Aloys Muligane, who founded a Peace and Reconciliation Club at the school after the genocide.

Its aim - ambitious in a country where many pupils have seen their families killed by neighbours and former friends because of their ethnic origin - was to teach pupils that to distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi was meaningless. This struck a chord with Theodette, as it did with many others.

"He used to talk about Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He showed us that the ethnic divisions between us weren't real," Theodette explains. "We all have the same blood; if we die, we are all buried in the same way. It made a big difference."

Theodette tells the story of how she lost her leg with neither distress nor anger. But as she describes the times in her life when she thought she had lost the chance of an education, tears well up in her eyes.

There were several such times. When she was still at primary school, she was forced to miss a term of school because her sister was sick and she had to look after her. To pay secondary school fees of about £12 a term, the family had to sell a cow and a piece of forest. When that money ran out, she had to ask the local priest for help. Then the genocide happened, and she missed another year of education before Nyange school reopened.

After the attack, Theodette was unable to walk and suffered unimaginable pain from her amputated right leg and from shrapnel wounds in her left, which took an interminable time to heal.

And even when she began to recover, her family opposed the idea of her returning to school. They wanted to know how, with only one leg, she could work to repay the cost. "I have never told this story without crying," she says, the tears coursing down her face. "I had no hope. I couldn't move around, so I couldn't go to the school to ask for help." As soon as she was able to use crutches, she made her way back to Nyange - a two-hour walk even for the fittest - and persuaded the local authorities to cover her school fees. Her efforts paid off. Last year, she completed her secondary education at the age of 25.

Until last June, when Short visited, it looked as if Theodette's education would end there. She had gained some basic teacher training, which is delivered by secondary schools, and she might have been able to teach in a local primary school. But she told the British former minister, who had just resigned and was in Rwanda filing reports for Radio Four's Today programme, she would really love to go to university.

Short decided to help. "I was told it would cost about £400 to cover the cost of the course and other expenses. I thought: 'Good heavens, I can afford that,'" she says.

Now she puts aside her earnings from talks and lectures and hopes to use them to fund more students from poor backgrounds. She suggests that other people from the UK might do the same, and she has asked a British charity working in Rwanda, Aegis Trust, to administer the scheme.

"She's such a brave young woman, she really deserves it," Short says. "And during the genocide, the educated people, the liberals, were targeted. A lot of the educational base was lost. So this is a practical way of supporting Rwanda and helping to end the divisions of the past."

Indeed, Rwanda's higher education was devastated by the genocide. Many academics were killed, and the country's one university - the National University, which Theodette will attend - was closed. When it reopened in 1995, it had 4,000 students and just 160 staff.

Since then, the country's government has made higher education a priority - Jit receives 20 per cent of the education budget, the same proportion as secondary schools. The country has 12 higher education institutions, including specialist colleges of agriculture and technology, and has attracted academics from all over the world. There are now more than 20,000 students in Rwanda, and 1,350 academics.

But as James Smith, the joint director of Aegis Trust, notes, it is vital for Rwanda to nurture home-grown talent. He believes the scholarship will help to rebuild Rwanda. "It isn't sending people to Uganda or the UK, or anywhere else they might not come back from," he says. "It's a tangible way of making a real difference to individuals while giving them a chance to go back into their own communities and do something for them."

Theodette has come a long way since that night in 1997, yet she still feels there is something else she needs to do to put it behind her. She would like to meet the commander of the rebels who carried out the attack, and who has since confessed to the crime and been reintegrated into the army.

She doesn't have anything to say to him, she says, but she believes he should have something to say to her.

"I would like to meet him face to face," she says. "I would like him to tell me how he feels now, and what future he thinks there is for the victims. If there is really going to be reconciliation, it can only come when people like him talk to people like me."

If you would like to contribute to the Rwanda scholarship fund, contact james.smith@aegistrust.org

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