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Alex Mvuka Ntung

Genocide not yet confined to the history books

HOT’s Erica Smith reminds us that Sunday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day. A day that provides us with an opportunity to remember everyone who has suffered on the basis of their race, religious belief, disability, gender, age or sexual orientation. She has recently been working on the design of Alex Ntung’s autobiography, Not My Worst Day. An excerpt is published here.

Alex Ntung, pictured above, is the Community Cohesion Officer for Hastings Borough Council. He is a softly spoken and gentle man who has lived in Hastings since 2000, but he was born to a cattle-herding, semi-nomadic tribe in the east of what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. He will rarely volunteer the information, but he was an eye witness to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and has lost several members of his own family as the result of racially motivated violence. From an early age he was treated badly because of his Tutsi heritage.

Over the last few years, Alex has been writing his autobiography, which is soon to be published. I asked him if he would mind if we shared an excerpt from it on HOT. Alex’s story is amazing, and often upsetting. As I read it, I had to keep reminding myself that he was going to survive. Alex is very lucky to have been able to start a new life in Hastings – and it is also a privilege for us to have this brave and kind man as part of our community.

The excerpt that follows is from when he was still a schoolboy in the early 90s. He was living in the town of Uvira near the border with Rwanda. He was the first Tutsi to have been admitted to study at his secondary school, and he was living with friends of his family, far away from the village where he was born. He regularly experienced racial abuse – from name-calling and stone-throwing to much worse.

“One day on my way home to Henri’s place, I felt so tired after the first few kilometres that I decided not to take the longer but safer route on the old railway track, but to cross ‘the parking’ – a wide stretch of open land that could sometimes be dangerous. I had not eaten for a long time and was very tired, so the temptation to go by the shortest route was just too strong, even though I knew it was an area famous for the Khadafi gang. This gang, drug-users notorious for selling petrol illegally, had become practically untouchable to the authorities because they had the means to bribe themselves out of difficult situations; their acts of violence passed generally without comment. All sorts of illegal activities went on in the parking: theft, drug trafficking, smuggling of gold and ivory, currency exchange, selling petrol and anything that made money.

Within seconds of my decision to take the shorter route, I was noticed and yelled at with ‘Munyarwanda, munyarwanda’, a term meaning that I was Rwandan but in the worst possible sense, referring to that ethnicity as a filthy, unwanted Tutsi tribe. At this time when people were seeking revenge for the assassination of the president of Burundi, it was even more dangerous than ever: Tutsi were seen as legitimate targets for justifiable revenge. They leaped on me immediately, spitting at me and using all sorts of insults, asking me for the president’s body. I replied that I wasn’t Burundian though it was a useless defence as they knew that well enough. My being Tutsi was sufficient for their anger and I could see by their wild, red eyes that they were not in a mood to be reasonable and accept any explanations I might give. Again I felt the strong injustice of being condemned simply for my ethnicity. Only a few weeks before I had needed to convince the military in Burundi that I wasn’t Burundian myself but now things were even worse: my nationality made no difference at all and only my ethnicity counted.

‘This is your last day!’ they jeered at me and I believed them as I looked around and saw other Banyamulenge they had taken hostage. Their leader, a youth called Cesar who was well known in the town, gave an order to bring petrol and when I felt some being poured onto my head, I was convinced that my “worst day” had indeed arrived. My chest felt as if it could burst with the pounding of my heart and I was dizzy with confusion and despair.

Suddenly, an authoritative voice rang out: ‘Don’t hurt him! Don’t do him any harm! If you want to kill him you will have to kill me first. Look how many you are, all trying to kill such a slip of a youngster! And all because he’s not your favourite race!’ It was my schoolmate Magumu who was an influential member of this gang, one who was respected because he was strong, dangerous and shared their lifestyle. He pulled me roughly away, telling me to disappear as quickly as I could because Cesar was a fierce extremist and had meant what he said. I got away and so did the other hostages in the confusion that followed Magumu’s intervention.

After this incident I felt dull, tired of everything. I seemed to see the world from a distance as a small and petty place. I turned over and over within myself how, like others of my ethnicity, I was virtually a hostage imprisoned in a place from which there was no way out. It was only by a miracle that I had escaped that gang. They were ruthless and had a strong group consciousness and a determination to act together to cause violent harm. Characteristically, that violence was not to be directed against other vicious gangs but against those people they judged to be “unwanted”, namely those they labelled as strangers and invaders: the Tutsi.

To support themselves they were involved in all sorts of criminal activities; the fact that such gangs could exist and remain untroubled by the forces of law and order reflected a breakdown in society that I found totally depressing. Furthermore, it seemed to me that, in Uvira, people were accustomed to following the majority without real thought and, as a result, they could so easily become xenophobic. There was little in-depth questioning of what was going on in society or what individuals could and should do to change things. The only way a gang could be made to act in a particular way was through offering money.

Alex Ntung’s book, Not My Worst Day, will be published in February 2013.

Posted 23:50 Saturday, Jan 26, 2013 In: Hastings People

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