<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 158 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 11 , 2004

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>


In search of a daughter in Africa

In this gripping tale Daily Star Special Correspondent MORSHED ALI KHAN traces his journey back to a small village in Rwanda to find the little baby girl he had saved amidst the worst genocide imaginable; and made her his daughter.

AFter returning home I first heard from my friend Maleri Elie in Kigali about eight years ago. Maleri and Kabanda Dieudonne, also a great friend, signed the simple letter that brought me the news I had so eagerly waited since 1994. "Do you remember the beautiful baby girl Aougny? She is doing fine with her now mother…..," the hand written letter said.

I indeed remembered the tiny baby girl vividly. So vividly that over the years the little girl, who I always considered to be my own daughter, made me long to see her. For me she was a gift from the gods in a country that made history amid an unprecedented bloodbath.

To visit her, I knew it would not be easy for an ordinary person like me for we were separated by thousands of miles across the continents.

It had all happened in April, 1994 when I was at the Amahoro Stadium in Kigali working with the Bangladeshi soldiers in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) as a translator. From April 6, 1994 Rwanda plunged into a bloody civil war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The majority Hutus of the eight million Rwandans started killing minority Tutsis indiscriminately. Piles of mutilated dead bodies littered the streets of Kigali. Roaming with machetes, automatic weapons and bows with poisonous arrows, government backed hoodlums known as interahamwe killed every Tutsi they found on their way. Age, gender and looks did not matter. The goal was to annihilate the whole Tutsi race who were easily distinguishable from their features and slender, tall physique.

From the first day of the massacres a stream of Tutsis and some moderate Hutus started arriving at the Amahoro stadium for shelter. Within two days thousands of men, women and children, many with horrendous wounds crammed every corner of the modern stadium. While the 300 Bangladeshi soldiers occupied a part of the oval shaped arena with comparative ease, the remainder of Amahoro was packed to the brim.

It was in this chaotic situation that I initiated a centre for treating the victims, which later became known as the Amahoro Red Cross-centre. Maleri Elie, a fine Tutsi gentleman helped eagerly and soon we were having volunteers from among the refugees to work at the centre.

On the morning of April 9, 1994 the air smelt foul with corpses rotting everywhere. The night before we had received scores of Tutsis fleeing the massacre. Sanitation problem at the stadium became so acute that we had to look for a site to set up makeshift latrines. Just as I walked within the perimeter fence of the stadium looking for a safe site, I saw a few corpses of children and babies strewn on the ground near the fence. Under the large concrete water reservoir, lay on the ground a tiny newborn baby. She was completely still. Her body was stained with dried out blood with an unusually long umbilical cord torn apart from her dead mother. As I closely examined for signs of life in that lump of flesh, I could not believe my eyes when she slightly moved her hand and feet.

I named her Aougny. And Aougny brought joy to the volunteers of the centre. I wondered how a sign of life could bring so much joy to a group of people surviving a massacre of such huge proportions around them. Maleri promised to find her a mother and also told me that he would look after Aougny as long as it takes for me to return to Rwanda.

This was a long ten years ago. I left Kigali for Dhaka at the end of April. But never did I forget Aougny for a day. I was told she lived with Beatha, her foster mother. I narrated her story again and again to my family and friends and was determined to visit her one-day.

On my return from the killing fields of Rwanda I slipped into deep trauma. I woke in the middle of the night with nightmares of the massacres I had witnessed. Hardship gripped our family of three children. UNAMIR never fulfilled its commitment and did not pay me any salary for the three months in Rwanda.

IT was in November 1994, nearly six months after my return from Rwanda, I joined The Daily Star. A new dimension away from nightmares and suffering suddenly opened up for me. Although five of us at home still felt the burden of life in Dhaka, we stood determined to overcome the difficulties. We knew only hard work could get us going.

Over the years I attempted to visit Aougny several times. Just over a year ago I planned my 'Journey for a Daughter' to Rwanda on a motorbike. To my utter disappointment the plan was marred due to growing disturbances in the Middle East.

