The morning of April 7, 1994, the day the genocide started, began like any other for 11-year-old Tuyisenge Narcisse. (Rwandans typically put surnames before first names in writing, but with his permission, I will refer to him as Narcisse.) He and his friends snuck around their neighborhood stealing fruits off their neighbor’s trees and playing with each other, as 11-year-olds do. Preoccupied with their games, the children were blissfully unaware of the bloodshed and horrors that were literally coming over the hills of Kigali.
Soon, though, Narcisse and his friends could hear gunshots from the Parliament building, where moderate politicians and UN workers were trying to hash out a compromise government under the Arusha accords, but were taken hostage by Hutu Power militia. Narcisse listened as, within hours, people marched through the streets, excitedly singing and chanting about the lives they were going to take. He watched his parents grow increasingly anxious and witnessed neighbors creating roadblocks to capture Tutsis.
“My journey is big from where I came to where I am going.”
Tuyisenge Narcisse, Genocide Survivor
“We had to leave my house to hide because the killers would find my mom to kill her,” he told me. Narcisse was a product of a mixed marriage—his mother was Tutsi, his father Hutu. “My father was really quiet. He told us, ‘you must come to hide.’ My dad…was not doing any genocide. He was a really great person, you cannot imagine.”
During the 100 days of killing, Narcisse hid in the bushes around Kigali, sometimes with his parents and sister, and occasionally alone. From those bushes, he witnessed brutal rape, murder, and the destruction of his country. He heard the screams of people fighting for their lives—sounds and images, he says, he will never forget. At eleven years old he lived each day with the fear that it might be his last.
Although Narcisse ultimately survived the genocide, his struggles were far from over.
On our trip, I had had the privilege of getting to know the grown-up version of this 11-year-old boy. While I arrived in Rwanda aware I would hear difficult stories and meet those affected by the genocide, I never expected that the man picking me up at the airport, the man who would be with us every day as our driver, sometimes translator, and everyday ambassador, would soon become like family to me.I decided to focus my project on learning more about this genocide survivor, who seemed amazingly well-adjusted, considering what he had been through. Over the next two weeks, I came to know the incredible person that is Tysenye Narcisse. As I learned about the person he is today I also came to know the story of his past. During our many shared meals and long car rides, he began revealing memories and anecdotes of his turbulent history. Along the way, he provided clues about his resilience, though I learned more when I got home and researched more about what factors enable survivors of profound trauma, especially children, to beat the odds and thrive.
Narcisse eventually left the bushes of Kigali and joined his family in a refugee camp during the final weeks of the genocide. There, he later learned, his mother began a relationship with a one-star general from the Rwandan Patriotic Front. (The RPF is the force that ultimately ended the genocide and installed the government that exists today.)
Once the genocide ended, Narcisse and his father, mother, and siblings returned home. But three days after the genocide officially ended, his father became violently ill with agonizing stomach pains. Narcisse remembers the screams reverberating through the house. “Not anyone helped him,” he told me. “We were child, but I think, why my mother does not help him with his pain? She said ‘your daddy is screaming, your daddy has a problem,’ but she never helped.”
Narcisse’s father passed away in the family home two days later. Immediately following his father’s death, the RPF soldier, from the refugee camp, moved in with Narcisse’s family, and shortly after that began abusing Narcisse, often beating him with a metal rod. “He want me to go out of our house, but I don’t know why…Then after [suffering] different punishment for nothing I decided to get out of my house.”
Narcisse was fifteen when he decided that living on the streets was better than enduring the daily abuse he received at home. “The one thing that makes me unhappy sometimes is they sold the house of my father without giving me any part of money. Always when I pass by near of my house, I feel bad in my heart.”
In Narcisse’s story, this truly seems to be what has caused him the most suffering: the feeling of having everything that was once his being ripped away with no ability to control the outcome. The first half of his life had been a series of misfortune, loss, and abuse that would break an average person.
While the events that occurred after the genocide were not uncommon for child survivors Narcisse’s resilience was. Narcisse is among the 90% percent of child survivors who witnessed killings and had their lives threatened as well as being in the 35% who lost an immediate family member during or directly after the genocide. He is among the 30% of children who witnessed rape or sexual mutilation. Additionally, the combination of abuse, property exploitation and death caused by HIV/AIDs is sadly a common story for many child survivors of the genocide and is what ultimately leads children like Narcisse to a life as a displaced and eventually orphaned child living on the streets.
