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Transporting Tutsis to safety
Written by fra Ivica Perić

fra VjekoWhen he realized the extent of the danger facing the refugees in Kivumu, Fr. Vjeko Curic began transporting a number of them to Kabgayi on 15th April, where he thought they would have a better chance of survival. He traveled back and forth on a daily basis. Oswald was asked by Vjeko to look after the refugees in his absence. Fr. Vjeko went to Cyakabiri to negotiate with the Interahamwe there. As he was leaving, he asked me to take special care of the four families at the presbytery and to be ready to show them the way to Kabgayi. Most of them came from Kigali and didn’t know all the local paths. I kept an eye on the movements of the Interahamwe.

Meanwhile, Vjeko was making a lot of trips to Bujumbura to buy food supplies for the refugees in Kabgayi. Before he left, he would tell me: “Do your best to save these people’s lives. If the Interahamwe make threats, tell them to flee in time.”

Fr. Vjeko’s trips to Burundi enabled him to snick some Tutsis out of the country.

Fr. Vjeko would return from Burundi in the evening, unload the lorry and drive back very early the next morning. He always took a few people with him in his vehicle when he went to Burundi. One of them was Aimable Gatete who now lives in Kigali.

After the massacre at the school in Kivumu, efforts to evacuate the refugees intensified. Oswald took Louise Kayibanda and her family, who had been at the parish for two weeks, to Kabgayi.

Vjeko asked me to show them the way to kabgayi. He told me to take care of them and help them get to kabgayi. He didn’t want to be seen at the roadblocks too often. He made these round trips everyday.

We spent the night in the bush. At around 4:00 a.m. I told Louise’s family to follow me. We crossed the main road and found a side road. I showed them the way to go and returned to Kivumu. They reached Kabgayi safely. A few days after the fall of Kabgayi, Louise Kayibanda spoke on radio Muhabura [The radio of the RPF]. She described how her family reached Kabgayi and thanked Fr. Vjeko and myself for showing them the way there.

I stayed with the two remaining families at the convent until the fall of Gitarama at the beginning of June. We left Kivumu on 8 June. They headed for Kigali, attaching themselves to the columns of Hutu refugees pouring out of Gitarama. I don’t know what happened to them after that, only what I know is that they survived.

When I left Kivumu, Vjeko was in Burundi. He came back two or three weeks later.

Esperance said that after about a week in the bush, she, her husband and daughter faced starvation, so together with Jean they left for Kabgayi. There they again met Fr. Vjeko who was the only source of support for the refugees.

We found Vjeko distributing food to the large number of displaced people. He was overjoyed to find us alive and well because he thought we had been killed. He gave us some food straight away.

The food supplies were taken to Kabgayi by the Kivumu parish driver, Francois, in a Daihatsu, accompanied by Fr. Vjeko in another vehicle. Vjeko was the only priest who came to see us before the fall of Gitarama. We had no idea where the other priests had gone. He had asked the clergy in Kivumu to come and treat us, because we were falling ill. The Kabgayi nuns never came near us, except when Fr. Vjeko took us to the hospital.

"Fr. Vjeko used a variety of clever methods to smuggle Tutsis out of Kivumu", Esperance explained.

He smuggled some people over the border to Burundi, hidden in sacks. They included his employee, Aimable Gatete; Gatete’s sister and many others. Sometimes, when we went to unload the Lorries, we found Tutsis from the countryside hiding in the sacks. He did that to get through the roadblocks more easily. He attached drips to others to make them look like patients. Then, if anyone stopped him, he would say he was hurrying ill patients to hospital. The Tutsis were advised to go to his place, and he drove them straight to Kabgayi because even he himself was not safe in Kivumu. He showed other people how to help them reach Kabgayi. But he preferred to take them straight to Kabgayi himself, so that they were not murdered in front of him.

He found Ncogoza’s wife dying, with her child lying next to her body. He took the child to Kabgayi. The Mother made a miraculous recovery, and is alive today with her husband and child.
We remained in Kabgayi until 2 June when the RPF captured Gitarama and took us to Bugesera.

Jean and his family ran into the Interahamwe on the way to Kabgayi. At Kabgayi, he too, saw Fr. Vjeko bringing Tutsis to safety and heard of the threats he had faced as a result.

Fr. Vjeko came to visit us at Kabgayi. During the genocide, he made many trips bringing Tutsis to safety at Kabgayi. Most of them had been wounded and he picked them up between Kivumu and Kabgayi.

At first Fr. Vjeko used a minibus taxi, which he had hired to evacuate the Tutsis. After that he used his own car for fear of what the Interahamwe might do. When the situation became even more complicated, he resorted to flying a white flag on his car to show that he was only carrying corpses and the wounded.

Towards the end of the genocide, Fr. Vjeko became lucky. He linked up with the white people who worked for the Red Cross and was able to take Tutsis in their vehicle. We used to see him often in Kabgayi.

Eugenie was also aware of Vjeko’s trips to Kabgayi. She spoke of the child that Vjeko saved.

Vjeko was a very generous man. That’s why they headed for his parish from all the surrounding communes during the genocide. Vjeko would take them on to Kabgayi. I don’t know what route he took, nor exactly how he got them there, but I know he used the hospital ambulance. He often traveled at night.

Vjeko did more than evacuate Tutsis from Kivumu. All the refugees in Kabgayi owe their lives to him. He provided them with food, water, firewood and everything they needed. Vjeko was the only priest who made any effort to help those refugees. He used to visit them regularly and comforted them in the face of death. I don’t know where he got the food he gave to the Tutsis. I used to see the parish van coming and going every day. I think other people helped him. Vjeko fed the refugees until the end.

