Francois Musonera, father of two little girls, attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He now teaches Spanish at Hartford Union High School and lives in Beaver Dam, Wis. Sounds like an average Wisconsinite, right? Well, no: He’s been in the U.S. for 15 years, but 15 years ago Musonera was walking across Rwanda, his native land, fleeing a populace gone mad with hate for “the other.“
Musonera explained the history of the conflict in a presentation sponsored by local Amnesty International Chapter 139. Rwanda’s three ethnic groups, Hutus (84 percent), Tutsi (15 percent), and Twa (1 percent), had lived relatively peacefully for 400 years, though the Tutsis had dominated and forced the Hutus to serve almost as slaves. In the 1900s, Europeans came to Rwanda as colonizers. Germany was first; Germany worked with the Tutsi king and helped govern Rwanda, creating hospitals and schools. When Europe carved up Africa “like a Thanksgiving turkey” through the Treaty of Versailles, Rwanda was taken from Germany and given to Belgium.
In 1959, Belgium came up with the idea of democracy. The Tutsis, including the king, were not happy. But the colonizers were very powerful, elections were organized, and a Hutu president won.
The Tutsi king left Rwanda but in 1990 attacked from Uganda, on Rwanda’s northern border, and secured some land from which to continue his fight. High-ranking politicos began agitating, pitting Hutu against Tutsi. The people were frightened and looked for ways to protect themselves.
Then, in 1994, the Hutu president’s plane was shot down. No one claimed responsibility; each group blamed the other.
“I was outside with friends, and we heard a bomb,” Musonera recalled. “We didn’t know what had happened. Then at 4 a.m., there were gunshots everywhere. We still didn’t know.
“The government started looking for killers. Hutus started killing the Tutsis around them. Everywhere you looked there were dead bodies, not even buried … After about three months, Tutsi rebels took over [the government] and started seeking revenge.”
“Eventually we were surrounded by two fighting armies. The only way to escape was to run through the bullets. I did so and entered the city of Kigali. It had always been a busy place, but it was almost empty. There were dead bodies, and homes and buildings were destroyed. I left the city and walked west.”
“People were thrown into rivers or lakes. Those who were afraid, like me, walked for days without food or water. When we found water, we’d drink and drink, even if there was a body in it. I walked for about three months across the country …
“Hutus would go around in the woods looking for Tutsis.” They would shoot them, throw a grenade or a bomb, or use a machete. Dead bodies were everywhere.”
Once, as he walked west, Musonera got a ride in the bed of an overcrowded pickup truck. Another passenger, a young boy, lost his balance and fell under the front wheel. His head was crushed and his brains spread all over. His fellow passengers did their best to push the brains back into the boy’s skull. But for two years after that, Musonera said, “every time I ate, I saw that boy’s brains instead of my food.”
Another time he saw soldiers herding a crowd together to kill them. A young woman in the crowd recognized one of the soldiers as a former boyfriend and threw herself against him. But another soldier grabbed her and threw her back into the crowd to be killed.
Musonera, like many Rwandans, is a mixture of Hutu and Tutsi. At least once a soldier accused him of being Tutsi: “He pushed me down, looked at my hands, and told me to walk around. Another soldier said, ’I know him. He is not Tutsi.’ The first soldier went away angry.”
Musonera showed us pictures of people crowding the roads to flee the atrocities. “There were masses of people fleeing, carrying their belongings, not knowing where they were going. People got confused and lost track of each other … Most ended up in Zaire, which is now Congo.
“The living conditions [in Zaire] were horrible. Many were dying. There was no food, no healthcare, and many had dysentery. Feces and dead bodies were everywhere; many times I didn’t know were to put my foot! There was international aid, but not enough.”
“I couldn’t stay in Zaire, so I went to Ivory Coast and then to Senegal, where I could feel safe. U.S. government officers in Senegal invited us to the U.S., and in 1997 I went.” Musonera’s journey continued as he flew to Paris, then New York, then Chicago, and at last Dubuque, Iowa, where he’d found a sponsor through a friend who’d gone to school in Platteville, Wis.
Musonera, too, ended up at UW-Platteville. Working in food service there, he met a man from Spain who taught him some Spanish. He’d been a substitute French teacher in Rwanda and wanted to teach history and French here, but Spanish seemed a better bet for the U.S. job market. Besides, Spanish was easy for him! So his story continues as it began in the first paragraph above: Musonera became a U.S. citizen in 2005, married, and now has two children, lives in Beaver Dam, and teaches high school Spanish.
Musonera’s birth family is scattered all over the world. His father was murdered; his mother died of natural causes. Some siblings died due to repercussions from the war (illness but no health care available); those remaining have been able to visit or otherwise communicate. A few months ago, after 16 years, his sister learned that her husband was still alive. “He’s in Rwanda, married to another woman, and they have six kids!”
Musonera has written a book titled “Surviving the Genocide: A Story of the Extermination of More Than 800,000 People As Told by One Who Survived.” Whether the friend he dedicated the book to is alive or dead, he doesn‘t know.
Musonera says he wrote the book mainly for young American adults. “As a high school teacher, I hear some teenagers say that their lives are miserable, and I think it is because they have never experienced what real hardship is.” Appreciative comments from young people indicate to him that the book is having its desired effect.
Musonera’s appearance in Madison was sponsored by the local chapter of Amnesty International, which meets the second Thursday evening of every month at the Goodman South Madison Branch Library. Copies of his 117-page book are available by calling 262-223-1533 or 920-219-9705 or e-mailing email@example.com. To help Rwandans still struggling with the trauma and poverty left by the war, Musonera recommends BRIDGE TO RWANDA CHARITY at http://www.sisterpat.com