Places of Refuge

Hotel Des Mille Collines:

In the movie, Sometimes in April, the protagonist, Augustin, travels to a place where it is rumored to be safe. Hotel Des Mille Collins. Was there such a place? Was it truly used as a sanctuary? Indeed it was. In 1994 during the Rwandan Genocide, as many as 700 Tutsi fled to the safety of the four-star hotel. A concierge remembered, “There were people sleeping everywhere. There was no water. It was filthy here. In the city, guns were shooting and there was smoke rising.” However, reports show that bullets were fired into the lobby of the hotel and a bullet landed on the first floor. Water was extremely scarce and so the people residing in the hotel drew water from the pool, even when the militia had urinated in it: “This is just water for inyenzi [cockroaches, the term for Tutsi].” (Vasagar , 2005)

Photo courtesy: (Neel, 2012)

Elsewhere in Kigali, churches were soon transformed into places of mass murder. According to

 “The film was shot on location in Rwanda, in the places where massacres took place. Every incident, however melodramatic or far-fetched, has its corollary in actual events. Wounded Tutsi really did hide out in the muddy marshes. The girls at the church school Sainte-Marie, some Hutu, some Tutsi, really did make a stand against the militia, choosing to die together rather than be split apart.” (Macnab, 2005)

Thousands of Tutsi did attempt to hide in places known traditionally as those of refuge and sanctuary: churches, schools, hospitals, and government buildings. (Rosenberg, 2012)

Sainte Famille Catholic Church in Kigali (Cultural Community Center):

While they did receive protection, however briefly, some Tutsi were allowed into churches, but were not as protected as they believed they would be—namely in the Sainte-Famille Catholic Church in Kigali. From the Harvard site of Genocide Memorials, a survivor was quoted as saying, “The doors of the church were open to everybody. They were closed at night to stop anyone from trying to escape.”(Meierhenrich, 2010)

New York Times journalist Raymond Bonner wrote: “What happened this year was horrendous — Tutsi slaughtered in fields, schools and homes, in churches where they sought sanctuary — yet the West did not intervene. That neglect, the argument goes, puts a moral obligation on the world not to desert the Rwandan people again.”(Bonner, 1994)

The problem here is that this report was taken from November 1994 edition. After the fact of the end of the genocide and it was not reported when the genocide was actually taking place during April of 1994.

Another New York Times article from September 7, 1994 interviews a man who was involved in the killings. It describes how hundreds of bodies taking refuge in a church were blown up by grenades: “Viateur Hakizimana, a 25-year-old provincial administrator who used to oversee schools and is now a prisoner in Kibungo, is one of the accused killers who could face trial at The Hague. Staring at some point beyond the walls of his cell, he describes the night this spring when soldiers peeled the iron sheeting from the roof of St. Joseph’s Church in Kibungo and killed hundreds of people who had taken refuge inside with fragmentation grenades. He denies throwing any grenades himself, though townspeople say otherwise.” (Cohen, 1994)

He continues to report that: “The evidence of genocide is not elusive. There are churches full of skeletal corpses, some of them still clutching identity cards with “Tutsi” printed under the picture. There is ranting propaganda from the months leading up to the massacres, like the “Hutu Ten Commandments” which were printed in Kangura, a leading Rwandan newspaper. No. 8 says, “The Hutu must not have mercy on the Tutsi.” The journalist Andrew Jay Cohen, actually visited Rwanda in August of that year.(Cohen, 1994)

The torment at Sainte-Famille included many rapes and multiple massacres. “A witness who spoke to the non-governmental organization African Rights, which chronicled the unfolding of Rwanda’s genocide in Death, Despair, and Defiance, said, “15 April was an unhappy day for the Tutsi refugees. At about 9:00 a.m., many well-armed militias invaded St. Famille. They came from several quarters of Kigali city including mine. I recognized the faces of several militiamen from my cellule (a cellule, French for “cell,” was an administrative unit, amounting, in essence, to a neighborhood). They told all the refugees, both Hutu and Tutsi, to return to the church and go inside. They had lists of targeted Tutsi. Each pew was guarded by at least ten assassins. The calling out of names did not take long to start. Many Tutsi men and boys were called. They made a long chain, joined together by their shirts. It was like the slave trade. They took the Tutsi out in several turns. At each exit we heard gun fire at the bottom of the church. The calling out continued until 4:00 p.m. before they left they told Abbé Wenceslas to separate the Tutsi from the Hutu. They also told him that next time it would be the women’s turn. Wenceslas told them that the women were not a problem as they did not have an ethnicity. He said the bad ones were the men.” (Meierhenrich, 2010)

·         This segment of the history during the Rwandan Genocide is depicted when Jeanne, Augustin’s wife, is staying at the Sainte-Famille Church. From the film it correctly depicts what horrors took place there: the names being called from a list given to the militias, the mass killings executed at the church, as well as the many rapes of many women. reports that “Also during the violence, thousands of Tutsi women were raped. Some were raped and then killed; others were kept as sex slaves for weeks. Some Tutsi women and girls were also tortured before being killed, such as having their breasts cut off or had sharp objects shoved up their vagina.”

