Murenzi, who now calls Windsor home remembers crying, struggling to keep up as his family joined hundreds of Tutsi people caravanning south away from armed Hutu extremists. By Taylor Campbell


Patrice Murenzi survived the genocide in Rwanda when he was a young child. He now lives in Windsor and works as a councillor at the College Boreal. He is shown at the downtown school on April 10, 2019. DAN JANISSE / WINDSOR STAR


No one carried Patrice Murenzi when his family fled genocide. At age three, he had to walk while his parents carried younger siblings from their home near the country’s capital Kigali.

Along the way, he saw furniture strewn outside ransacked houses. Where entire neighbourhoods fell silent, he smelled blood in the air.

“It was difficult, but we didn’t have a choice,” said Murenzi, now 28. “We had to live.”

More than 800,000 Tutsis were killed during the 100-day massacre 25 years ago. Saturday marks the end of Icyunamo, the annual week commemorating the atrocities.

From April 7 to July 5, 1994, Rwandan military, militia groups, and Hutu civilians armed with machetes roamed streets in death squads. Propagandist radio called on them to “exterminate the cockroaches” in a “final war” after the plane of president Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down, and the Tutsi minority was blamed.

We want to share our experience, what happened to our people and our country so that it won’t happen anywhere else

Miraculously, Murenzi’s mother and six siblings survived the slaughter by hiding under the protection of a moderate Hutu family in the south. Many Hutus also died trying to keep Tutsis safe.

His father left their shelter to find Murenzi’s aunt, who lived nearby. Both were killed on their way back to safety, their bodies were never recovered for proper burial.

Mass graves are still being discovered across Rwanda.

“It was our whole people,” Murenzi said. Growing up, he listened to stories from friends who’d “endured worse,” he said, and that made him forget some of his own pain. “A lot of people I know didn’t have either their mother or their father. It wasn’t something common to have a dad. That’s how tragic the situation was, and still is.”

German and Belgian colonials fabricated the ethnic divide between the Hutu and Tutsi where none existed, he said. For centuries, the only distinction was socio-economic class: Hutus farmed, and Tutsis herded cattle. In the late 1800s, German colonists identified Tutsis as the superior race, introducing the idea of race to the country. When Belgium began governing Rwanda at the end of the Second World War, it further alienated the groups from each other, eventually forcing individuals to carry identification cards stating “ethnicity.”

During a revolution against the Tutsi monarchy and elite class before the country gained independence in 1962, Hutus killed thousands of Tutsis, and forced hundreds of thousands to live as refugees in neighbouring countries. Many of those exiled launched attacks on Rwanda, but stopped within a few years.

In 1990, a rebel group of primarily Tutsi refugees called the Front Patriotique Rwandais began the Rwandan Civil war when they invaded the country’s north. Tensions remained heightened until a peace agreement between the government and the rebel group was signed in 1993. The cease-fire ended in 1994 when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down — and the genocide began.

“My mother couldn’t sleep at night for 20 years,” Murenzi said. “Someone could wake up and go to the washroom, and my mother would ask who was there.”

To deny the genocide of any group of people is to promote it somewhere else.

In 2016, after completing a degree in civil engineering in France, Murenzi moved to Windsor. His mother, sister, and two of his brothers have since joined him. Another brother lives in the U.S., while one still lives in Rwanda.

Only recently has his mother begun sleeping more easily, he said.

“I grew up with a generation that knew the atrocities,” he said. Some of his classmates were left orphans. Other friends and family he visited in hospital psych wards when the trauma of what they’d experienced mentally scarred them.

While militias in Rwanda were raping half a million women and hacking children to death, the world was watching the FIFA World Cup.

Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian, repeatedly warned the UN Security Council something horrendous was about to happen in the months leading up to the genocide. Other countries refused to intervene militarily for fear of casualties. The peacekeepers were ultimately bystanders, able to provide refuge for thousands of Tutsis at its headquarters, and otherwise powerless to stop the violence or negotiate a ceasefire.

“If the world would have intervened, I would still have my father,” Murenzi said. “I would still have my aunt. Many kids in Rwanda wouldn’t have lived on their own. They would have had their family. But the world just kept on living like nothing was happening, as if we were not human beings.”

Surviving Tutsis today fight the battle of denial, he said. Through international media, he’s seen people all over the world diminish what happened in Rwanda. Even hearing it referred to as the “Rwandan genocide” is upsetting, he said, because not all Rwandans were persecuted—instead, his people call it the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda.

“We want to share our experience, what happened to our people and our country so that it won’t happen anywhere else,” Murenzi said. “We also do this for our beloved parents and family members who were murdered. We don’t want to forget them. We want to remember them every year, and we will pass it to our children and our grandchildren so they won’t be forgotten.”

Jovin Mwizerwa, president of the Rwandan Canadian Cultural Association of Windsor, echoed Murenzi’s sentiments.

“At times, the Tutsi genocide denial like the Holocaust denial is the cause of the greatest personal trauma to survivors,” Mwizerwa said. “To deny the genocide of any group of people is to promote it somewhere else.”

Mwizerwa was attending school abroad in 1994, when his six brothers were killed in Rwanda. He believed his mother was dead, too, until she was discovered alive a year later.

“Pain to a certain degree is not measurable,” he said. Travelling back to Rwanda to reunite with his mother in 1995, he realized how “sheltered” he’d been watching the genocide on television.

Mwizerwa estimated the Rwandan population of Windsor-Essex at about 200. Despite reconciliation efforts in Rwanda, he believes there may be Hutus living in Southwestern Ontario who refuse to identify themselves for fear of reprisal.

“We choose to forgive and go forward with life,” said Murenzi. “We speak one language. We share the same culture.”

Remembering genocide

The Rwandan Canadian Cultural Association of Windsor will commemorate the 1994 genocide’s 25th anniversary with two free, public events on Saturday, April 27. Genocide survivor Dr. Phodidas Ndamyumugabe will speak about surviving crisis through religion from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Windsor Seventh-day Adventist Church, 5350 Haig Ave. From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the University of Windsor’s Freed Orman Conference Center. Ndamyumugabe will speak about historical lessons from the genocide.