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A journey: Two Moritz LL.M. students and native Rwandans survived the unthinkable

April 5, 2010 | Students

When Edouard Kayihura was 8 years old, he spent three weeks hiding under bushes and living in mountains with no supplies and in fear for his life. His village in the mountains of Rwanda was under attack and his family was being hunted down because of their ethnic background. His house was burned to the ground while he hid. Perhaps this experience was foreshadowed what would happen later in Kayihura’s life. Flash forward 21 years, and Kayihura found himself held up at the Hotel des Mille Collines (made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda) as more than 800,000 of his countrymen were slaughtered in the Rwanda Genocide.

Charles Rutonesha has a different, but arguably no less tragic, story to tell about his life and family in Rwanda.

Today both Edouard and Charles attend The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and are working toward LL.M. degrees.  The journey from the hillsides and cities of Rwanda to the halls and classrooms of Moritz was long and filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

A History Lesson

Rwanda is a country about the size of Maryland located in the lakes region of east-central Africa. Three main ethnic groups have shared the region for thousands of years: the Twa, native hunters and gathers; the Hutus, traditional crop-raising farmers; and the Tutsi, who traditionally raised cattle. The area shared a language and a justice system. When Germany colonized the area in the 1890s, it recognized a Tutsi king as the leader. After World War I, the League of Nations awarded Rwanda to Belgium, which sought to administer the land as a colony. Belgian officials actively promoted the Tutsi upperclass and made several administrative decisions to disempower the Hutu and Tutsi commoners.  Starting in 1933, all Rwandans were required to carry identification cards that stated their ethnicity as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church stressed the differences between Hutu and Tutsi and created separate education systems for both. While the government and church placed emphasis on the differences between Hutu and Tutsi, there is great debate as to whether these classifications were accurate. Some documents show the Belgians labeling anyone owning more than 10 cattle a Tutsi and everyone else a Hutu, and other documentation shows that anyone that was taller, lighter skinned, and with a smaller nose (considered “more desirable” by the Belgians) was labeled a Tutsi and everyone else a Hutu. There is also an issue of “mixed’ marriages and relationships with the final determinant of ethnicity being the father’s label. Recent DNA analysis shows little if no difference between Hutu and Tutsi.

Throughout the Belgians’ rule, they promoted the Tutsi upperclass, allowing them to serve as tax collectors and government representatives and in judicial posts. But, as the move for independence swept into central Africa, the Belgians switched course and supported democratic elections, which greatly favored the Hutu majority. After independence in 1960, the new Hutu ruling class led multiple uprisings against the Tutsi, driving many to flee the country. In 1973, when Edouard spent three weeks hiding in the mountains, a Hutu led military coup was occurring and thousands of Tutsi were murdered.

Growing Up In Rwanda

Both Edouard and Charles were born in Rwanda after the Hutu took power. Both Tutsi, they went to primary school side-by-side with Hutu children and counted many as their friends. While occasionally asked by administrators and others of their status as Hutu or Tutsi, on the playground or in their neighborhoods, it mattered little. Edouard grew up in a village in the mountains of Rwanda as one of seven children.  Charles’ father worked for the government and he moved around quite frequently as a child. During the uprising in 1973, friends came to warn Charles’ family of the trouble and his family hid in a church.  After primary school, however, a quota system ruled over how many Tutsi children were allowed to obtain a high school education. Unfortunately, neither Edouard nor Charles qualified for high school under the quota system.  It seemed like their educations had come to an end after sixth grade.  Edouard, however, had good grades and qualified for seminary school. By training as a priest in the Catholic seminary, he would receive a high school education. Charles’ father saw a special talent in his son and worked with an aunt who lived near the border with Congo to find people that would help him secure a spot in a school in the Congo. At a time when few Tutsi children were receiving an education, both took full advantage of their opportunity and went on to universities to be trained as lawyers.

Upon graduating, Edouard lived in the capital city of Kigali where he worked as a prosecutor. His parents and siblings remained in the countryside. Charles returned to Rwanda and sought out work as a lawyer. Unfortunately, the quota system discriminated against Charles once again and he was unable to find work.

