Long and Terrifying Journey Brings Rwandan to the University

August 14, 2008
August 14, 2008 — Jean D. Bimenyande refuses to talk about politics in his native Rwanda because it links back to the infamous ethnic killings there in 1994.

The former development bank worker, who now works in the accounts payable office at Facilities Management, fled his native country in 1994 during a civil war that led to the genocide of up to 1 million people, mostly ethnic Tutsis.

Bimenyande, now 54, spent 18 years working for the Development Bank of Rwanda in Kigali, the capital. He started in the 1970s in a lowly position at the investment bank and worked his way up to become the human resources manager.

Civil war between the majority Hutu-run regime and the minority Tutsi rebels broke out in 1990, but by early 1994, a cease-fire agreement had been negotiated. The deal came apart after the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, died when their airplane was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali.  

Habyarimana and Ntaryamira were killed on April 6, 1994, and the war was rekindled almost immediately. Bimenyande and his family fled Kigali on April 18.

"When the president was killed, the national army and the rebels resumed the war," Bimenyande said. Kigali was a battleground. "It was not easy to live with the war in the capital. After two weeks we left Kigali for my native province, Gitarama."

The ethnic killings started when the war resumed, with the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's Tutsis and moderates among the Hutu. Some sources estimate that 90 percent of the dead were Tutsis and about 10 percent were Hutus. Estimates of the dead range from 500,000 to 1 million people. Bimenyande, would not discuss the genocide.

Bimenyande, his wife and their four children drove to Gitarama, a journey that should have taken 90 minutes but was extended to four hours because of roadblocks and refugees. But they didn't stay long.

"There was no killing in my village, but the life was useless because of many refugees around," he said. "It was always the war."

They fled to neighboring Congo, then called Zaire, where they stayed in a refugee camp for two years. The camp was mostly Hutu with a few Tutsis, generally spouses.

"There was no visible segregation, but a hidden suspicion," he said.    

Still, the war did not stay at bay. Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu government and took over Rwanda. The new Rwandan national army then supported the Zairian rebels, many of whom were Tutsis, in trying to topple strongman Mobutu Sesse Seko, who had ruled Zaire since 1965.

As war broke out there in 1996, the Rwandan national government sought to repatriate Rwandan refugees living in Zaire.

"The new [Rwandan] army believed that there were people who had committed the genocide among the refugees," Bimenyande said. "It was not possible to separate them from the innocent, so they treated them as if they had all committed genocide."

Bimenyande, his family and another escaped the camp. "We were not ready to return," he said.

The camps were dismantled, he said; some refugees escaped through the jungle to neighboring countries. Others died of starvation or disease, or were killed by assailants not yet identified.

"The responsibility is not established if they were killed by the Rwanda Army or by the Congolese rebels," Bimenyande said. "Maybe one day the truth will be known."

From the refugee camp in Zaire, the two families, about 12 people, began walking toward Zambia, a journey that took from October 1996 to April 1997. Bimenyande said the jungle canopy was so thick the sun was not visible. They subsisted on food they found, such as cassava root and bananas, as well as beans and rice they purchased from local villagers. Their shelter was some plastic sheeting they had purchased from another refugee.

They crossed the Zambian frontier without incident and entered another refugee camp. "This was a special camp," Bimenyande said. "They give you your own land to start a new life."

Bimenyande received about five acres of land. The Zambians supplied refugees with food until their first crops came in, and then they were on their own. Having been an office worker raised in the city, Bimenyande knew nothing about farming, so they left the land and he opened a bakery, producing hand-made rolls with a partner. This did not make enough money, so then he started a grocery store.

While running the store, he applied to the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees to emigrate to another country. After a year, Bimenyande was told his family was being sent to the United States.

"We were very excited because it was very hard to get in," he said.

The family, he said, was flown from Zambia to Chicago to Charlottesville. Bimenyande arrived in Charlottesville with his wife, two daughters and one son (a third daughter had married in Zambia and had moved to Europe) in November 2004. Two of his children, who are all in their 20s, now live in Charlottesville and one has moved to Chicago. Bimenyande got a job at a local motel, but left after three months, feeling his English was not adequate to communicate with customers. A native French speaker, he is now learning English.

He started work at the University in 2005 at accounts payable, where his banking experience is an asset.

"He is a superb worker, always friendly and happy," said Tracy Plunkett, the fiscal operation manager who oversees Bimenyande's department. "He is always willing to learn and catches on well. He loves to take on more."

He has volunteered for programs to increase his skills, which Plunkett said is a benefit to the department. "He is dedicated to his work, and I'm happy to have him on the team," Plunkett said.

"It is not easy to leave an office and go to work on the land or run a grocery store," he said. "When you work in an office, you are always assured your salary will come. When you run your own business, you are not sure what will happen tomorrow."

Living in the United States is an adjustment, he said, because the language is different, the culture is different and the U.S. seems more high-tech. He said Africans are more dependent on their communities, while Americans seem more independent.

Homesickness has a bittersweet taste for Bimenyande.

"I miss Rwanda, but the ethnic problems are still there and I don't miss that," he said. "I am happy to be in the U.S., a free and peaceful country. I think it is early to go back to Rwanda before there is a complete reconciliation between the Hutu and the Tutsi."

From his ordeal, Bimenyande has learned resilience.

"When I was in Rwanda, I was in the middle class, and I would think that not much would happen to me," he said. "And then when I had to leave the job and the house and car, I learned that anything can happen. I learned to be adaptable to any situation."

— By Matt Kelly