30 years after she was left for dead, London, Ont., woman reflects on surviving Rwandan genocide

WARNING: This story contains distressing details including descriptions of violence.Clarisse Mukashumbusho’s most cherished moments as a little girl in Kigali, Rwanda, were the times she spent with her parents, five siblings and large extended family who all lived a few houses away from her in the Ndera suburb. But April 17, 1994, marked the end of those days when most of her family, who were all Tutsis, were killed by the Rwandan military and Hutu militia outside a hospital they sought refuge in for 10 days while hiding from persecution.Mukashumbusho, only 10 at the time, miraculously escaped death as she hid under a pile of bodies — including her family members. Thirty years later, and now a Grade 3 teacher living in London, Ont., with her husband and their two children, she says it feels like yesterday that her world turned upside down and she lost her loved ones. When the genocide stopped, it was a big relief and felt like life is possible again.- Clarisse Mukashumbusho”If you live through genocide, its consequences live with you forever. There’s no amount of time where it just goes away,” she told CBC News. “There’s no given day that I don’t think about a loved one, there’s always something to remind you of someone.”Mukashumbusho and her eldest sister were the lone survivors of their household. The rest of their family were among more than 800,000 Rwandans killed during the 100-day genocide of the Tutsis, a minority group in Rwanda, from April to July 1994. Mukashumbusho is sharing her story to raise awareness about how genocide can continue to have an impact decades after it’s over.”As survivors, when we go through success or hardships, you want to share that with [family] but they’re not there,” said Mukashumbusho.”When I was a young child, I wondered if I would even survive, but then I grew up, met the love of my life and moved to this beautiful country. His family embraced me as their own child and now I have my own family, but I wish my mother got to see me as a mom.”‘It wasn’t my day to die’ Earlier this month, hundreds marched in Ottawa to mark the 30th anniversary of the genocide, and several MPs, MPPs, diplomats and city councillors went to the event in solidarity.Many survivors also spoke about what it was like at that time, noting the generational trauma and mental health issues that are still prevalent for survivors and their children.Mukashumbusho recalled how her parents did their best to shield their children from the escalating violence. But it wasn’t until her school started separating Tutsi and Hutu children that she knew something was wrong.”As a child, you don’t really care. You’re just playing with your friends and I could see a few signs that didn’t mean much to me, but my parents and other Tutsis were worried.”She said things took a turn for the worse on the evening of April 6 when the military started attacking houses in the neighbourhood and gunfire continued into the next morning. Mukashumbusho’s mom was a social worker at the Ndera Psychiatric Hospital, where her family and more than 500 other Tutsi families stayed, thinking they would be safe.”Unfortunately, it wasn’t a safe place,” she said. “They attacked us every day, they cut the water supply and people couldn’t go outside to find food. They never entered the hospital, but threw grenades inside and people kept dying.”WATCH | Rwandan survivor recounts genocide 30 years later: 30 years feels like it was just yesterday, says Rwandan genocide survivorClarisse Mukashumbusho shares how the last 30 years have been after she survived the Rwandan genocide in which her parents, and most of her siblings were killed because they were part of the Tutsi minority in the east African country.Ten days later, all the refugees were forced out of the hospital and collectively shot dead. Hiding under the bodies, Mukashumbusho escaped the bullet, only to be hit on the head with clubs by Hutu militia members who “came back to finish the job,” she said.”That night I lost my mother, my father and my four siblings. Before they shot us, everyone said their goodbyes and I thought I would die too, but I guess it wasn’t my day to die.” With her clothes covered in blood, Mukashumbusho spent the next two days lying next to dead bodies, pretending to be dead in case the militia returned. She later found out her sister was still alive and the two connected. Long journey to survivalSome neighbours took the sisters in and hid them until the Rwandan Patriotic Front — the country’s present-day government — took over and ended the genocide. But for Mukashumbusho, the journey to survival was long and felt impossible at times, she said. Mukashumbusho, with husband Luke Cechetto and their two boys, says his family has embraced her as their own child. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)”I wasn’t sure if it was going to ever stop, so I almost lost hope — I thought if they can’t find me today, they’ll find me another day. When the genocide stopped, it was a big relief and felt like life is possible again,” she said. The sisters later reunited with some of their cousins who also survived, and lived in one of their uncle’s homes that hadn’t been destroyed. The cousins raised each other, Mukashumbusho said.In 2010, Mukashumbusho moved to Canada with her husband, Luke Cechetto. They met while he was volunteering in Rwanda. She feels it’s her responsibility to let go of the anger and resentment and live life to the fullest for her family members who never got that chance.  “I’m here and that’s not a coincidence,” she said. “I try to live in a way that would make them proud and try to move on with their memories in my heart but without their presence.”

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