The Father who presided over the cathedral was Father Munyeshyaka (Abbe Wenceslas). Father Munyeshyaka was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) with “genocide, rape as a crime against humanity, extermination as a crime against humanity, and murder as a crime against humanity.” On November 20, 2007 however, that Tribunal’s Prosecutor declared that Munyeshyaka be tried in France. On March 16, 2011 Munyeshyaka is a free man, a clergy in the good standing of the Catholic Church in a southern French village of Bourg-St Andeol where he conducts Mass every Sunday. In Rwanda, Sainte-Famille is an active parish that today supports a driving school. It would seem there is no indication that the genocide ever affected that cathedral. (Meierhenrich, 2010)

Photo courtesy of Jens Meierhenrich Copyright © 2010 (Meierhenrich, 2010)

Swamps and Sorghum Fields:

In the director’s commentary of the movie, a young man told Raoul Peck that the people hiding in the swamps would flee to the swamps during the day when the Hutu would “go to work” and they would hide there until dark and then make their weary way home to rest, nurse their wounds, and try to find food. While in the swamps, some of the Hutu would try to go into the swamps to attack those taking refuge there. The people hiding in the swamps would then flee deeper and try to evade them.

Video courtesy of David Fullerton © 2011 . All rights reserved. (Fullerton, 2011)

This is the testimony of Rachel, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide:

”Hiding in the sorghum fields with my cousin, I was a frequent victim of rape. So much so,  that  I  couldn’t  say  how  many  men  raped  me.  Some of them came from nearby villages, but many others were unknown to me.  After a while, the girls were advised it would be safe to return home.”

This is the testimony of Xavier, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide:

“My father was killed in the genocide, and my mother disabled. There are five children in my family. During the genocide, I witnessed many people being killed in my town, Nyanza.  We ran and hid in the bush, in the forest, in the river and in sorghum fields. We hid any place that could hide us from death; many Tutsi were killed and few survived. Nyanza was targeted because the King once lived here. The genocide targeted those that had not fled in 1959, following the revolution.

 I was slashed across the neck with a machete and it is by the grace of God that I am still alive.  The people that targeted us were a local administrator named Kamuhanda; Minani’ Paul; and others whose names I have forgotten but whose faces I remember. There were ten of us hiding together when we were caught. Our hands were tied behind our backs and they slashed us with the machetes.  They thought we were dead. But three  of  us  survived: a girl, a boy who has machete scars all over his body and me. After they left us for dead, we untied ourselves and everyone ran off alone. We only met again after the genocide.
My mother was a Hutu. She was the one who traveled to Nyanza to buy medicine for my wounds. She was not threatened because she had a Hutu identity card. For days I hid at the home of my mother’s brother. However, the situation was dangerous and I soon  returned to my hiding place in a sorghum field. I hid there until the end of the genocide.

I now meet people who carry scars like me. I meet widows who were in difficult situations; we pray and our hearts ease.  But the memories live on.”

More accounts of women who hid in the sorghum fields and various other hiding places can be read here


Other survivor’s accounts testify of hiding in such places as attics and even in a certain case, their neighbor’s shower. The clip below shows the interview of Immaculee Ilibaguza and her story of how she survived the Rwandan Genocide.

Rwandan Tutsi Forgives: Immaculee IIibaguza

“I tried to be as authentic as possible in making my films, even if it is under the label of fiction,” Peck says. Lines of dialogue, he points out, are taken directly from witnesses’ testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal. The film was shot on location in Rwanda, in the places where massacres took place. Every incident, however melodramatic or far-fetched, has its corollary in actual events. Wounded Tutsi really did hide out in the muddy marshes. The girls at the church school Sainte-Marie, some Hutu, some Tutsi, really did make a stand against the militia, choosing to die together rather than be split apart. In today’s Rwanda, the relatives of victims really do live side by side with the killers from a decade ago. “It’s just the reality. What can you do? Are you going to kill your neighbor now because he killed your family?” Peck asks. “People are tired. People want some rest … you can’t be living with eternal anger in you. Life must go on.” (Macnab, 2005)


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