Vjeko used to go from house to house collecting the wounded and taking them to Kabgayi hospital. One of the wounded he evacuated to Kabgayi was Ncogoza’s baby.

Marguerite found refuge in the homes of some sympathetic Hutu families where she heard the militiamen complaining about Vjeko’s evacuations. She didn’t reach Kabgayi until 18 May, when she met Fr. Vjeko again.

It was Fr. Vjeko who asked us to go to Kabgayi. I left Kivumu on 25 April and arrived in Kabgayi on 18 May. During that time, I wrote him a letter. But unfortunately the man I entrusted it to couldn’t find him. I used to keep up to date with what he was doing through the militia returning from roadblocks. They would say things like: “That Vjeko, we kept him on his knees for hours.” The infamous militiaman, “Shitani”, threatened to kill Fr. Vjeko because he was trying to evacuate the Tutsis.

I saw Vjeko a few days after I got to Kabgayi. He was with one of the Red Cross workers and had come to see what our living conditions were like. He was in charge of finding food supplies for the refugees who were there.

Fr. Vjeko spared no effort to help us before, during and after the genocide. We shall always remember his kindness and compassion. We miss him. The other expatriates abandoned the Rwandese, but he did not. That should also be noted and put to his credit. We shall always be to him, and we pray for him.”

father VjekoEsperance Mujawamariya said that Fr. Vjeko helped all the people of Kivumu throughout his time as their parish priest. She voiced her appreciation of his endeavors.

I knew Fr. Vjeko since 1990 when he was the parish priest in Kivumu. He was well known for his good works .He formed associations to help the poor, with separate groups for youths, men and women and others specializing in agriculture, stockbreeding, and carpentry and building work. We used to store the crops and sell them at affordable prices to help the poor. All the machinery used here was paid for by Fr. Vjeko. He used to get money from Europe to fund his projects.

Anyone could join these associations: members were from all the ethnic groups. When vacancies arose, Fr. Vjeko gave preference to the poor, so that they could support themselves. He was a generous man, and paid our children’s school fees. Some of those children were killed in the genocide. He was determined to see more progress and development in our area.

When the genocide began, Fr. Vjeko showed exemplary behavior, trying to protect and save some people here.

We returned home when the genocide was over, and found Vjeko all alone at the parish centre. He helped us once again. He even set up an association to help widows, widowers and other destitute people by trading, growing crops and raising cattle and goats.

He brought some Europeans from Kigali to photograph the ruins of our houses before they were rebuilt. As a result, all the survivors’ houses were rebuilt properly. But he also built houses for homeless Hutus. He was completely impartial towards us. He even helped the government with rebuilding and extending Gitarama prison when it became overcrowded, and provided food for the prisoners.

Criminals killed Fr. Vjeko Curic on 31 January 1998. We still don’t know who killed him. May God grant him eternal rest. We would like the government to hold an enquiry into Vjeko’s death because it was a terrible blow for us. He did so much useful work, not just for the residents here, but for the whole country.

Oswald, who is now in his thirties, returned from exile in the Congo in 1996 to find Vjeko continuing his good work with the people of Kivumu-building homes for survivors and widows whose properties had been destroyed during the genocide.

Fr. Vjeko Curic was a brave man who saved a lot of people. Very few people would be capable of acting as he did in such a situation. Vjeko was an extraordinarily good and generous man. He liked everyone, and everyone liked him. He helped both Hutus and Tutsis.

Eulade agreed that the priest was motivated by a wish to see improvements in the lives of all the residents of Kivumu, whatever their ethnicity.

Vjeko spared no efforts to save Tutsis during the genocide. He returned to Kivumu when the genocide was over, and began helping the survivors rebuild their houses. He gave food, clothes and farming equipments to the poor, making no distinction between Hutus and Tutsis.

Marguerite is one of the survivors who received practical assistance from Vjeko when she returned to Kivumu after the genocide.

He also helped me personally by giving me two wool blankets, rice and flour to make porridge for the children. Fr. Vjeko helped everyone regardless of his or her ethnic origin.

Jean said that everyone regarded Vjeko “like a member of the family” because he treated all members of the local community with kindness and understanding.

father Vjeko

I had known Fr. Vjeko since 1982 soon after his arrival in Rwanda. He spoke Kinya-rwanda poorly then. But a few years later he spoke it fluently because he was a good priest who enjoyed chatting to his parishioners. He was loved by all the people. As far as he was concerned all men were equal, be they Hutu or Tutsi. In the same way as he helped the Tutsis to rebuild their homes, he also helped in the building of the prison, fed the prisoners and helped their families.

Eugenie had great respect for friar Vjeko Curic“In Fr. Vjeko”, said Claver, “the people of Gitarama found a man who was both unusual and courageous.” Distressed by his death, we would like to know why he was gunned down.

We are asking the diocese and the government to shed light on the circumstances of his assassination. In the meantime, we are always thinking about him. Each year, we commemorate the anniversary of his death.

Eugenie had great respect for Fr. Vjeko. The fact that he stayed on to help when most other expatriates had left the country gives him a special place in her heart.

He went on helping the poor even after the genocide. He would not give up and didn’t want to go back to Europe. Instead, he assisted people rebuild their houses, and even founded a Kivumu widows’ association which is involved in trade and mixed farming.

Friar Vjeko communicated with people every dayI think Fr. Vjeko was killed by people who resented his kindness and generosity. I pray for him. Perhaps we shall meet again one day. The government ought to investigate his murder. I should find out who was responsible and prosecute them.

Kivumu has been going downhill since Vjeko’s death. He used to get us jobs, and we had plenty of money. Now we are poor. We will never forget him; he helped us through difficult times.

Father Vjeko Center

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