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Father Vjeko Curic as a Franciscan Priest
Written by fra Ivica Perić

father VjekoWhat people witness about him today in Rwanda-From the book “Tribute to Courage, African Rights, London, 2002

“Vjeko was a very generous man. That’s why they headed for his parish from all the surrounding communes during the genocide.”

“He used to visit the refugees at kabgayi regularly and comforted them in the face of death.”

“He didn’t flee like the other foreigners. He stayed at the side of his parishioners.”

“He smuggled some people over the border to Burundi, hidden in sacks.”

“He was like a member of the family.”

“We shall always be grateful to him, and we pray for him. We would like the government to hold an enquiry into Vjeko’s death because it was a terrible blow for us.”

When the killing began in Kivumu, people turned to Fr. Vjeko Curic for help. This expatriate priest from the former Yugoslavia had lived in Nyamabuye 1, Gitarama for more than ten years, and had long worked to promote development in the area. He was well known and loved by his congregation at the Parish of Kivumu; his decision to remain in Rwanda during the genocide brought him to the heart of the local community. When most other expatriates were evacuated, Fr. Vjeko stood by the people of Kivumu during the worst experiences of their lives. He devoted himself to providing practical and medical assistance to the displaced and to helping people escape.

Fr. Vjeko Curic was outspoken in his condemnation of the violence and continued to preach the values of peace and unity throughout the genocide. More often than not, he was threatened by the Interahamwe for having stood in their way. In the aftermath, Fr. Vjeko demonstrated his impartiality, helping both Hutus and Tutsis to rebuild their communities. The homes and buildings Fr. Vjeko helped to fund are still standing in kivumu up to today, but sadly the priest himself is no longer there. He was assassinated in Kigali on 31st January 1998 by unknown assailants. People in Kivumu and elsewhere in Rwanda feel distressed and impoverished by the loss of Fr. Vjeko. He was a generous and compassionate man who touched the lives of the people around him and enriched them.

Welcoming the refugees

Claver Ndahayo, secretary of the parish, got to know Fr. Vjeko in 1983 when the priest was supervising construction of the parish. From the outset, he said, Vjeko gave a helping hand to the poor and orphans. He made it possible for the poor to pool their meager resources and their energy by setting up co-operatives for them.

There were even some orphans he was helping who lived at his house. Vjeko built schools and a health centre for our parish. Fr. Vjeko Curic was not partial, he reached out to both Hutus and Tutsis.

When the genocide began, Vjeko’s stance did not surprise Claver.

He didn’t flee like the other foreigners. He stayed at the side of his parishioners. When refugees from Kigali came pouring here, Vjeko hired staff to prepare them food. He was the only one who concerned himself with the refugees, taking care of them until the very end of the tragedy that befell Rwanda.

Oswald Ngendahimana was working as a cook at the Parish of Kivumu and witnessed the efforts and struggles by Fr. Vjeko to give help to refugees, those whose lives were in danger in 1994. Large numbers of people flocked the parish from 12 April onwards.

Most of the refugees came from Kigali and nearby communes; they were passing by the parish on their way to Kabgayi. Vjeko welcomed them all, and put them together at the parish and at Musengo primary school.

Some families were staying at the presbytery; Vjeko put me in charge of their welfare. There was Louise Kayibanda of Radio Rwanda, with her parents and family; Nsinga, Aimable Gatete and Emmanuel, who worked at SORAS, all with their families. The other priests had left for Burundi.

The presbytery was soon full of refugees. Esperance Mujawamariya could not stand the danger she faced at home and she and her husband went to join those at the parish.

The massacre in Gitarama did not start immediately after Habyarimana’s death (the then president). It began in Kigali and spread to the nearby communes of Runda and Taba. The situation gradually deteriorated here in Kivumu. There was an atmosphere of Mutual suspicion and people got divided into little groups. All this made us fear the worst that would germinate and made us to seek refuge with Fr. Vjeko. He welcomed us, especially as most of us were already involved in his associations and co-operatives. He found people to cook for us. There were about 150 of us; we lacked nothing as far as all human necessities are concerned with the help of our late beloved Fr. Vjeko.