“My dad was somebody who could foresee situations and he was terrified to see us go through discrimination,” Charles said. “My dad used to say, and I will tell my children the same, that ‘some people have invested their fortunes and savings into materials like property or land, but for me, those mean nothing. All of my savings, all my money, I have invested in you.’ Everybody went to school in my family and at that time in Rwanda that was a big accomplishment. He did not want us to come back to Rwanda. He said we had the tools and the knowledge to find greener pastures. But my mother wanted us home. After I graduated law school, my dad was ill and there was no question that I would come home. That is what you do in Africa, that is tradition. Kids have to help with the family.”

Charles was finally hired by the Minister of Labor in Kigali to work as a lawyer. During that time, tensions once again began to rise between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. Many Tutsi refugees who had fled the country to Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to return. The Hutu were set on keeping them out and took to the airwaves and media to spread propaganda regarding an impending invasion and overthrow by the Tutsi refugees.

Charles spent five years working for the government, but his boyhood dreams of America stayed with him.

“When I was in high school, I used to read books, magazines and anything I could find pertaining to America,” Charles said. “My friends were dreaming of going to Belgium or France, but I was not impressed. I was reading a lot about the U.S. military and my dream was to come to America and be in the Navy or Air Force.”

Charles applied to Ohio State to attend the American Language program.  He was accepted and received his Visa to attend.   As he planned his trip, tensions continued to rise.

“In the early 1990s, the extremists started to recruit the youth and arm the Hutus,” Edouard said. “The extremists did not want the president to sign any power sharing agreements. In the middle of the night, grenades would go off in the city, or buses and taxis would explode. They were like terrorists. They went house to house identifying Tutsi and knew where every Tutsi was living.”

On Oct. 23, 1990, Charles was arrested in Kigali and thrown in jail for “treason and trying to overthrow the government.” He sat in jail with approximately 3,000 other Tutsi. He was never charged, never shown any evidence against him, and was never brought before a judge. The Tutsi prisoners were kept in horrific conditions, with hundreds of men living in a room no bigger than the average American living room and little to eat or drink.  Charles remained in jail for six months. At the time, the U.N. was attempting to develop a power sharing agreement between the Hutu and Tutsi and on April 8, 1991, Charles was released as part of the peace agreement. Terrified and shrunk to half his normal body weight, he fled to Kenya where a sister was living. In September 1991, Charles renewed his dream of going to school in the United States and flew into New York, headed for Columbus.

“I have never seen people with such big hearts as the American people,” Charles said. “One of my professors at Ohio State was concerned about me and talked to a pastor at a church. They helped me out and found me a place to live with a family. They went the extra mile to help adjust and overcome the language barrier.”

Charles was granted asylum and his fiance, a lawyer, also moved to the United States. He got a job and moved out on his own.

April 1994

On April 6, 1994, Edouard went to his job as a prosecutor in Kigali. President Juvenal Habyarimana was in Tanzania working on a shared power agreement to end the uprisings and tension.  Edouard finished work and went to a café to watch a soccer game. During the game, the plane carrying President Habyarimana and the president of Uganda was shot down and both men died. When Edouard ventured out of the bar after the game, it was into another world.

“There were road blocks everywhere and Hutu were going house to house killing Tutsi. They were killing everyone – women, older people, children,” Edouard said. “If you looked Tutsi, they killed you, even if you were Hutu.”

Edouard made his way home to his neighborhood, which was mixed Hutu and Tutsi. Over the radio waves, chants called for Hutu to rise up and kill all “the cockroaches.” At his home, Edouard frantically flushed newspapers and items that would make him appear moderate.  His house had been searched before. He lay awake listening to the terrifying sounds of gunshots and the screams of those killed by machete.  In the early morning hours, one of his neighbors drove down the street with a megaphone encouraging the Hutu to come out of their houses and kill their Tutsi neighbors. After hearing this, Edouard knew it was only a matter of minutes or hours before they came after him. He made the decision to leave and head to the house of his trustworthy Hutu friend Pasquelle, about a mile away. Right after he left, a grenade was thrown into his house, destroying everything he owned. The Hutu paged through the wreckage looking for his body and looting his belongings.

