© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

30 years ago, this Rwandan woman saved a dozen neighbors from the genocide


All this week, we've been bringing you stories from Rwanda, three decades after the genocide. Today I want to introduce you to one woman I met who risked her own life to try to save others.

JOSEPHINE DUSABIMANA: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: Her name is Josephine Dusabimana. Hers is a story of being a helper, though those she helped worried for her safety, too. During the Rwandan genocide, members of the Hutu majority killed Tutsis. Josephine is a Hutu.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) As they left, they said, what about you? We have to go back home. I said, never mind about me. I'm a Hutu. You just go.

SUMMERS: In April of 1994, Josephine Dusabimana was living in a Rwandan village in a small two-room house with her family. She lived close to some military barracks, and she said by the morning of April 7, the area was swarming with soldiers. They started to burn Tutsi houses.


SUMMERS: I sat with her on the shores of Lake Kivu in Rwanda recently, and she told me about a man who, 30 years ago, wanted her help.

DUSABIMANA: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: She was quick to take him into her home, and then she spotted another person who needed help, so one became two.

So at this point, you've taken two men who could be killed into your home. Were you fearful for your own safety as you were giving them a safe place to be one?

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) Well, because we were poor, no one suspected that we could hide someone.

SUMMERS: But Josephine also had a problem. She did not know what her husband would say if he came home and found two Tutsi men hiding there. So before he walked through the door, she tried to catch him off guard.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) I said, did you know that Pierre and Fidel came to see you? - just to get him confused. And I said, they're inside. And because he was also afraid, he pushed them into a room and shut the door.

SUMMERS: As a Hutu, Josephine felt protected. But she said she was asking herself, how can I save their lives? I need to get a boat and get them to the lake.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) I kept thinking, if anyone knew that they were there, we would all be killed. That was my big challenge.

SUMMERS: A cousin had a canoe, but they had to pay. So Josephine traded her goats for that canoe.

DUSABIMANA: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: And at night, she sent the men off in the boat. A week later, a similar story - Josephine said a man with two daughters came to her. Again, she hid them against her husband's wishes.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) My husband said, I don't want you to bring Tutsis here. You're putting our lives in danger. I told him, I made the decision to save people. I don't care if they kill us or not.

SUMMERS: How did you find the resolve to make that decision to put your own life at risk, to go against what your husband said to you, his concerns about the safety of himself and your family? It takes an immense amount of courage.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) Well, when my husband got a little tough with me, I tried to be nice with him and say, they're human beings just like us.

SUMMERS: She took some canoe paddles from her father and hid them in a pile of sweet potato leaves. But she still needed a boat, so she checked the lake.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) The problem with me going to the lake is that it was full of dead bodies. But when I got there, I saw a metal canoe.

SUMMERS: She told her husband she found a canoe, but it was chained up, and it belonged to a genocide perpetrator in their village.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) So, my husband says, now you found a boat, and you found someone to kill you (laughter).

SUMMERS: After dark, Josephine 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. While one of them jumped in the water, another one was cutting the chain. Her first child sawed, then her second.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) Then I cut it once, and the chain broke.

SUMMERS: That same night, she went back home. She gave the man and his two daughters the paddle, and she tried to motivate the girls, telling them you're strong enough to make it across this lake. If they didn't make it by morning, they'd be killed.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) I didn't really have anything to feed them, but I had soybeans. I gave them soybeans and said, eat the soybeans, and you can drink the water in the lake. And then we prayed, and I let them go.

SUMMERS: Over and over, the story repeated itself - a woman and her baby, a young boy. When Josephine 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 estimates she saved 12 lives during the spring of 1994. The Rwandan genocide tore the country apart, and 30 years removed from that violence, in which nearly 1 million people were killed, Josephine Dusabimana says things are now better for her.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) It was all worth it. Now I have my dignity.

SUMMERS: And as for her country, things have changed, too.

DUSABIMANA: (Through interpreter) When I saw people being cut by machetes for no reason, I thought that things between Hutus and Tutsis will always be problematic. But today, I'm always surprised to see killers and victims talking together.

SUMMERS: And she said that what happened here in Rwanda and how the country is emerging from its past could be a lesson to the world.


THE GOOD ONES: (Singing in non-English language).

SUMMERS: Elsewhere in the program, Rwanda has experienced a transformation in the decades since the genocide. The country's president, Paul Kagame, is celebrated for that success. But he's also been criticized for human rights abuses, stifling dissent and his decadeslong rule.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Kagame was the strongman that we needed after the genocide. But today, we need a fresh perspective, a fresh blood, a fresh new leadership in our country.

SUMMERS: We'll look at all of that elsewhere in the program.


SUMMERS: You can hear all of our stories from Rwanda, from the Kenya trap music scene to a growing love of basketball in the country, at NPR.org. Our Rwanda stories were produced by Matt Ozug, Noah Caldwell and Elena Burnett. They were edited by Tinbete Ermyas, Courtney Dorning, William Troop, Tara Neill, Sami Yenigun, and Didi Schanche. Special thanks to Hollie Nyseth Nzitatira, who studies genocide forecasting at Ohio State University.


THE GOOD ONES: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]