Eulade Mugwiza is from Kivumu sector and knew Fr. Vjeko from the time the priest arrived in Rwanda. Like many others, he remarked upon Vjeko’s longstanding efforts and struggles to promote development, including building the health centre in Kivumu. 42-year-old Eulade recalled that many of the refugees who came to kivumu came from Kigali, or the communes of Kayenzi and Rutobwe, where there was extensive violence. He said some of them came because they had heard of Vjeko’s efforts to rescue people from danger.

They would ask us the way to the Parish of Kivumu because they had heard that Vjeko was evacuating people to Kabgayi. They were afraid of the roadblocks between Kivumu and Kabgayi, but Vjeko had no problems getting through them.

On the eve of genocide, Vjeko continued to hold mass regularly and to urge people not to take part in the violence. Eulade said he condemned the Interahamwe and asked people to “make peace”. But he was also prepared to stand up for the refugees directly. Eulande mentioned the tactics Fr. Vjeko used to keep the Interahamwe at bay.

From time to time, the Interahamwe came and attacked Vjeko. But they were really after money. Whenever they turned up, Vjeko would fire into the air and send them rushing off. One day he shouted for help. But when he realized no-one was coming to his aid, he went upstairs and fired a shot. He scared the Interahamwe off and they scattered in all directions.

Eugenie Mafure spoke of the warm welcome given by Vjeko to the refugees at Kivumu. She had come from Kigarama sector in Nyamabuye. She estimated that there were around 100 Tutsis staying there and says that Vjeko “fed them and looked after their needs”

Jean Kanani, 80, is Esperance’s father-in-law. He praised Fr. Vjeko for showing no prejudice and for trying to save lives during the genocide. Jean had slept in the bush on the night when many of the refugees who had fled to the primary school were massacre. The next day, he went to the Parish of Kivumu.

In the evening I made it to Fr. Vjeko’s where I found my son, Joseph, and his wife, Esperance. After greeting us he said: “Protect yourselves. Be prepared to put up a fight. I have to drive these injured people to Kabgayi.”

Marguerite Mukangagi is Jean’s daughter. She went to join the rest of her family at the parish when the Interahamwe began hunting down the Tutsis in her area. She decided to leave home on 23 April at 3:00 p.m., when the Interahamwe came to her home and killed her brother, innocent Nizeyimana. Marguerite had lived through the purges of Tutsis in 1973 and knew that this was “a matter of genocide”. She hid at the home of Hutu neighbors that night and the following day she and her children took cover in the bush. But they were tracked down by Interahamwe there and were “nearly beaten to death.” One of the militiamen recognized Marguerite and convinced the others to leave her. The family walked to the Parish of Kivumu with the hope to be rescued by Fr. Vjeko and indeed which they got.

The children greeted Fr. Vjeko and told him how we had suffered at the hands of the Interahamwe. Vjeko took us in and got food for us.

Searching for Survivors

With some exceptions, like the commune of Runda, widespread killings of Tutsis did not begin in Gitarama until 18 April when the prefet held a meeting with all the bourgmestres to urge them to catch up with the rest of the country. In some areas, Tutsis began to be murdered on the evening of the 18th, and in other communes the genocide began in earnest on the 19th. In kivumu, it was rumored on the 18th that the Interahamwe would soon lay the parish to destruction. Fr. Vjeko decided to move the refugees to the Musengo primary school. He took Esperance and her husband and children there. But they feared that the school would also be targeted and decided to leave and look for refuge with neighbors in the bush instead. Their instinct proved correct as the refugees who spent the night at the school were killed the following day.

From where we were in the bush, we saw the Interahamwe kill our brothers at about 12:00 p.m. on 19 April.

Eugenie learned of Fr. Vjeko’s response to the massacre.

Vjeko collected the bodies and took them to Kabgayi for burial. He also took the survivors to Kabgayi hospital.

Father Vjeko Center

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