‘I look forward to being part of a generation that is creating an honest, creative culture through the written word that is distinctly Rwandan and accessible and open to friends of Rwanda.’
You can download the PDF version of Jo Ingabire's life story here.
You can download the easy to read version of Jo Ingabire's life story here.
Jo Ingabire was born in 1989 in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. She had a happy early childhood with her mother, father and five siblings. Neighbours, in Jo’s community, were akin to family. Parents would look after each other’s children and many were close friends. The children spent their days playing together in the mango and avocado trees at the end of the red dirt track road. When she was five years old, Jo’s school teacher asked the class to separate, with Tutsis on one side of the classroom and Hutus on the other - the two main ethnic groups in Rwanda. When she told her parents, they asked her to pretend that she was a Hutu for her own safety. From this point, her family became more cautious and often stayed at home as they began to fear leaving the house.
It was 1994, and tension between Hutus and Tutsis, had been escalating for many years. A radio station supported by the Hutu government was set up with the purpose of spreading propaganda and dehumanising Tutsis, labelling them as ‘cockroaches’ and playing anti-Tutsi songs. Jo and her family moved their mattresses into the hallway of their home and boarded their windows, whilst her brothers took turns keeping watch.
On 6 April, the plane carrying the Hutu President of Rwanda was shot down. Although it was unclear who was responsible, the blame was placed with Tutsis, and violence broke out against Tutsis and moderate Hutus across the country. The government provided weapons and encouraged civilians to murder their Tutsi friends and neighbours. This was the first of 100 days of genocide, during which around one million people were murdered.
On 9 April, six men from the local police station knocked at the door of Jo’s home. They gathered the family together and shot indiscriminately until they thought everyone was dead. Jo’s father, brother and two sisters were murdered in front of her. Jo, her mother and two other siblings each suffered multiple gunshot wounds. She was shocked to find that only one of their neighbours came to their aid - a 14-year-old Hutu girl. She bravely attended to Jo’s injuries while her mother covered her mouth to muffle her screams.
They would later discover that her father’s godsons - her brother’s best friends - were the ones who went to the police and reminded them that the family were Tutsi. Friends and neighbours had been turned against each other, largely through the power of propaganda – the power of words to spread hatred and divide communities.
Jo’s brother and sister hid with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) whilst Jo and her mother stayed in their neighbourhood. They moved between houses quickly, as all of their neighbours were too scared to hide them for very long. Eventually, neighbours refused to take them in, and Jo and her mother went back to their home to hide. They stayed in a separate, self-contained part of the house behind a locked door, where her neighbour delivered stolen medical supplies and food to them. From there, they listened to the people who had murdered their family now using their home as a rest stop between their attacks on other Tutsis.
Jo and her mother were eventually able to escape to the countryside with her uncle, who was working for a Hutu official, which granted him protection. For the remaining days of the genocide, they hid at her uncle’s farm, spending most of their time underground until the RPF approached. This was a particularly dangerous time, as the perpetrators were desperate to kill any remaining survivors who would be able to give testimony about their crimes. Jo, who could not walk due to the gunshot wounds in her legs, was carried to the safety of the RPF lines. The genocide officially ended 100 days after it had begun, on 17 July 1994.
In addition to losing half of her immediate family, Jo lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. She was lucky to survive, but still bears the physical and mental scars which remind her of the hatred she witnessed. The remaining members of the family returned to their home, but soon moved out as Jo’s mother could not afford to pay for the family home without her husband. She sent Jo’s brother and sister to boarding schools, so they would have a better chance of survival if anything similar were to happen again.
After the genocide ended, violence and tension continued in Rwanda. Just a few years later, Jo’s school was broken into by armed men who held her and her classmates hostage. As a result, her mother sent her to boarding school in Uganda. Still a child, Jo found herself adapting to a different culture, away from her home and her family. When she was 13, she experienced this again when she moved to the UK with her mother.
As a teenager, Jo struggled to come to terms with the trauma she had been suppressing. She suffered from nightmares and flashbacks. Eventually, Jo began to process and deal with the trauma from her past. As part of this process, she decided to return to Kigali. She found a different Rwanda to the place of her childhood. Instead of violence and division, she found a country which was rebuilding and confronting its past.
Jo found that writing helped her to process her experiences. What began as a personal tool for recovery has grown into a greater ambition to reclaim and explore Rwandan culture and literature. She says: ‘Writing is really important to me. The Tutsi story had only been told through Hutu propaganda. Now, we are reclaiming our narrative’. Words, Jo says, played a huge role in the genocide. Rwandan culture was typically shaped around oral tradition, rather than the written word. The government knew this, so radio became a vital tool to spread propaganda. Violence towards the Tutsis was normalised by the damaging rhetoric that Rwandans heard every day through their radios. This language permeated everyday life to the extent that perpetrators felt they were not killing their friends and neighbours, but simply exterminating ‘cockroaches’.
Today, Jo is using the power of words for good with Survivors Tribune, a charity supporting survivors of genocide to share their testimonies. She is leading a campaign to collect and share 100 stories to commemorate the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda.
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