The Running Man

2010-09-25 23:28

John Twahirwa (33) fled Rwanda in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

But before fleeing, Twahirwa had to taste the fear of having a gun pointed at him with the finger of a rebel soldier on the trigger.

“Do you like how we got rid of the government?” asked the soldier.

Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, of the Hutu ethnic group just like Twahirwa, had been assassinated almost four months earlier, setting off a rapid and brutal genocide of alarming proportions.

People from the minority Tutsi ethnic group and some Hutus were targeted and estimates of the dead range from 500 000 to 1 million.

All in the space of 80 days.

And now, in August 1994, the Tutsi-led rebel group Rwandan Patriotic Front had seized control of the government.

Many Hutus began fleeing the country for fear of Tutsi retaliation for the genocide, among them Twahirwa’s family.

“Yes,” the then 15-year-old Twahirwa answered the soldier.

Twahirwa perceives that saying yes to the questions pointed to him was to save him and his family.

“God protected me at that time. I told the guy I didn’t know anything.”

Fleeing Rwanda meant running over the bloody, lifeless bodies of some of his friends and construction-worker colleagues.

“Some with blood still gushing from their heads,” he says.

Leaving Rwanda was the start of a long journey, which Twahirwa, now a manual odd-jobs labourer in South Africa, hopes he has completed.

Twahirwa, his parents and siblings fled to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“DRC was still okay back then. We had relatives there.

“In 1997 when I perceived that Kagame’s army was after Rwandan Hutus who’d fled to neighbouring countries, I ran to Tanzania. The rest of my family decided to return home because we heard that America had urged the Rwandan government not to kill children.”

In Tanzania, Twahirwa took on odd jobs to survive, and saved up enough money to go to Kenya in 1999.

Twahirwa got a passport in Kenya that classified him as a refugee.

“I worked in Kenya as a manual labourer too. I had worked as a construction worker in Rwanda so I was used to hard physical labour. I learnt how to drive trucks, and got a job to go the Mombasa harbour. From that job I earned $1 000. It was there that I heard people talking about South Africa.

“In 2005, I took a big bus to Zambia. It passed by the DRC and I managed to see my family again. When I arrived in Zambia, I suffered a lot but I was able to get small jobs because I was strong. I finally got a job as a bakkie driver. In 2008, I journeyed to Zimbabwe.”

“I stayed in Zimbabwe for six months. It was really terrible; there was great hunger. So I decided to come to South Africa because I was near.

Getting into South Africa proved a feat for Twahirwa, but when he was able to get into the country, he suddenly found himself in the alien city of Johannesburg.

“I had no accommodation so I slept outside the bus station for a week. I used to beg for food from strangers because I didn’t have any money. But a friend in Zimbabwe had given me the pone number and address of a man who could help me.

“I found this man and he took me to his house where I stayed for 3 months. I got a job in a fruit and vegetables shop even though I had limited English. After I had worked there for 6 months I went to the Home Affairs department to apply for refugee status, which worked out successfully.

“Now I work as a caretaker for houses that are on sale around the Melville area.”

Lucky number 6?
South Africa is the 6th African country in which Twahirwa has lived. How has he experienced it?

“I feel welcome in South Africa in the sense that it gave me refugee status papers. But I have experienced terrible prejudice. When I went to the traffic department to apply for a licence and got treated so badly.

“I had to go back five times, each time being told I’m missing something. As soon as I went with my pastor, who is white, then they could fix my documents. But it’s not only that department. For the departments that I have visited, once they find out that I am a foreigner, they treat me horribly.”

What about ordinary citizens?

“I realise that some people don’t like me because I am a foreigner and people have told me face-to-face ‘Kwere-kwere, you come from outside to steal jobs from my sister and brother’.

“But some people are inquisitive about me when they learn that I am Hutu, especially cops who stop me on the road. Some people know what is happening in my country so they fear me.”

Has Twahirwa stopped running?

“My home is Rwanda; it is where I was born. I will go back to Rwanda one day but for me Rwanda is not fine right now. I know people are hungry there and some are being jailed for nothing. There’s no health facilities. It doesn’t matter how bad a state you’re in, you die. But here in South Africa I can make a plan.

“You come here by bus or plane, as I’ve heard some people are now doing; it doesn’t matter. You do what you can to help yourself and your family.”

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