The witch who protected a village from genocide

Rwanda 🇷🇼 woman Zara Karuhimbi, who saved dozens from genocide.

Zura Karuhimbi had no weapons to defend herself when the men waving machetes surrounded her home, demanding she hand over those she was sheltering inside.

She did, however, have a reputation for magical powers.

That reputation, and the fear it engendered in the group of heavily armed men, was enough to keep an elderly woman and more than 100 others safe during the Rwandan genocide.

Some 800,000 other Tutsis and moderate Hutus would die in the ethnic violence which engulfed Rwanda in 1994 – including her first-born son and a daughter.

“During the genocide, I saw the darkness of a man’s heart,” she would tell The East African two decades later from the same tiny, two-room house she hid so many people inside.

Born to a family of traditional healers

Karuhimbi died peacefully at home in Musamo Village, about an hour east of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, on Monday. No-one is entirely sure how old she was.

By her own account, she may well have been well over 100. Official documents suggest she was closer to 93.

Either way, when the Hutu militias – known as the Interahamwe – arrived in her village, she was not a young woman.

Karuhimbi was, according to the numerous stories written about her life, born to a family of traditional healers in about 1925. The year comes courtesy of an official identity card.

It could be argued that her path towards the events of 1994 was set in motion when she was still just a child. It was then the Belgians decided to take the population of Rwanda, and split them into clearly demarcated groups – complete with identity cards, laying out whether they were Hutu or Tutsi.

Karuhimbi’s family were Hutu, the group which made up the majority of Rwanda’s population. The minority Tutsis were considered superior, and for this reason, given access to better jobs and educational opportunities by the colonialists.

The division fuelled tensions between the two groups: Karuhimbi was still young in 1959, when Tutsi King Kigeri V, together with tens of thousands of Tutsis, were forced into exile in neighbouring Uganda following what was referred to as a Hutu revolution in Rwanda.

So, when the first attacks began in the days which followed the downing of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994, it was not the first time she had seen such violence.

But she could not have known how bad things would get, as Hutu husbands began to turn on their Tutsi wives in order to avoid the same fate.

Even if she did, one suspects it wouldn’t have stopped her.

“I used to say, ‘If they die, I will also die,'” she told the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

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