There were around two dozen of us in line that day. The killers gathered us near the refugee camp by the Nyabarongo River. We were withered down to human shells, immersed in fear and suspended in time. A few feet from me, a group of lifeless bodies drifted down into the Nyabarongo River.
I felt like a stranger to this madness, but I wasn’t: I had witnessed three months of mob murder, including the killings of my family and other innocent men, women, and children.
One by one, they dragged us out of the line to meet their machetes and clubs, and one by one the victims fell, Tutsis who had been marked for death by their physical features—men, women, and children younger than me.
The killers outnumbered us. Their blood- and sweat-stained clothes clung to their bodies as they took turns with their “duties.”
“Remain still,” warned one of the hardened men as he pushed an elderly woman to her knees, lifted his machete, and butchered her.
They called for more, and more bodies fell. Soon, the line in front of me evaporated, and it was my turn.
“Let’s go!” barked the killer, pointing his machete at me, but I was so frozen, I couldn’t even blink.
I narrowly avoided death that day, just as I had the previous three months of the genocide. Not long before this terrifying incident near the Nyabarongo River, I was a typical Rwandan girl, living happily and peacefully in the countryside with my cherished family. But now most of my family members were dead, and my fate was uncertain and dismal.
In 1994, my country, my world, and my family were decimated. An organized massacre was set in motion in April of 1994 by the Hutu extremist government. A propaganda campaign was established to dehumanize the Tutsis; militias were mobilized and trained. 500,000 machetes were imported. All that remained was the lighter to spark the fuse that burst into the mass annihilation of one million humans.
Even though many years have passed since this horror took place, my mind boggles when I reflect on the entirety of the killing campaign. The history, the signs, the mass graves, the screams that still echo in the archives of my memory—it was all so daunting that I had to write it down, partly to process the darkness I witnessed and partly to be a witness as a survivor. Today, I hope my testimony serves as a reminder and a warning to future generations of the damaging and potentially destructive effects of ethnic labeling and the harmful concepts that can be linked with race. Other historical, political, and economic issues were factors in the genocide against the Tutsis, but the most essential and sinister was the systematic stripping of our humanity. One day we were called Tutsis, an ethnic group and a branch of the human family. The next day we were “cockroaches,” “snakes,” and other pejorative names…no longer human.
This book is about my loss of innocence, the genocide against the Tutsis, the dehumanization of humans—but mostly it’s about how I reconnected with the world after this immense trauma.
My name is Jeanne Celestine Lakin, and I am a survivor.