Building hope from horror of return to Rwanda home

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WHEN Nicholas and Elsie Hitimana told friends they planned to leave Edinburgh – where they had spent six happy years and celebrated the birth of two of their children – to return to their home country, the response was blunt.

"They thought we were out of our minds," Nicholas laughs.

But then the country they were planning to return to was Rwanda, torn apart in 1994 when up to a million people were murdered in genocidal killings when tensions between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, boiled over.

Elsie, a Tutsi, had lost most of her family in the ensuing slaughter when extremist Hutus went on the rampage and the family – including six-month-old Jonathan – had been lucky to escape with their lives. Their final images of the country before they managed to flee were of wrecked homes and mutilated bodies lying in the streets.

But Nicholas, back in Edinburgh on a rare visit, says he and his wife felt compelled to return.

"We were still dreaming about it. We would wake up at night and realise you can't flee from such a horrible thing," he says.

The couple say whatever their doubts at the time about leaving behind a comfortable and successful life – Nicholas had just completed a doctorate in agricultural studies at Edinburgh University – they made the right decision and it has helped with their healing process.

Nicholas returned to the city to launch a documentary film, Hope Rises, based on his experiences. The film, screened at the City Chambers, is also due to be shown at the Scottish Parliament in the next month, before cinema and television screenings.

For Nicholas, who admits finding the film painful to watch, the hope is that it will not only highlight the horrors of the 1994 massacre, but also the work Rwandans have put into rebuilding their country.

He is also promoting the Together Partnership, set up in 2007 by Scottish businessmen and women, which aims to build bridges between companies in Scotland and Rwanda.

He says: "The film is not just about the genocide, it's showing there is hope. We want to bring out the good things that came out of the tragedy. The country has completely changed. The government really wants to move on.

"Rwanda will always be known for this. It's something that is part of our history and will never be forgotten. But I think we have come to terms about talking about it now.

"I don't like watching the film, but I feel it is very important to see where we came from and where we're going."

It was back in 1991 that Nicholas, now 44, and Elsie, now 46, married. Tensions were already growing between the two ethnic groups when the couple married in 1991 and people warned Nicholas, one of the Hutu majority, that marrying Elsie could ruin his job prospects.

The violence broke out when the Hutu president was killed in 1994, and Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsis. They set up roadblocks to check identification cards everyone had to carry. Anyone whose card said they were a Tutsi was hacked to death with a machete, including babies and young children.

Nicholas says: "Maybe people from outside will have seen some warning signs, but even when it started, I thought because we were not living in the capital we would be safe.

"When we learned they were killing Tutsis in our area, we didn't show ourselves around. I was not in danger, but my wife was. I saw bodies on the street and by the roadside. I saw people being beaten up, probably to death. It was terrible."

Nicholas's younger brother was killed by extremists when he was unable to provide adequate identification. His brother-in-law was beaten to death after they used dogs to chase him out of the house where he was hiding. The family only found out how they died years later at village courts set up to provide justice after the genocide.

Militants visited Nicholas and told him he had to choose between killing his wife or dying with her. He managed to buy time by bribing them, but realised they had to leave as soon as possible.

Friends found a fake ID for Elsie and they managed to get past the roadblocks and reach the Congo border. The couple travelled to Kenya with Jonathan, where they were forced to sleep on the airport floor for a week before they were allowed to stay.

A year later, they travelled to Edinburgh with the help of city woman Lesley Bilinda, who had lost her Rwandan husband, Charles, in the genocide.

She had set up a memorial fund and used donations from friends to help bring Nicholas and Elsie to Scotland.

He says they were overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received in Scotland. They settled in Rankin Drive, near King's Buildings, and he completed his studies at Edinburgh University. They soon made friends, and Elsie gave birth to two more children, Joseph, now 13, and Juliet, 11.

Although they were happy, Nicholas said his experiences in Edinburgh made him more determined to help other Rwandans rebuild their lives. Elsie was reluctant at first, but eventually agreed.

Nicholas says: "Our friends told us we were crazy, but we had to go back to come to terms with it."

They returned to discover Rwanda had changed beyond recognition. The economy had been completely destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were still living in refugee camps. The couple settled in the capital, Kigali.

Nicholas adds: "We went back to a country where we only knew the mountains. My father and mother were still alive, but we knew very few people. Before 1994, I couldn't walk for five minutes without seeing someone I knew.

"It was very difficult at first. The infrastructure was not very good and there were lots of power cuts. One of the heartbreaking realities was to see all the widows and orphans who were homeless.

"It was harder for Elsie. She had lost almost everybody in her family. She had nothing to go back to. She still had a lot of anger and fear.

"As a mum, she was concerned about the children and worried there wouldn't be proper medical care or schools. They had grown up in Scotland and didn't know anything else.

"We missed people in Edinburgh more than anything else, and the friendships we made there. We had to visit places and come to terms with not seeing the person you thought you would see."

He said returning helped their healing process. Both devout Christians, they are now able to forgive the perpetrators.

Nicholas says: "If you don't forgive, you are tied to the event forever. I'll still never understand how they could do it. How could a man like me kill a baby? They were ordinary people who somehow let themselves be evil."

Now Nicholas is working with 800 genocide widows and orphans in three farms to produce essential oils which are sold around the world. The community project, Ikirezi, is supported by the Together Partnership.

Elsie trains women in making handcrafts. She also teaches and counsels them to help come to terms with the past. They now have a fourth child, Jimy, six.

Nicholas says: "We feel we're in the right place. We can see lives being changed here.

"The children have integrated into our society and are doing well. But we would like to take them back to Edinburgh for a visit, and explain how we lived here.

"When we first came, I was so busy I hardly had time to look around. Now when I go back I can appreciate the beautiful buildings. We will never forget the friendships we made here."