From Rwanda to opportunity in land of the free

TurayishimyeLaw student Jean Paul Turayishimye laughs during an interview at his Leominster home.
(T&G Staff / Rick Cinclair)
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LEOMINSTER — His American friends tell him it seems more like a movie than real life, when he shares some of the horrific violence and corruption that exists back home in the jungles of Central Africa. 

The exiled Rwandan’s tale of fighting against the mass genocide of his people, widespread corruption and discrimination, high-ranking officials fleeing in fear for their lives, and he himself fleeing after multiple interrogations in fear he would “disappear” like so many others questioned before him, does seem like something out of Hollywood. One of his greatest roles? That of going unnoticed, he said, while fleeing to the U.S. 

Law student and court interpreter Jean Paul Turayishimye has lived through horrific traumas that could mentally disable even the hardest of soldiers. 

The Rwandan exile was born in the Congo, a Tutsi—one of three ethnicities in the region along with Hutus and Twas—pygmies who make up less than 1 percent of the population. 

The 41-year-old would rather it all wasn’t part of his past, including his eldest brother getting killed during the genocide by a machete at age 24 along with his 27-year-old cousin, and his youngest brother dying at age 14 (two years after Mr. Turayishimye fled the country) when he left to get food for the family and came home with a fatal wound to his upper thigh. 

Mr. Turayishimye’s life now living in the U.S. is so different from, it was then when he worked to oust the cruel regime of the Hutus in Rwanda when he joined the Rwanda Patriotic Front. He believes it is a miracle that he actually was able to flee Rwanda by going to the Burundi American Embassy in 2005 to get a Visa he obtained under the guise of visiting the U.S. Taking a moment to think about it, he said he cannot believe he got out alive. 

It was not without sacrifice. He left his pregnant girlfriend and has never met his 7-year-old twin sons. And, he lives with guilt for leaving his family in the Congo — worried about the continuing corruption and killings in Rwanda and about protecting them — afraid to identify them because of the way he left — hoping they will eventually come here. 

Even now, while sitting in the shade at his Leominster home next to his in-ground pool in a quiet, upscale neighborhood, he is nervous about saying certain things about his former life — worried they may come after him or target his family. 

It may sound paranoid, but as a senior executive committee member of the opposition group Rwanda National Congress, he was named in a murder racket led by ex-army chief Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa; he was reported to have been hired when he was still in Rwanda to murder the mother of a business associate who owed money to the general. 

Mr. Turayishimye said he has good reason for his distrust. 

Yet, he could have stayed with his family in the Congo where they lived in exile after his parents fled there from Rwanda in 1959 — alive, but discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens by the Congolese. Congolese would force Rwandan exiles to move or kill them, saying they took their “fathers’ farms,” he said. Many who were displaced lived in tents. 

“It is not like camping in this country — there is cholera, sickness and diseases,” he explained. “I lived in a tent in 1991 with my whole family for six months. Rwandans were the majority there and it was safer because the Hutus and Tutsis lived together. I knew a lot of people who got sick, but they would have killed our family. We never had an identity — we were living in the Congo, but we were Tutsi from Rwanda. We were treated as refugees and never had rights as Congolese citizens.” 

Those who refused to leave their homes were killed, he said. 

“A lot of people died from the same community because they didn’t move,” he said. “And, they didn’t have guns. They were killed with spears and arrows. The violence over there is ridiculous. We didn’t have a country. The government would send troops to protect the displaced and said everybody innocent would be protected, but government forces took our stuff away. They would come to protect you, but you had to give them something. If your family had teenage daughters, they would take them. If your family had cows, goats or chickens, they would come grab them and eat them. It was a regular part of life there.” 

But, Mr. Turayishimye felt like he had to fight for what was right by joining the RPF and left the “safety” of the Congo in 1992 for military training in Uganda where the RPF organized. He would suffer with malaria there (he was given only headache medication) for one year before actually undergoing training. 

“I was stuck in Uganda for treatment in an area where trucks would pick you up for military training,” he said. “It took me a year to get better. I don’t even know how I survived that place. In that area itself, you have to hide. We didn’t have passports. We dodged the borders.” 

He eventually recovered, and began his training. What kept him alive during the genocide may have been his excellent handwriting skills, which his instructors lacked, he said. 

