By Justin N. Kiyimba
April 4, is exactly 20 years, when I became a captive in my own house in Remera, a suburb of Kigali the capital of Rwanda.
It was on April 4, 1994 when the then Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda died in a plane cash. And, it was a Friday - just as it is this year. Most of us had finished the week’s work and like the Americans say, it was a “Thank God It’s Friday!” and waiting for the day the American hate most: “Oh hello, it is Monday”.
From April 4, until the third week of June 1994 - close to three months, I was confined to my house like one who has been sentenced to death and only waiting for his sentence to be carried out. A lot has been said about my ordeal during this period in some two interviews I gave to The New Vision when Rwanda was remembering five and 10 years since the genocide began. During each of those two interviews, I sat with The New Vision Reporter for over two hours. What I said in those two or so hours was a summary of what I went through and what The New Vision published was a summary of what we had discussed.
As Rwanda remembers 20 years since the genesis of that terrible phase its country’s history, I would like to mention one special friend with whom I shared my ordeal, and that is a dog called Tinch. There were three of us in the house at the time: my helper, my dog Tinch and myself. The young man’s name has escaped my memory. I cannot forget the dog because, every other female dog we have received since then, is named after that Tinch! The young man had told me that he was a Hutu and later, he informed me that a group of Nterahamwe who once came to my house with the intention of finishing me off had also wanted to kill him suspecting him to be a Tutsi. Tinch and I were more confined than my helper was because, as the war went on, most of the soldiers who had been placed at the roadblocks at the junctions close to my house were withdrawn and taken to the front line. The young men in the area where I was living, including my helper, were drafted and taken to man those roadblocks. So, sometimes my boy was away during the day and sometimes the whole night while Tinch and I were indoors 24hours a day, seven days a week.
The History of Tinch
Tinch, together with another dog we called Scooby, were given to us as puppies by an American family in Kigali who were introduced to us by an American friend we used to go to Church with. At the time of the war, the two dogs had been with us for about nine years. Every member of the family without exception loved those dogs. Friends as these dogs were, we had trained them never to step in any part of the house. The compound was their domain. They guarded it at night and we would release them to guard it during the day every time we were out. Every time I came home in the evening after they had been released, they would come to the gate on hearing the car, come out of the gate as soon as it was opened, and follow the car as I drove inside.
Scooby goes missing
A few months before the war, I came home after the dogs had been released. Among other places, I had been to the American Centre in Kigali to borrow an ABC News Video cassette. I used to do that every Friday. As soon as the dogs heard the car, they came to the gate. When the gate was opened, both dogs got out as they always did. Unfortunately, when I drove inside, the young man closed the gate without noticing that one of the dogs, Scooby, was still outside! I parked the car in the garage and proceeded to the sitting room to watch my ABC News. Convinced that all was well, the boy also got busy with other things. On realising that he had been locked out, Scooby tried whatever he could to get in including trying to make a hole below the gate without success. In the course of the night, Scooby disappeared. How and to where, only God knows.
When we woke up in the morning, only one dog, Tinch, was in the compound. The boy was convinced both dogs had followed the car as they always did. The question was, where had the dog passed to disappear? It was when we opened the gate and saw the scratches on the ground that we realised Scooby had actually remained behind when his friend followed the car. We went all around the perimeter fence but Scooby was nowhere to be seen. As I left for work, I asked the boy to check in the neighbourhoods. He searched the neighbourhoods and beyond for over a week to no avail. We eventually gave up the search. I rang other members of the family back in Uganda to inform them about Scooby’s disappearance. We all felt sad.
War breaks out
A few months after Scooby’s disappearance, the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi died in a plane crash. Killings began. The three of us - my helper, my dog and I - found ourselves having to share whatever little there was by way of food for close to three months. As stated earlier, both Tinch and Scooby were trained never to step in any part of the house. So, even during these very hard times, Tinch used to stay outside but very close to wherever I was. If I was in the sitting room lying on a mattress as I used to do to avoid bullets which used to come flying around almost all the time, Tinch would be lying down by the front door looking frightened every time she heard a gun-shot. People reading this will consider me really mean. Indeed, I later thought I was mean! If I got up to go anywhere within the house, Tinch would make sure she moves to somewhere near where I was and stand or lie down either by the nearby door or window. She did that day and night. That was Tinch, a very reliable friend.
I visited Kigali some months after the war. When I arrived at what used to be my house, which had been swept clean and taken over by what are known as the returnees, Tinch was in the compound and was the first to welcome me! The returnees who had taken over the house were left in no doubt that indeed I was the person occupying that house. During the time I stayed in the compound, Tinch just didn’t want to part with me. It was not possible for me to bring her along. I wished I could! Unfortunately, there was no trace of the young man who was my helper.
It was when I was reflecting on my ordeal after my evacuation that I recalled the mysterious disappearance of Scooby just before the war. It looked like God was saying, “Time is coming when you will not be able to take care of these two dogs. Yet, the two are such good friends that you will not consider voluntarily disposing of both or either of them. So, much as you love these dogs, let this other dog disappear while there is still time so that you remain with one to give you company during the hard times”.
Where was the rest of the family?
During our close to 13 years in Rwanda, our children were going to school in Uganda. By 1994, one was in the US, one had just finished university and was working, and the rest were in schools in Uganda. As soon as the RPF crossed into Rwanda, all the borders with Uganda were closed. It was at that time that we decided as a family that every other member of the family should go to Uganda, which they did by air, and I who had to work stayed in Kigali, since my organisation had not been closed.
Did I know the calamity that was to befall Rwanda?
Not at all. God knew and advised appropriately. Nevertheless, life went on with Tinch, and unfortunately, it now continues without my faithful loving Tinch.