Orphanage run by Damas Gisimba and his brother became refuge from militias during genocide that killed 800,000 Rwandans
Damas Gisimba, who sheltered and saved the lives of hundreds of people during the Rwandan genocide, has died. He was 61.
In 1994, Gisimba and his brother were running an orphanage founded by their parents in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
On 6 April, the plane carrying the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down and his death was blamed on Tutsi rebels. Within hours, Kigali was surrounded by roadblocks and the slaughter of Tutsi families by Hutu forces began. The following day, people started arriving at the orphanage seeking shelter.
Over the next three months, Gisimba, who was of mixed Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity but had a Hutu ID card, and his brother, Jean-Francois, sheltered more than 400 children and adults who hid in the attic, the basement and in locked rooms.
“Damas is the reason why me and my family are alive today,” said Sonia Mugabo, a 33-year-old fashion designer, who was four when the genocide started. “In the 1994 genocide, we were living next to the orphanage. He welcomed our family – he saved our lives.”
Mugabo’s lawyer father, Pio, was a member of the opposition Liberal party and on a list of those to be murdered. After the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were murdered, he served as social welfare minister in the transitional national government.
Gisimba hid the Mugabo family at great personal risk to himself and others in the orphanage. Had the militia found out they would have killed everyone.
“Gisimba is a hero and someone we’ll always remember,” said Mugabo. “He is someone I’m going to tell my child about.”
Gisimba kept people alive for months with the help of Red Cross parcels. He negotiated with the militia for the orphanage’s survival.
“My brother would go for a beer with the killers,” Jean-Francois said in 2011. “He would say: ‘Don’t come, don’t panic the kids’, but he was also protecting the adults inside. He was pretending to be with them.”
Patrick Gisimba Rutikanga, his eldest son, worked with his father at the orphanage, which is now called the Gisimba Memorial Center and provides after-school programmes. He said: “It is very hard to find words to describe him. He was so many things – he was kind and caring to so many children. His laugh was immense.”
He remembers his father telling him stories about the genocide when he was growing up. On one occasion, a militia turned up at the orphanage with machetes and threatened to kill Gisimba, his wife and Rutikanga, who was a baby at the time.
Standing between them and his family, Gisimba glared at the men and growled: “You want to kill my wife and son? Go ahead, but kill me first and stick the knife in my stomach.” The militiamen left.
“He told me he felt like he had the strength of God to be able to say that,” said Rutikanga.
On another occasion, at night, Gisimba pulled two women, barely alive, from a mass grave dug near the orphanage; one of them was so badly wounded he had to carry her on his back.
After the genocide, children who had lost their parents continued to turn up at the orphanage seeking help. Despite financial troubles, Gisimba cared for them and made sure they were all fed and going to school, according to Jonathan Salt, a teacher in the UK who is writing a book about Gisimba’s life.
“His death is a blow to humanity,” said Salt. “He was one of the bravest people I know.”
Gisimba was awarded the Presidential Order of Umurinzi (protector) in recognition of his actions during the genocide.
“His death is a loss for his family and for the Rwandan people in general,” said Eustochie Sezibera, country director of CorpsAfrica Rwanda, a volunteer development charity. “There are people who survived because of him. He’s a hero for many.”
Gisimba had been living with hypertension and kidney problems for the last years of his life. He died at his home in Kigali last Sunday. His funeral will be held in Kigali on Saturday.
He is survived by his wife, Beatrice, his sons Patrick, Cedrick and Bertrand, and daughter, Benita.
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