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 find safety elsewhere were about 120,000 children. Those children ended up becoming separated from their families and many would only reunite with them after decades thanks to a radio broadcast.
Figures state that during the genocide, some 40,000 crossed the border for safety. Mugabo and his brother Tuyishimire were among this group. Mugabo was only seven but his mom had entrusted the care of his little brother to him. 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 recalled to the BBC. Unlike others, they had survived the genocide, however, they were now faced with diseases in the camps such as cholera and dysentery. Some died even before they got to meet their families again.
By July 1994, humanitarian agencies started looking at how to reunite lost children with their families while at the same time catering to their needs in camps, finding them suitable homes and healing the wounded. There were no mobile phones or the internet in camps, so it was tough doing all the above. But then Neville Harms, who was the manager of the BBC’s Swahili service in 1994, introduced a lifeline project to reunite Rwandan families.
It was a 15-minute program that was broadcast by the BBC into Rwanda and the surrounding countries. The producers started the program with a news bulletin and then followed it with the voices of people hoping to find their missing children and family. It was the Red Cross which recorded and then sent the short tapes to the studio for the program.
“We would run the voices of people from these camps,” Ally Yusuf Mugenzi, who was one of the show’s two presenters, said.
The program, first broadcast some 28 years ago, was eventually named Gahuzamiryango, meaning “the unifier of families”, according to the BBC. And that’s exactly what the show did, reading out names of lost children and families, hoping to reunite them with their relatives.
During one of these broadcasts, Mugabo recalled hearing his brother’s name. Apparently, their uncle, Theogene Koreger, who was in Kigali, heard their names being read on the show too. “When I heard from the radio I thought it was a message from heaven. That’s because people who were here in Rwanda, had no communication, we had no messages 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. It wasn’t too long after the genocide and reports said the roads were still dangerous. Many young children feared going back home. What’s more, Mugabo’s uncle was a soldier with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi rebel army which came to power in Rwanda following the genocide. Mugabo and his brother Tuyishimire feared the rebel army.
They only went back to their uncle after he had sent a picture of himself and another of their brothers. Their uncle Koreger is today grateful for the radio service.
“Without the BBC, they would have died,” he said.
Besides the radio show, the Red Cross and other aid agencies shared photos of children and even drove some of them around villages hoping to reunite them with their families. At the end of the day, they were able to reunite 70,000 people.