A Rwandan refugee finds acceptance in the Canadian army

Inspired by Roméo Dallaire, Tarcisse Ruhamyandekwe joined the Reserve, where abilities were judged, not ethnicities

The joy of belonging

Blair Gable

The joy of belonging
Blair Gable

As war in Rwanda exploded into 100 days of genocide in April 1994, Tarcisse Ruhamyandekwe watched in horror from his apartment in Quebec City. TV images showed the indiscriminate slaughter of his ethnic people, the Tutsis, at the hands of the Hutu government. From the safety of Canada, all he could do was worry about whether the bodies belonged to his family and friends. That one could be his mother. The other, a sister. He couldn’t sleep. “I really did not know what had happened,” recalls Ruhamyandekwe. “It was really tough.”

A year earlier, he had arrived in Quebec from Swaziland, where he had been living in a UN refugee camp. After a series of interviews and medical exams, he moved to Canada. “I come in from a refugee camp, and I go into heaven,” says Ruhamyandekwe. “It was like, ‘Wow, people can live like this!’ ”

Ruhamyandekwe was born in 1963, a year after the long-suppressed Hutu majority led the charge for independence from Belgian colonial rule. Tutsis like the Ruhamyandekwe family found themselves discriminated against by the institutions of their newly sovereign country.

Ruhamyandekwe’s parents, Mathias and Mary, were teachers, so their seven children—four boys and three girls—were able to eat regularly and attend school. In his early 20s, his parents said he should leave Rwanda to study in neighbouring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “My family told me, ‘Listen, this is not a country for you. You have to find a way to succeed by other means,’ ” says Ruhamyandekwe. By the time he finished his economics degree in 1991, fighting had broken out between Tutsi rebels and the Rwandan government. “I knew that if I went back, there was going to be trouble for me and my family,” says Ruhamyandekwe. “I had no choice.” He went to Swaziland, where he applied for landed immigrant status. When he arrived in Quebec City, he enrolled at the Université Laval, taking first-year courses in economics.

He had lost contact with his family, so he didn’t know his brother Dominique had been killed in the capital of Kigali until August 1994, four months after his death. He also learned the rest of the family (his father died in 1991) escaped to neighbouring Burundi.

But his defining Canadian moment came when he heard about Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian general commanding a UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, who warned the UN headquarters repeatedly about the genocide and, as other nations were withdrawing troops, tried to protect its citizens from slaughter with dwindling resources. “He decided to stay when everyone else was trying to get out of the country,” says Ruhamyandekwe. “He said, ‘I’m staying to try my best to save one person.’ I don’t know how to say it. That was not only a touching moment, but someone was living by principle. [I thought] there must be something different about the Canadian army.”

Before graduating from Laval in 1996, Ruhamyandekwe met Amina Umuzayire, a Rwandan studying office administration at Bart College. They eventually married, and Umuzayire gave birth to their first son, Brad, in the spring of 1997.

But Ruhamyandekwe found his thoughts returning to Dallaire. He wanted to know how the Canadian military had shaped a man so selfless and brave. In May 1997, he joined the Canadian Army Reserve and spent the summer in basic infantry training in Meaford, Ont., with the Toronto Scottish Regiment. “It was a little difficult for me,” says Umuzayire, now 39, who stayed in Quebec City with their one-month-old baby, “but I knew he was doing something he loved.”

To Ruhamyandekwe, it was more than that; his army stint provided a sense of belonging he’d never had. In Rwanda, he was always a Tutsi. In Zaire and Swaziland, he was a foreigner. But with the Toronto Scottish, he was judged on his abilities. “People were not seeing me as a Tutsi, as tall, as black, whatever—the funny guy with an accent,” he says. “That was the first time in my life when someone was looking at me in a different way: ‘This is a brother; I can count on this person.’ ”

After taking a job to support his growing family, as a financial analyst for the Canada Bread factory in Toronto, in 2001 Ruhamyandekwe joined the reserve again, this time with the 48th Highlanders of Canada, where he became an officer. He left in 2005. Today, his love for Canada runs deep. He hopes his children—Brad, Imad, Cid and Irshad—join the army one day so they can experience the same joy of belonging that he did. “We were like a family,” says Ruhamyandekwe, who now supervises financial systems analysts at Public Works and Government Services in Ottawa. “I will never forget that.”