Rwanda: Remembering the radio show that ‘brought children back from the dead’, 28 years later

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At least 800,000 people – ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were killed in 100 days by Hutu militias during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During the genocide, more than two million refugees fled Rwanda, generating a humanitarian crisis. Among those who fled to seek refuge elsewhere were around 120,000 children. These children ended up being separated from their families and many were only reunited with them after decades thanks to a radio broadcast.

Figures indicate that during the genocide, some 40,000 people crossed the border to safety. Mugabo and his brother Tuyishimire were part of this group. Mugabo was only seven years old but his mother had entrusted him with the care of his little brother. Tuyishimire was just a toddler and in the aftermath of the violence, he and his brother found themselves alone in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were in refugee camps with others along Rwanda’s borders.

The boys lived on begging, tomatoes and fish, Mugabo told the BBC. Unlike others, they had survived the genocide, however, they now faced illnesses in the camps like cholera and dysentery. Some died before they were even reunited with their families.

In July 1994, aid agencies began looking for ways to reunite lost children with their families while meeting their needs in the camps, finding suitable homes for them, and caring for the injured. There were no cell phones or internet in the camps, so it was difficult to do all of the above. But then Neville Harms, who was the director of the BBC’s Swahili Service in 1994, launched a vital project to reunite Rwandan families.

It was a 15-minute program broadcast by the BBC in Rwanda and surrounding countries. The producers started the program with a newscast, then followed it up with the voices of people hoping to find their missing children and families. The Red Cross recorded and then sent the short tapes to the studio for the program.

“We would make the voices of people from these camps heard,” said Ally Yusuf Mugenzi, who was one of the show’s two presenters.

The programme, which first aired around 28 years ago, was eventually named Gahuzamiryango, which means “the unifier of families”, according to the BBC. And that’s exactly what the show did, reading the names of lost children and families, in hopes of reuniting them with their loved ones.

During one such broadcast, Mugabo recalled hearing his brother’s name. Apparently their uncle, Theogene Koreger, who was in Kigali, also heard their names being read on the show. “When I heard the radio, I thought it was a message from heaven. It was because the people who were here in Rwanda had no communication, we had no message from anywhere” , Koreger recently told the BBC.

He wrote a letter to his nephews in DR Congo, saying he would like to see them, but they refused to go. Shortly after the genocide, reports indicated that the roads were still dangerous. Many young children were afraid to go home. Additionally, Mugabo’s uncle was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi rebel army that seized power in Rwanda after the genocide. Mugabo and his brother Tuyishimire feared the rebel army.

They only returned to their uncle after he sent a photo of him and another of their brothers. Their uncle Koreger is grateful for the radio service today.

“Without the BBC they would be dead,” he said.

Besides the radio show, the Red Cross and other aid agencies shared photos of children and even drove some of them to villages in hopes of reuniting them with their families. In the end, they were able to bring together 70,000 people.

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