An African woman's journey
Between the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and starting a new life in Europe, Médiatrice Nsekalije has overcome many obstacles. Today she works at the headquarters of the ICRC in Geneva. Through thick and thin, this smiling and determined woman was driven by a single obsession: staying alive so as to be able to give her children the best. She agrees to tell us her story.
Kigali, April 1994. While the world's eyes were turned to Rwanda, my husband, the children and I could not see beyond the four walls of the room where we were crouching in the dark. Our ears were buzzing, and our hearts pounding louder than the hellish din of the exploding bombs, grenades and machine-gun fire outside. All hopes of coming out of this massacre alive dwindled with each passing minute.
When, at last, we were able to go outside, our European neighbours were leaving their house, like so many others at that time. This mass departure of expatriates was the sign that the world was abandoning the country to its tragedy. At first, my husband and I hesitated to leave our home … until the first stray bullets landed in our garden. We grabbed the children – then aged three-and-a-half and two years – who were trembling with fear, jumped into the car without any luggage, and set off with a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs.
No one to stop the chaos
After we had driven a few hundred metres we met a delegate from the Red Cross on the road; however, this did little to restore our hope: no individual and no organization seemed capable of putting an end to the chaos. We had to go on. This escape to safety, with its memories of corpses and other horrors, was the saddest, most harrowing experience I have ever had.
Countless bodies lay along the roadside. Some were already dead, while others were drawing their last breath. We had set off without any provisions, and after three hours the children were thirsty. Soon afterwards, they were asking for food. My husband and I did not want even to think about this, our sole concern was reaching safety as soon as possible.
It took us ten hours to reach the Gisenyi hills instead of the usual two. It was already late and dark, and it was another thirty minutes walk to my parents-in-law's house. Only once we had got there did we have something to drink and eat. We stayed there for around two weeks. This respite was, however, short-lived.
One morning my husband had already gone out when I awoke with a start: a crowd of people was passing behind the house. I opened the window and saw hundreds of people on the path. When I opened the door, I realized that several thousand people were fleeing, the men with a few scant belongings on their heads, the women carrying their youngest children on their backs.
Lying in the bushes waiting for death
I immediately realized that we had to move on again, this time to flee across the hills alone with my two children. I woke them up, strapped the youngest to my back using the only cloth I had and packed just one bottle of water as luggage. The poor little boy had to walk. He did not make a fuss though when I hurried him along: he must have understood that he had no choice. We joined the flow of the crowd. The sound of machine-gun fire and grenades exploding could be heard ever more distinctly.
During a brief lull we stopped to rest in the shade of the trees. Suddenly we heard shooting in the midst of the crowd and people began running in all directions. With my daughter still on my back, I dashed for cover in the bushes, clasping my son against my chest. Once it was all over I started to cry. I was ready to give up, just to stay there and wait for death to come. But an old woman encouraged me to continue and offered to carry my son. She stayed with us the rest of the way.
After walking for several hours, we reached the Congolese border under a scorching sun. I had kept a few hundred Rwandan francs in case the soldiers demanded money from us, which they did. I had also slipped some French francs into a plastic bag which I concealed in my daughter's nappies. The soldiers did not find this when they searched us. I had seen the film " Cry Freedom " during my studies in France and remembered the scene where Steven Biko and his wife had hidden documents in their baby's nappies!
We landed up in Goma, on Congolese territory. In the midst of the sea of people, a tanker truck belonging to the ICRC was distributing water to the refugees. I shall never forget how my children's eyes shone when, hungry, thirsty and exhausted, they drank their first glass of water in many hours. I also remember that the Red Cross delegate smiled at us.
I was lucky enough to find room in a hut on the outskirts of the camp, where a hundred or so other people were living crammed together. We had just one meal in the evening, consisting of two potatoes and a few spoonfuls of beans, although I alw ays saved my potatoes so that the children would have something to eat the following lunchtime.
We were still hoping to go home as soon as possible, and never thought that our exile would be so long and painful. On the whole we were well received by the Congolese. To this day I remember one woman selling fruit on the roadside who gave my children a banana each. However, we also heard insults of all kinds against the refugees, and some were even robbed of the little they had managed to save.
Too thin to be recognized
Two young women and a man who were living in our hut had just died of cholera. I was so afraid for my children that I decided to leave. The money I had guarded so jealously was just enough to buy plane tickets. My sister was working for the United Nations in Nairobi and had managed to contact us. Everything was arranged. We flew to the Kenyan capital, relieved to escape this nightmare. One of my sister's friends who came to meet us at the airport did not recognize us: thin and tired, we no longer looked like the people on the photo he had in his hand. When my sister saw him coming back without us, she started crying and entreated him to return to the airport, this time with a board with my name on it.
In Nairobi, I learned that the ICRC's tracing agency could help me find my husband, of whom I had still had no news. Located by delegates in Goma, he was able to send a Red Cross message telling me that he was taking the next cargo plane to Kenya. At this moment, the tracing agency, which was looking for someone who spoke French, Kinyarwanda and English, asked me to come and work for them. I began my new job that very evening! I was so happy that I would now be able to help others who were in need.
My work consisted of entering data about unaccompanied children and tracing requests int o the tracing agency's database. In my eyes, each child's registration card was the story of a life. The story of a child who was lost, separated from its parents, desperate. A story that could have been my daughter's or my son's. For me, the child and the card were one and the same. This fear of being separated from my children, which had never left me during my ordeal, helped me to understand how other people felt when they did not know where their relatives were. I was extremely motivated, and each family reunification that the ICRC organized was a great source of satisfaction for me.
You can imagine my surprise and joy when, one day, in the middle of a stack of cards I was processing, I discovered those of my own cousins, who had been found when fleeing to ex-Zaire and later reunited with their aunt, my mother.
I continued my work in Nairobi, and was promoted a number of times, until the tracing agency was closed. That was when the ICRC asked me to come and work in Geneva to assist the Protection Division in training delegates and administrators in using the software for centralizing tracing data. After this I worked as a database manager for the Africa region. I fought to be able to stay in Geneva and accepted this position in a different division at ICRC headquarters above all so that my children could stay in a better school system, and so they would not relive what they had been through. Thanks to this position, I can give them the chance to grow up in a healthier social, cultural and psychological environment and acquire a wider range of knowledge.