The carnage of the Lubutu Bridge

marie-beatrice-umutesiThis is an extract from the book of Marie Beatrice Umutesi  – Surviving the Slaughter – the ordeal of a Rwandan refugee in Zaire – starting from page 3. It is part of the author’s prologue. The story she tells all along her entire writing is her journey during the perilous period of the recent Rwandan history which stems from 1990 in her native Byumba of northern Rwanda to 2000 when she manages to leave Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Inside DRC, she survived life-threatening experiences in  Walikale, Lubutu, Ubundu, Obilo, Yatolema, Yate, Ikela, Bokungu,  Bolomba,  Ingende,  Bonde, Bombenga and Batsina. A journey she made of around 2,000 kilometers on foot during several months of different seasons, while encountering different Congolese tribes, being exposed to hunger and numerous assaults of her rights as a human being.

When I finished reading her, I was like coming out of watching a horror movie in which the spectator is not confronted with one atrocious event but a never ending trail of many. At the end one wonders how she managed to get through all that and survived. Unless this was a divine purpose to spare her where hundreds of thousands of her compatriots perished so she could be witness to what had happened.

“I have no idea how much time I spent trapped in the middle of the crowd. I am rather small, and I had to use my elbows to make a little breathing room, or I would have fainted. Just as a small group of us neared the bridge, we heard shots. At first I wasn’t alarmed, because I thought that soldiers from the Forces Armees  Zairoises [former name of FARDC  under the Mobutu regime] were shooting in the air to frighten the refugees so they could rob them. Later, the shots, which in the beginning had been sporadic, came more often. People scattered in every direction, abandoning most of their provisions. In this terrified mass, those who fell were trampled. There was such a crush of people attempting to cross the bridge that many of them were shoved into the river. Thousands of others threw themselves into the water, trying to swim to the far bank. Where the river was deep, children, the old, and the sick drowned.

When people began to run in all directions, sweeping before them everyone who was in their path, I tried to keep my balance and held tight to Zuzu’s hand, which was covered with scabies. She in turn tugged at my hand saying, “Auntie, let’s run fast. If we don’t, they will kill us.”  We ran on, pushed from behind by those who followed, and hid in the closest huts, but there was so much shooting that these were not safe either. We entered the forest by the first path we found. After running for about a kilometre, those in front stopped abruptly, as if there were something that had frightened them, and suddenly they turned on their heels. We abandoned the path and entered the depths of the forest. The branches struck on our heads, and thorns and brambles scratched our arms and faces. Happily, the other girls had followed me on this mad dash. Under the dense cover of the forest we stopped to figure out what to do. We couldn’t stay hidden for too long, since we needed to eat and drink. Furthermore, the place where we were wasn’t far from the road, and the rebels would find us during the first clean-up operation. Nor was it a good idea to continue deeper into the forest, since we were unfamiliar with the area. I decided to retrace our steps and try to find a shallow spot along the river where we could wade across. The water came up to my chest. I feel dizzy when I walk in water, and Marcelline held my hand so that I would not fall and drown. A man who was with us offered to carry Zuzu to the other side, since she was in danger of being swept away by the current, which was quite strong there.

When we finally reached Lubutu, we realized that two children were missing, a boy who left Tingi-Tingi with us and a four year old I had picked up the night before who had been separated from her mother in the confusion. I had entrusted her to Virginie. When we were running through the forest she let go of Virginie’s hand and was lost in the crowd. As for the boy, Assumpta was the person responsible for him. She had succeeded in keeping him with her since Tingi-Tingi, in spite of the commotion. However, when the shooting broke out, Assumpta and the boy both fell, knocked down and trampled by the fleeing mass of people. When Assumpta finally was able to get up, she tried to find the boy, but in vain. Later we continued, unsuccessfully, to search for these two children. In light of the numbers of people who perished at Lubutu Bridge, I don’t have much hope that they survived. During the shooting we also abandoned a large part of what we had carried from Tingi-Tingi so that we could run faster. We weren’t the only ones who had to abandon part of our provisions. Mountains of peas, corn, flour, buckets, and blankets carpeted the road.”

The story told in the above extract occurs during 1997 when the AFDL forces of Laurent Desire Kabila helped by the Uganda/Rwanda coalition of RPF and UPDF are progressing towards Kinshasa to remove Mobutu from power. Tingi-Tingi was a transit camp for fleeing Rwandan hutu refugees inside DRC and later became famous as one of the many sites where they were massacred in the thousands by Kagame’s RPF.  

Reading the book one comes across very moving parts of the story. They bring you to tears even if you are strong emotionally. At the same time one is touched by the manifestation of humanity from people you don’t expect. I enjoyed the reading, well written story, particularly since it tells part of mine. Some of the areas at least up to Bukavu the author mentioned I can picture them clearly as I passed through them at the same period of fleeing the slaughter of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

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