by Thomas Sartor
1994 would not be the first time that Zura Karuhimbi witnessed violence arise in her home country of Rwanda. Having also experienced “inter-ethnic” violence in 1959, Rwanda faced a civil war between 1990-1994. This civil war would culminate in the genocide of Rwandans considered to be Tutsi. It is estimated that between 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsis lost their lives in the genocide.
Zura was an elderly widow, a healer in her town with a knowledge of local plants as remedies and a family reputation for being magic. She was recognized as Hutu, which could have offered her a safe route through the genocide. Moderate Hutu weren’t necessarily safe if they stood with the Tutsi against the ideas of their would be murderers. Zura was believed to be in her 70s during the time of the genocide.
She could have guaranteed her own safety by simply not sticking out her neck. Instead, she took in over 100 people to protect them from being murdered. She could not fight against the militias, the military, or the gendarmerie. Really there wasn’t much stopping the would-be murderers from entering her home and killing every one of the refugees inside. The people protected by Zura were mostly Tutsi but there were also some Pygmy Burundians and three Europeans. Some were infants rescued from the arms of their murdered mothers. These people would hide in her two-bedroom house, her attic, and a hole she dug in her back garden.
Zura’s tool of defense was to play the role given to her by her town’s superstitions, the role of a witch. She wore extra bracelets and accessories that she could shake and use to make noise for her “rituals.” She covered her house and herself with local plants that would irritate human skin. A simple touch from one of the murderers and BAM, instant proof of witchery. She claimed her house was filled with spirits and demons and that harming anyone within her home would unleash the wrath of God. Her incredible bluff and creative special effects led to the survival of every person who sought refuge in her home. “If they die, I die,”. Zura explained her thoughts of the time to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Zura Karuhimbi’s actions were recognized by the Rwandan government when she was presented with the Campaign Against Genocide Medal in 2006 and by the Italian Government in 2009 when a tree was planted in her honor in the Garden of the Righteous in Milan. She refused cash rewards for her actions stating that she only cares that her story is told so people may see “the good that can be done when evil is everywhere.” Zura passed away the 17 December 2018 in poverty. Zura as any hero didn’t do this to become rich or famous. She did this because it was right. As an elderly widow, Zura put her life at risk to save over 100 lives. At a time when Rwanda needed a hero, they found one…in witch’s clothing.