Despite the odds stacked against childhood survivors of the genocide, especially those who had essentially been orphaned, Narcisse was determined to reverse the outcome of his life. At about twelve he began selling peanuts and eggs on the street. Later he sold chickens. As a teenager, he learned to drive a motorcycle, which opened another income stream through taxiing people. Through a series of jobs and with an entrepreneurial spirit, Narcisse slowly earned enough money to support himself and a new family. Today, he has a business as a driver, with a roster of foreign clients—a profession that allows him, for the first time, to take control of the life that for so long had been robbed from him. In 2015 he married his wife Zitha, and they are raising their two-year-old daughter Keren, who they are absolutely in love with.One afternoon as we shared grilled cheese and fries, waiting for the rain to pass, I asked Narcisse how he was able to get out of bed in the mornings. He told me, “I did not get time to think about my family while I was also in another struggling life. We cannot take time to think about bad life and think about what happened. We need to look forward and think about the future.”
“My journey is big from where I came to where I am going,” Narcisse tells me, and that is obvious from knowing him. He seems to have a remarkable ability to live each day with honesty, dignity, grit, and grace. He also speaks a lot about how God is his savior and treated us to a great deal of the pop-gospel music that is so popular across Rwanda.
When I returned from Rwanda, I did a little research to learn more about what might account for Narcisse’s resilience. Two things from this research stuck with me. First, trauma survivors who researchers categorize as “resilient,” tend to draw on resources that help them construct a new worldview, a way of understanding the world in the wake of what they have been through. For Narcisse, the Pentecostal church that has grown in Rwanda since the genocide has been a significant resource. The Pentecostal church provides a community that allows children like Narcisse and other refugees a way to build ‘survivor networks’ where they can create surrogate families and strong networks of support, something Narcisse often attributes to his success. Participants that displayed resilience first had to reconstruct a new world view due to the destruction of the world they once knew.
If you ever travel to Rwanda, I encourage you to track down Narcisse to help you get around the country. You can be assured that, within days, this warm man will be there to wipe away your tears, to cry with you, to laugh with you, to learn with you and explore with you. He will always be the best dressed in the room and will ALWAYS be thinking about his next business deal. He might not make you his personal assistant, as he did with me from the passenger seat of his car. But you will giggle. As we did, at the way he exclaims with a high-pitched “eh eh eh” or the occasional “ah ah” when he is surprised or disturbed, or how he rubs his bald head in the palms of his hands when he’s stressed. You will learn how God is indeed his savior and listen to more Christian music than you ever thought possible. You will learn how his wife Zitha gave him guidance and purpose. You will be asked to explain many things that you don’t have an answer for and if you write with your left hand know that Narcisse will be watching in awe. Most importantly, you will become acutely aware of just how extraordinary the man in the silver jeep is and feel honored that even if only for a moment, your life crossed path with this incredible survivor.
Senior, Political Science
Professor Nancy D. Wadsworth
I hope to continue refining the class in coming years, but I know that the profundity and sense of emotional community that marked the first time with this remarkable group of students will be forever impressed on my memory.
Honoring the Dead? Struggling to Understand the Presence of Human Remains at Rwandan Genocide Memorials
The Rwandan government argues that the display of human remains is one necessary effort to counter denialism about the Genocide Against the Tutsi. Thus, it is not without careful consideration that bodies are placed on display.
Defining roles in the civil wars and genocides is much fuzzier than the official government narratives would lead us to believe.
As we learned, some of the deadliest massacre sites were Catholic Churches, most notably Ntarama and Nyamata, and partly because their priests abandoned their own parishioners or actively enabled genocidaires.
With so much emphasis on survivors, it’s difficult to understand what inspired some Hutus to murder and others to resist.
From the Fields of Genocide: How Individuals Accepted Genocidal Ideation in the Genocide Against the Tutsi
Examining the role that propaganda played in the genocide and focusing on the internal psychological processes that translated genocidal ideation into active participation in ethnic cleansing.
There were many echoes of the Holocaust in our tour of Rwanda’s more recent trauma.