“A miracle” of social media: this is how Grace Umtoni defines what happened.
Umtoni was orphaned when she was just two. In 1994, his parents were victims of the genocide that ended thousands of lives in Rwanda. Years later, she managed to find some relatives.
She, who did not know what name she had received from her biological parents, posted photos of her as a child on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter groups in April, hoping that members of her family would recognize her.
His previous attempts, through more formal channels, were unsuccessful.
All the 28-year-old nurse knew about her story is that she was taken to an orphanage in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, after being found in the Nyamirambo neighborhood. Her brother, then 4 years old, who later died, was also welcomed in the place.
In Rwanda, there are thousands of children like her, who lost their parents among the roughly 800,000 victims of the systematic massacre of members of the Tutsi and Hutus ethnic groups moderated in a hundred days of genocide.
Many still look for their families.
After she posted her photos, some people appeared who claimed to be relatives, but it took months for someone who really looked like a family member to appear.
Antoine Rugagi had seen the photos on WhatsApp and made contact with her to say that she looked a lot like his sister, Liliose Kamukama, who was killed in the genocide.
‘The miracle I was praying for’
“When I saw him, I also realized that we looked alike,” Umtoni told the BBC. “But only DNA tests could confirm that we were related, so we did one in Kigali in July.”
Umutoni traveled from the district of Gakenke, where he lives, while Rugagi left Gisenyi, in the west, so that they could seek the results together.
Grace Umutoni and Antoine Rugagi traveled to Kigali to get the results of the DNA tests – Photo: Personal archive / BBC
And it was a great day for both of them, as the tests revealed an 82% chance of being familiar.
“I was shocked. I could not contain the desire to express my happiness. Even today I think I am in a dream. It was the miracle I have always prayed for,” says Umtoni.
Her newfound uncle told her that the name her Tutsi parents gave her was Yvette Mumporeze.
He also introduced her to several relatives on the father’s side of the family, such as his aunt Marie Josée Tanner Bucura, who has been unable to leave Switzerland for months because of the pandemic.
She was convinced that Grace Umtoni was her niece before she even knew the results of the genetic tests, because of the similarity of the woman in the WhatsApp photo to the girl in the family albums.
“She was clearly the daughter of my brother Aprice Jean Marie Vianney and his wife, Liliose Kamukama. Both were killed in the genocide,” said Bucura.
‘We thought no one had survived’
Bucura also told the full name of her brother, who was taken with her to the orphanage, Yves Mucyo. And he said he had another brother, Fabrice, a year old.
The genocide began hours after the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both ethnic Hutu, was shot down on the night of April 6, 1994.
Hutu militias were instructed to pursue members of the Tutsi minority. Kigali’s Nyamirambo suburb was one of the first to be attacked.
Many people were killed by machetes in their homes or on armed barricades to prevent those trying to escape. Some have managed to protect themselves in churches and mosques.
Bucura said that a woman grabbed little Yves by the arm and ran him away, but was unable to obtain further information. Nothing was heard about the sister.
The genocide ended months later, when Rwandan Patriotic Front Tutsi rebels, led by current President Paul Kagame, came to power.
“We thought that no one had survived. We even remembered them when the anniversary of the genocide came in April,” explains Bucura.
Umtoni was unable to find out about his family and all that was reported was that Yves died on arrival at the orphanage as a result of gunshot wounds from Hutu militias.
When she was four, she was adopted by a Tutsi family in southern Rwanda who named her Grace Umtoni.
“Those responsible for my school helped me and I went back to the Kigali orphanage to ask if there was any trace of my past, but there was nothing,” he says. “I always lived with the pain of being someone without roots, but I kept praying for a miracle.”
“Even though the foster family treated me well, I couldn’t stop thinking about my biological family, but I had very little information to even start looking for.”
Now she is curious to know more about her parents. They plan a large family reunion with relatives who have arrived from different parts of the country and abroad, although the coronavirus forced the postponement of the meeting.
Meanwhile, family members introduced her to some of their relatives via WhatsApp and she discovered that she had an older brother in Kigali, the result of a previous relationship with her father.
‘We are grateful to the family that adopted her’
Since 1995, nearly 20,000 people have been reunited with their families thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Their spokeswoman for Rwanda, Rachel Uwase, says they are still receiving calls for help from people separated from their families by the genocide.
Since the beginning of 2020, 99 people have met with their relatives.
For Bucura, finding out that her niece had survived is something she is grateful for.
“We are grateful to the family that adopted it, named it and created it.”
The young woman will keep the name that her adoptive family gave her, as it has been with her for most of her life.
And she will always be grateful to social networks for helping her find a sense of belonging. “Now I speak often with my new family,” he says.
“I spent my entire life feeling that I had no roots, but now I find it a blessing to have my foster family and my biological family, both part of me.”
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