During the treacherous walk, Edouard could hear families being murdered in the streets. His salvation in his Hutu friend’s house was short-lived. Many knew of their friendship and in not finding his body in the carnage of his house, guessed where he might be hiding.  “Friends” came to the house carrying miscellaneous items of Edouard and asking Pasquelle to pass them along if he saw him.  The Hutu searched Pasquelle’s house and Edouard hid in a space in the wall behind a cabinet. In the next search, an abandon-looking building on the property that was used by Pasquelle’s elderly mother served as a hiding place. Edouard spent the night sleeping in a tree because there were concerns the searchers would spring a surprise night visit. After three days and three searches, Edouard and Pasquelle were certain the searchers would soon kill Pasquelle, his wife, child and mother out of frustration for not finding Edouard. Pasquelle wanted to move Edouard to another Hutu friend’s house, but after a night-time venture to make the exchange, Edouard sensed trouble and feared the man would be his killer. After retreating to Pasquelle’s house, the next day the searchers returned while Edouard was in the shower and hope appeared to be extinguished. However, a last minute monetary exchange by Pasquelle to the head of the search group kept the searchers from the bathroom.

“I knew I had to leave, but it was like committing suicide,” Edouard said. “But, I didn’t know where to go. I thought I might try to make my way to the south of the country.”

On the radio, Edouard heard Tutsi and others, including foreigners, were held up at the Hotel des Mille Collines.  Edouard decided that if he could make it to the hotel, he at least would die with others. Pasquelle agreed to accompany him, but the two men would have to pass through at least three road blocks to get to the hotel. Edouard burned his identification card and decided going with the I-lost-my-ID excuse was better strategy. A friend in authority gave him a letter vouching for the lost id and that paired with traveling with Pasquelle and his Hutu identification was the hope for getting them through.

At the first road block the pair encountered, the “lost id” excuse did not go over well and within a minute Edouard found himself pinned to the ground with a gun to his head. But last minute pleading and convincing by the pair led to their eventual release. The second road block was a repeat performance, but somehow the pair managed to get through. At the final road block, the pair argued they were trying to get to the hotel parking lot to retrieve a car that was parked there before the fighting broke out. With every telling of the tale, the duo may have gotten better, but in this case a new problem arose: the police officer knew Edouard and knew he was lying. It is hard to say why the officer relented and let Edouard enter the hotel while Pasquelle turned and headed home.  When he did enter the hotel, Edouard saw another familiar face, a friend that would allow him to share his third floor room for the next several weeks.

In the movie Hotel Rwanda, the hotel manager is portrayed as a hero who saved the lives of the 1200 Tutsi and Hutu moderates held up in the hotel. Unfortunately, Edouard has a different version of what happened.  Paul Rusesabagina was originally the manager of the Hotel des Diplomates, not the Hotel des Mille Collines. The Hotel des Diplomates was the headquarter hotel for the Hutu extremists. When the extremist vacated the Hotel des Diplomates on April 11, the same day Edouard arrived at the Hotel des Mille Collines, Rusesabagina was out of a job and had heard on the radio that the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines was evacuated with the last of the ex-patriots out of the Hotel des Mille Collines. After the killing began on April 6, the original manager had allowed Tutsi to seek refuge in the hotel and allowed them to stay, eat and drink for free. When Rusesabagina arrived, April 11, according to Edouard, everything changed.  He cut the phone lines and charged outrageous prices for the food. When the Red Cross delivered beans and supplies to the hotel, Rusesabagina confiscated them and closed the kitchens so that he could sell the supplies to the guests.  He used the money to buy alcohol, which he sold to the Hutu extremists sitting guard outside the building.  The extremists cut the water lines to the hotel, forcing guests to ration water from the pool. Sometimes Hutu in the hotel would venture out to find food and would bring back small bits for others in the hotel.  For Edouard, he had no choice but to stay in the hotel with little food or water wondering if today was the day he would die. The hotel was bombed three separate times, but no mass casualties resulted. By the end of May, the Tutsi resistance had come into Rwanda from Uganda and was making progress. What saved the Tutsi in the hotel was the fact Hutu refugees were being held across town in a hospital controlled by the Tutsi and the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders were attempting an exchange.

After six weeks, the U.N. brought three trucks to the hotel and three trucks to where the Hutu refugees were and set up an exchange.

“It was like an exchange of prisoners,” Edouard said. “The same number of people got into the trucks on both sides.  Our truck was escorted by the U.N. and Hutu extremists and the other trucks were escorted by the U.N. and the Tutsi resistance. Once we got the meeting place, the U.N. was the only one allowed in the “middle.” When we crossed that middle, we knew we were finally safe.”

Somehow there among the refugees on the Tutsi side of the fighting was Edouard’s girlfriend.  Pasquelle also made it through the genocide, but was killed by a grenade in 1996. Edouard’s family did not fare well.  All were killed except for a sister-in-law.