They needed his writing skills to keep track of the names of soldiers, he said, because they didn’t have computers or typewriters. He would also rewrite thick books full of names and information when they became too old and worn out. 

Then, on April, 6 1994, fighting erupted after the deaths of the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda in a place crash caused by a rocket attack. Members of the presidential guard started killing Tutsi civilians in a section of Kigali near the airport, Mr. Turayishimye said. 

As many as 1 million people are estimated to have died in the mass genocide and an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 women were raped. 

Mr. Turayishimye knew of many RPF fighters sent to the front lines who never made it back, he said, though they were armed with machine guns. 

“We moved our headquarters to Rwanda and were ordered to go to the capital Kigali,” he said. “We needed to move and start fighting to stop the killing. I could hear bombs and they started bringing the casualties. It was bad. They were using machetes and nails on the end of sticks. We didn’t know it would be that bad. We heard what was happening at the front, but it was too late for me to go back to the Congo. It was not what I expected.” 

The killings continued until July 4, 1994, when the RPF took military control of the entire territory of Rwanda, he said. 

But, Mr. Turayishimye said disappointment set in quickly a few years later when there was disagreement within the RFP itself. High ranking RPF officials were killed and the Rwandan president was imprisoned by the current Rwandan President Paul Gadami because he wanted to take the post himself. 

“Now, the entire government is in exile,” he said. 

Rwanda has the highest number of high-ranking officials in exile than other country including former President Pasteur Bizimungu, former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu and the former speaker of the house, defense minister and attorney general. 

There are also numerous former officials and their families seeking asylum and those who fled to other countries and were assassinated including former Interior Minister Seth Sendashonga in Kenya, he said. 

In 2005, Mr. Turayishimye was interrogated several times after the former chief of staff he worked with for 10 years was sent to India to be an ambassador. 

“I was his personal assistant for two years,” he said. “The intelligence service started to interrogate me, asking me about his personal contacts, trips he made to England and who he met. But, I knew what would happen. They ask you questions, then you disappear. You can’t get asked personal questions like that and stay free in my country. You’re going to die.” 

He said he had to lie to friends and family, including the mother of his sons, about what he was doing to protect them and himself about his plan to escape to the U.S. 

“I got worried,” he said. “I know people who died who weren’t asked stuff like that. They would just say they were disappointed with the regime and they disappeared. I knew it was going to be the same, so I started the process to flee.” 

He said he lived for months in fear that they were going to kill him or put him in jail for the rest of his life. “Actually, killing is the best option,” he said. “In jail there are no human or individual rights. They torture and there is no visitation. It is bad treatment of prisoners, especially somebody who worked in RPF. They were accusing the general of wanting to overthrow the government and I was associated with that image. 

They wanted to arrest and charge him and wanted to use people close to him to say something.” 

Mr. Turayishimye said he hasn’t talked about the war, nor did anyone he knew in Africa really talk much about the massacre of loved ones, because there were too many deaths. 

“Myself, I didn’t talk about it — to think about going in the war and I lost my brothers,” he said before getting very quiet and looking down at the grass, appearing sadly pensive for several moments. 

When he came to the U.S. in 2005, he lived with his aunt in Fitchburg for a while and later moved in with his brother in Gardner, but the now sexlinguist did not speak any English when he first arrived. 

His brother returned to Rwanda in 2006 after completing his studies, he said. 

“I thought it was insane because I knew what was going on there. If you’re lucky you’re here. I was not in fear for my life. I could breathe and not think about nightmares. Just to get here was a miracle for me — to go unnoticed.” 

He took an English course at Mount Wachusett Community College after teaching himself enough English by borrowing CDs from the Gardner library to pass the placement test, he said. 

He then began working in the human services field and landed a job as a Kirundi interpreter in a local court case that led to full-time interpreting in the court system. 

But, he wanted more. As a strong advocate of human rights after the injustice he had seen and lived through, he decided to become a lawyer. He graduated from MWCC in 2010 and an adviser there told him about a new school called the American College of History and Legal Studies in Salem, N.H. — a “completion” school (and the only school in the U.S. devoted exclusively to the study of history) that has an arrangement with the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover. Students who maintain a satisfactory grade point average at ACHLS are guaranteed admission to MSL, so Mr. Turayishimye enrolled at ACHLS, kept his GPA up and just finished his first year at MSL. 


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