He was ordered to dig his own grave and wrote a letter to relatives that began, “I regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed.”
Survival looked bleak for 14-year-old Claude Gatebuke during the Rwandan genocidal massacre of 1994. But Gatebuke’s life was spared just hours before he was scheduled to be murdered and he eventually sought refuge in Congo on his way to the United States.
“People were getting killed with brutality as machetes and clubs were the weapons of choice,” said Gatebuke while addressing McMinnville’s Noon Rotary Club on Thursday. “People were massacred in stadiums and markets. Rwanda became a human butchery. Bodies were piling up on the sides of streets.”
Gatebuke said violence erupted into a full-scale civil war in Rwanda after the assassination of its president on April 6, 1994. In the months to follow, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans were killed, constituting about 20 percent of the African country’s total population. The Tutsi people were especially singled out as the target of violence.
Gatebuke said buying weapons such as grenades became increasingly af-fordable so it was common for people to be heavily armed.
“If somebody didn’t like you, they would throw a grenade in your window while you were asleep,” said Gatebuke.
With violence escalating, and a heavily armed neighbor killing a number of people, Gatebuke, 14 at the time, thought it best to flee. However, his group was captured by militants and scheduled to be slaughtered the next morning.
“Neighbors rushed in, these were women and children, and they pleaded for our lives,” said Gatebuke. “They had seen this happen before and they didn’t want to see it happen again.”
Gatebuke said this desperate plea created enough pause among the mili-tants that he was able to slip away and escape. After hiding out for about a month, he said he was able to cross the border and gain some measure of safety in Congo.
He eventually made his way to the United States where he settled in Nash-ville. He attended Hillsboro High School and later Western Kentucky where he was able to enjoy his love for soccer.
Now 34, Gatebuke said the United Nations did little to help the people of Rwanda during these atrocities against mankind.
“The international response was a failure,” said Gatebuke. “You must remember, doing nothing is helping the perpetrator.”
Gatebuke is co-founder and executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network. He has campaigned across his new homeland for mutual understanding, tolerance and social justice.
A WCPI 91.3 interview with Gatebuke will air Tuesday at 5 p.m., Wednesday at 5:05 a.m., and Thursday at 1 p.m.