“I went back to the village, but only one person from the village survived,” Edouard said. “I have no way of knowing what happened to my family – when they were killed, by whom, how or where their bodies are buried. There were just bones everywhere and you had no idea what belonged to your family.”

Helpless in Columbus

By April 1994, Charles had begun his life in the United States. He was married, his daughter was born in February 1994, and he was working for a catering company near the Columbus airport. But, on April 6, he found himself trapped in Columbus, watching from the outside as his country and family lay in ruins.

“We knew our families would not survive,” Charles said. “They were well-known and would be targeted.  Also, having family abroad would certainly not help. It was a very well-planned attack.”

Indeed, Charles’ in-laws were killed during the first night of the genocide.  All of Charles’ family who were living in Rwanda at the time were also killed, including his father.  A pregnant sister-in-law was left for dead, but survived and delivered his deceased brother’s child six months after the genocide. While news reports tend to report that the genocide lasted for 100 days, according to Charles, most people were killed in the first two weeks.

“We were overwhelmed sitting here,” Charles said. “To know your family is being massacred and not being able to do anything was torture. My wife and I even contemplated killing ourselves because life did just not make sense. In African culture, we are so connected to family. If you lose your family, there is just no sense. We lost our family, our friends, our neighbors, everyone. But we had a 3-month-old daughter and she helped us stick together and gave us a sense of purpose.”

Continuing On

By August 1994, the Tutsi resistance had defeated the Hutu and aid began to flow to the country. The government of Rwanda was open for business and Edouard returned to his job as a prosecutor. His job now focused almost exclusively on prosecuting the perpetrators of the genocide.

“The Justice Department started arresting people, but we had nothing. Everything had been destroyed. I did not even have a pad of paper to write on,” Edouard said. “They were arresting people with no files. It was very complicated.”

Over the following years, more than a million people were arrested.  Most sat in jail while the prosecutors worked to try and develop a case.

“Many of these were mob killings and we were working on finding the leaders,” Edouard said. “Many Hutu were willing to testify against the leaders. But, the cases involving regular citizens who just took up arms were very challenging. So few people survived that we had no witnesses.”

By 1996, the justice system began to work and the first trials were beginning. Edouard successfully prosecuted the vice president of the Hutu extremist party. But, the courts were still overwhelmed. The government developed a system which allowed those charged to plead to lesser chargers in an effort to expedite the process. Still overwhelmed, the government began instituting community courts, which had been the norm prior to the colonial period.

“By 2000, it was very hard for me to balance the rights of those accused and the rights of the victims, and I decided to leave,” Edouard said. “The victims were claiming they did not have justice for what was done to them and their families. The millions in jail were claiming they did not have justice – ‘we are innocent, there are not files against us.’”

Edouard came to the United States in July 2000, following a friend and his now-wife. He took English classes and worked at The Gap Distribution Center outside of Columbus. His renewed interest in law led him to Moritz and he hopes to pass the bar and practice immigration law in the future.

Living in America

For Charles, the road to healing was a long one.  He and his remaining siblings were able to locate the remains of their family and traveled to Rwanda in 2001 to bury them.  Until that time, he continued to work to make ends meet and attended school. He considered attending law school and earning an American J.D. or LL.M. in the mid-1990s, but at the time, war had spread to the Congo and he was unable to locate and secure his university transcripts.  So, instead he graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1997.  In 1998, he graduated from Franklin University with a master’s degree in business.  He and his wife opened up their own legal consulting firm focusing on international environmental issues.  His work takes him around the world.

“The first time it strikes you and you feel and realize that you are free is amazing,” Charles said. “Whatever I am doing, no one is watching, nobody cares. America is a second chance at life. There is no limit on what you can achieve. As long as you have drive, resolve, and patience you can do anything. You are not afraid to fail in America because even if you fail, there will be other chances. You are no longer narrow-minded in America. Your spirit is open, you are always optimistic, society is fresh and vibrant. This is something you do not find anywhere else.”

He and his remaining siblings, who are scattered across the globe, communicate by phone and e-mail often and try to get to together once a year.

“Wherever my parents are, they are very proud,” Charles said. “First of all, I achieved my dream. Second, my siblings and I have overcome this horrible situation. We have kept our dreams alive. I think my dad would be proud because we have achieved what he stood for and our children will not have to go through what our parents went through.”