I was tested to the limit — Rwanda genocide survivor

August - November 2019

Get our app.

Download app from Android Download app from Apple

I was tested to the limit — Rwanda genocide survivor

Consolee Nishimwe, survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as a teenager.
Consolee Nishimwe survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as a teenager.

Telling my personal story to others helped me in my healing journey Consolee Nishimwe, 32, survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as a teenager. Currently living in New York, she shares her experience, as a global civil society activist and advocate for other genocide survivors and gender equality, with Sara Canals for Africa Renewal. She is the author of the book ‘Tested to the Limit’ in which she narrates her personal story.

How was life in Rwanda before the genocide?

Life in Rwanda before the genocide was beautiful. I was fortunate to have good parents and a great family. I had a happy childhood despite all the things that the country was enduring at that time and the discrimination against us as Tutsis.

When did life start to change?

Things started to change way before 1994, even before I was born. Tutsis had always been discriminated against and most of them went into exile while those who remained in the country were sometimes denied certain services. I started to experience this discrimination when I joined school as a young girl. However, the situation got worse when we started hearing local radio stations calling Tutsis “cockroaches” and “snakes,” explaining how they were going to kill us.  And then the genocide happened.

How did you get through this difficult time at home?

My parents tried to protect us from all the rumours that were going around, yet I could see the fear in their faces. At that time, I was not paying much attention to their reactions. After the genocide that’s when I thought: “Wow, they were really scared, they were fearful of what was going to happen.” As a child, I never thought there would be genocide. I kept saying to myself, “I will go back to school despite all that is being said.” I never expected what happened, especially because my neighbours and friends were Hutus; we were going to school together and visited each other’s homes.

And then, the genocide happened…

Exactly, and it really affected me. Every survivor will tell you how horrible it was. The announcements over the radio were becoming increasingly alarming; it was really scary to hear how Tutsis were being killed in some areas of Rwanda. We were told we would be killed. It became risky staying at home as people were being killed in their own homes and in the streets. So my family and I, as many other Tutsi families, were forced to run away from home and hide. I still remember how scared my parents were, but as children, my siblings and I thought the mayhem would stop soon but that was not the case. We spent three months hiding in many different places and during this period many of my family members were murdered — including my father, my three brothers, my grandparents, my uncles, and many friends. My father was the first person to be killed, followed by my brothers. So my mother, my sisters and I kept hiding without knowing whether we were going to survive or not. I also remember hearing the people who took my father talking about how happy they were to have killed him. It was one of the worst times in my life. I wished they had killed me too. 

What was it like during those three months?

We survived but we were crashed emotionally and psychologically, especially my mother. We didn’t want to leave; we just hoped we could die too. So we just kept praying and hiding, without knowing whether we would survive or not. The killers were also raping and torturing women. During the time we were hiding, I was among the many girls who were raped and, unfortunately, I contracted HIV as a result.  It was very hard for me. I can’t find words to describe how I felt. I never thought I would be a normal teenager again.

Yet you have overcome all that. Can you describe your journey?

I was deeply wounded. I still have nightmares. Yet, the voice of God kept telling me never to give up. Having my sisters and my mother around, someone I could speak to, helped a lot. Being able to tell my personal story to others helped me in my healing journey. People are still going through tragedies around the world. Terrorist groups are doing horrible things to people. This is why we need to speak up and be a voice for these people.

How do you see yourself as a global civil society actor?

I want to be a voice for the genocide survivors, especially women, who are still not able to share their own stories. When they hear me telling my story, they feel that there is someone out there who has gone through similar trauma. It is also a way of honoring those who lost their lives during the genocide. We do not want them to be forgotten. My first experience telling my story, however, was not easy. I did not have words to describe what happened to me and my family.

Telling my story in many other places where Boko Haram, ISIS and other terrorist groups are doing horrible things, I feel obligated, like other advocates and social activists, to contribute to help raise our voices to stop these horrible deeds. Every time I think that someone like me, a young girl, is being tortured and raped, or people are being killed, I am convinced that my voice, in my capacity as a survivor, must be used to help prevent such things. Hopefully, our world would be a better place.

As an activist, what do you advocate for?

I am a gender activist, focusing on women survivors around the world where there is conflict, not just in Africa.