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ACN Feature Story: Rwanda – the first victims of the 1994 genocide

25 Apr 2019, by Amanda in ACN Feature, ACN Intl, Rwanda

RWANDA

A Christian couple, among the first victims of the 1994 genocide

Twenty-five years ago, on April 7, 1994, Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba were cut down by the bullets of the Hutu militias. Cyprien was already a celebrated poet and choreographer who had undergone a radical conversion and was working actively for the reconciliation of the different tribal groups within his country.

Text by Thomas Oswald for ACN International
Adapted for Canada by Amanda Bridget Griffin
Published online: April 25, 2019

Their killers murdered them on the first night of the genocide while they were praying before the Blessed Sacrament in their home. They desecrated the Tabernacle and scattered the consecrated hosts over the floor.

Everybody, or at least nearly everybody in Rwanda, already knew the name of Cyprien Rugamba, a recognized poet, dancer and choreographer who was now working tirelessly for reconciliation in Rwanda. Together with his wife, Daphrose, he had introduced the Emmanuel community into their country and was working to support street children while making no distinction between the three main ethnic groups in the country, the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Shortly before he was murdered, Cyprien had appealed to the authorities to remove the designation of tribal identity from people’s identity cards. It was an initiative that provoked deep hostility from the agitators who were seeking to foment civil war and which probably earned him his place among the very first victims of the massacre.

Rwanda-pray

A radical conversion

Although he was raised as a Christian, Cyprien Rugamba had subsequently become very hostile towards Christianity, according to Laurent Landete, member of the Emmanuel community. For example, when his wife was in hospital on one occasion, Cyprien demanded that all the crucifixes be removed from her room, and he was also unfaithful to her and willing to listen to all kinds of calumnies against her, even to the point of being about to repudiate her. But then he fell gravely ill, and he, who was an artist, an intellectual and a dancer, found he could no longer speak, think or even move. “My pride was annihilated by this trial,” he recalled subsequently. Meanwhile, his wife faithfully continued to stay by him, remaining by his bedside throughout his illness, praying for him and watching over this husband whom she loved without apparently receiving any love in return.

Cyprien made a complete recovery – “miraculously,” he subsequently maintained. And following this “desert experience” he underwent a radical conversion of heart. Together with his wife, he set out to devote himself to works of charity. She had a little shop in the capital, Kigali, but the street children kept stealing potatoes from her stall. Realizing their terrible poverty, she decided to do something to help them. And the charity she set up then – and which is named after them – CECYDAR (Centre Cyprien et Daphrose Rugamba) – is still bearing fruit today. For 20 years the Centre has been welcoming children from the streets of Kigali and transforming their lives.”

“I will enter heaven dancing”

Cyprien Rugamba’s conversion also marked a profound change in his artistic career. “From now on, his centre of gravity was in heaven,”says Father Guy-Emmanuel Cariot, Rector of the Basilica in the French city of Argentueil, who organized an evening during which the Rugamba couple would be especially honoured on the 25th anniversary of their death. In fact, the cause for their beatification had already been launched by the Archdiocese of Kigali in 2015.

One of their children, who was actually present with them but survived the massacre, reported that when the killers entered, their first question to Cyprien was, “Are you a Christian?” to which his father had replied, “Yes, very Christian! And I will enter heaven dancing!” He was in fact repeating the words of a song he had written and which had become very popular in Rwanda. Daphrose then asked permission to pray one last time before the Tabernacle, which the family kept in their home. Her only answer was to be clubbed over the head with a rifle butt, then the soldiers turned their machine guns on the Tabernacle and then scattered the hosts over the floor, as though it was necessary for them to kill God first before they could kill men. They were roughly manhandled, then the whole family, including both parents, six children, one niece and a household employee, were herded together and machine-gunned to death.

The evening before they were executed, several friends had telephoned them in anguish. They later recalled being impressed by their quiet serenity. They had made no attempt to flee, preferring instead to believe right to the end in a Rwanda that was still united and capable of making peace.