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As a brutal genocide raged around her, Josephine smuggled 12 people to safety

Josephine Dusabimana says she rescued 12 people during the Rwandan genocide.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Josephine Dusabimana says she rescued 12 people during the Rwandan genocide.

LAKE KIVU, Rwanda — To be clear, there is nothing funny about genocide. Which is why it is particularly disconcerting to hear Josephine Dusabimana laugh out loud, repeatedly, as she recounts the events that took place in her Rwandan village on the shore of Lake Kivu in 1994.

Over 100 days almost a million people were killed in one of the worst genocides in modern history.

As Dusabimana recounts the events, she smiles often at little details. You can see her big, crooked grin. At times, when she remembers a close call, or a moment of humor in a time of incredible tragedy, she laughs.

Maybe this explains Dusabimana's courage — she finds joy in the face of evil.

A common narrative of the Rwanda genocide is that there were killers, there were victims, and there were bystanders. The victims, by and large, were from the Tutsi ethnic minority. The killers, for the most part, came from the Hutu majority — some were formally in the military, but many were part of paramilitary organizations called the interahamwe.

In 1994, refugees and a soldier walk in the foothills of Lake Kivu on a route between Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, in Rwanda.
Thierry Orban / Sygma/Getty Images
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Sygma/Getty Images
In 1994, refugees and a soldier walk in the foothills of Lake Kivu on a route between Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, in Rwanda.

Dusabimana is a Hutu and she was a helper. She risked her life, and the life of her family, to help Tutsi men, women and children escape the country, as hundreds of thousands were killed in a matter of weeks.

"During all genocides, we see people who stand up and who say, I will not commit violence against my neighbor and, in fact, I'm going to try to help save them because I believe this is wrong," says Hollie Nyseth Nzitatira, a genocide forecaster at The Ohio State University.

Dusabimana's actions were incredibly risky. Based on hundreds of interviews, Nyseth Nzitatira says the decision to rescue was not to be taken lightly: "Your whole family could be killed if you were found out as someone who was rescuing."

In April of 1994, Dusabimana was living in a Rwandan village, in a two-room house with her husband and children. "Life wasn't great," she remembers. Her family farmed beans and sorghum. They were poor.

Most historians mark the start of the genocide with the April 6 downing of the plane of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. Dusabimana said she was so poor they didn't have a radio, so she wasn't aware of anything until the morning of April 7. Then, government soldiers from a nearby military barracks began to burn Tutsi houses.

Most historians mark the start of the genocide in Rwanda with the April 6 downing of the plane of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. Refugees are seen here in 1994.
Peter Turnley / Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
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Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
Most historians mark the start of the genocide in Rwanda with the April 6 downing of the plane of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. Refugees are seen here in 1994.

She saw one man who needed her help. She was quick to take him into her home. He asked her for something to drink, but she had nothing. On her way to the market, she spotted another man — another Tutsi — who needed help. So, one became two.

And while it was incredibly risky to interfere – many Hutus were labeled as Tutsi sympathizers and killed – Dusabimana believes her poverty shielded her from suspicion. "Because we were poor, no one suspected that we could hide someone," she says.

But Dusabimana had a problem: she didn't know what her husband would say when he came home and found two Tutsi men hiding there. Before he walked through the door, she tried to catch him off guard.

"So I said, 'Did you know that Pierre and Fidel came to see you?' Just to get him confused. And because he was afraid as well, he pushed them into a room and shut the door," she said. Now her challenge was to get the men out of her house and to safety without being spotted.

Dusabimana lived on Lake Kivu, a massive body of water that defines part of the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of the lake's islands represented the safety of a neighboring country. But they were easily an eight-hour canoe trip away. And she had no boat.

A cousin had a canoe, but it would cost her. And she had no money. So she found someone who could write – Dusabimana was illiterate – and asked them to draft a contract: I, Dusabimana, will give you my goats for your canoe. That night, she snuck the men to the lakeshore and sent them off in the canoe, she hoped, to safety.

When Dusabimana saw someone who needed to be rescued, she said she did whatever she could to try to save them.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
When Dusabimana saw someone who needed to be rescued, she said she did whatever she could to try to save them.

A week later: a similar story. Dusabimana says a Tutsi man with two daughters came to her. Again she hid them against her husband's wishes. Her husband told her: "I don't want you to bring Tutsis here — you're putting our lives in danger!"

She was defiant: "I made the decision to save people. I don't care if they kill us or not."

But again, she had no money and no boat. So she checked the lake.

"The problem with the lake," she recalls, "is that it was full of dead bodies. But when I was there, I saw a metal canoe."

She told her husband she found a solution: she could steal the canoe and give it to the man with his children. They would have a shot at freedom and her husband wouldn't worry for the family's safety.

However, the canoe was chained up, and it belonged to a genocide perpetrator in the village.

"Great, now you found a boat and you found someone to kill you," she recalls her husband telling her, before letting out a big belly laugh.

After dark, Dusabimana launched her plan. She took her children and went to the lake. She told them, "pretend that you're swimming" and "make noise in the water" as a distraction.

While one of them splashed in the water, another one was cutting the chain.

Her first child sawed, then her second, but the chain was too strong. So Dusabimana took a turn.

"I cut once, and the chain broke," she said.

That same night, she went back home. She gave the man and his two daughters the paddle and led them to the metal canoe. She tried to motivate the girls, telling them, you're strong enough to paddle across the lake.

If they didn't make it by morning, they'd be spotted and killed.

"I didn't really have anything to feed them, but I had soybeans," she recalls. "So I gave them soybeans and said, 'Eat the soybeans and you can drink the water in the lake.'" They prayed together and she let them go.

Over and over this story repeated itself. A woman and her baby. A young boy. When Dusabimana saw someone who needed to be rescued, she said she did whatever she could to try to save them. Risking her own life every time.

Some did not survive, but all told, she says she saved 12 lives during the spring of 1994.

Some of them she remains in touch with. They sought her out after the genocide. Some have given her cows as a way of repaying her for the un-repayable.

Thousands of abandoned machetes collect at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania.
David Turnley / Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
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Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
Thousands of abandoned machetes collect at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania.

Dusabimana says she got her strength, her courage, from God. Thinking about the alternative, she lets out another enormous laugh.

"I would be happy to see those killers today," she says. "They killed people thinking that afterwards life will be normal. And now how are they?"

Asked again how she found the strength to do what she did, Dusabimana dismisses the question: "I was asking myself. 'Why are these people just killing like criminals?'"

"Seeing someone – a baby, an old man – be killed for nothing ... I don't want to be like [those killers]."

The blood-letting that swept Rwanda in 1994 was remarkable for its speed and familiarity. Neighbors killed neighbors in close, brutal ways. Clubs, machetes and garden hoes were common weapons. Some killers targeted their own family members.

For Dusabimana, that proximity made the violence all the more unimaginable. She says that as long as she could remember, her family has lived alongside Tutsis. They were friends, she says, "and sometimes there was even intermarriage."

A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda in November 1996 where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried.
Ricardo Mazalan / AP
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AP
A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda in November 1996 where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried.

30 years removed from that violence, Dusabimana is still shocked that Hutus and Tutsis can live side by side today, after what happened.

But for her, being a rescuer was never in doubt. "It was all worth it. Now I have my dignity," she says, with a big belly laugh.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.