About five months ago a telephone call from London revived my hopes. Linda Pressly, a senior producer at the BBC Radio-4 rang to tell me that the BBC had just commissioned my story. I had known Linda while working together on a story in Dhaka about four years ago and had mentioned to her the story of my finding Aougny and my desire to return to Rwanda to find her. Linda, a dedicated journalist, never forgot the scoop. To my surprise, four years after, Linda told me that the BBC would be interested in following me up to Rwanda to document my story to meet my daughter. The story would be aired under the title "It's My Story".

It was all I needed. Now I had to trace Aougny. A couple of telephone calls to the Genocide Memorial Office at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali put me in touch with Mr Ouvimana, who told me that he knew Kabanda Dieudonne and gave me his number. As I tried in vein to reach Kabanda over his mobile phone, Linda rang to tell me that Elva Uwineza, a Rwandan journalist would be helping the BBC as a fixer. With the help of Kabanda and Elva, Aougny was quickly traced in a small village twenty kilometres away from Kigali, living with Beatha.

"Morshed," said Linda one evening on the phone from London," We know where Aougny is but I am afraid I do not have good news. Your good friend Maleri Elie passed away last year."

A rush of memories passed through my head choking me with emotions. I had waited for so long to see Maleri …. and now from so close being there, he was no more.

For Linda Pressly it was a story involving a country that had just been the focus of world media on the tenth commemoration of the start of the genocide. A story not directly related to war and killings of Rwanda but one that talked about love and bonds that bridged a few people together separated by continents and cultures. She so meticulously planned the whole programme that as a print journalist from Bangladesh working in a national daily it made me ponder over our ways of planning for a story. At home we hardly made such elaborate preparations no matter how big the story is.

IN the morning of April 27 as soon as we stepped on the tarmac of Kigali international airport from a Kenyan Airlines plane, Linda was ready with her equipment to stir my memories of the airport back in 1994. She had told me the day's schedule and that we would be going to see Aougny the following day after we had visited Maleri's family and his eternal resting place and the Amahoro Stadium where I had found Aougny in those turbulent days of 1994.

My good friend Kabanda had not changed much in ten years. We hugged each other and sat in my room at the Garnet de Centre, a hill top hotel overlooking the green valleys of Kigali. We shared our memories of 1994 and looked at the pictures and documents I had preserved for a decade. He told me he had gone to see Aougny with Elva two days ago. "I can tell you she is a beautiful, intelligent child," said Kabanda. I felt a twinge of guilt inside me. Circumstances back home had never permitted me to help her over the last ten years. Now I was back suddenly with the BBC making a fuss with her life…

Through a narrow alleyway in a poor suburb of Kigali live Maleri's two daughters, two sons and a sister in a mud hut. They said their father often talked about me and that he loved Aougny so much that he had bought her a small piece of land at Musave where she is living with her foster mother.

The family agreed to walk us to the graveyard where Maleri was buried. Amid colourful wild flowers and bushes, overlooking the green valley of Kigali lay Maleri in an unmarked grave. I stood by the grave in silence and gratitude. 'Rest in peace my friend, may be one day we shall meet again', I murmured.

Amahoro stadium looked exactly the same except that now it houses the Sports and Youth Ministry and some other offices including that of the Genocide Memorial Office. Male and female athletes practised on the neatly maintained red tracks. Some women carrying their babies on their backs walked leisurely across the green football pitch. Absent were thousands of helpless men, women and children crammed inside the small corridors and rooms. Absent were the gunshots and cries of the wounded and the sick. Absent were the billowing smoke from makeshift cookers lit by some refugees; and the typical smell of African spices that hung in the air. I stood under the concrete overhead water reservoir near the fence and recalled how ten years ago on that spot lay a newborn baby girl, abandoned by her parents. There was no trace of any blood inside the room where we had set up the Red Cross centre. The room was instead a place where the authorities dumped sports materials.

The young athletes practising nearby looked on as we walked passed. The first floor room where I had my accommodation with other UNAMIR officials, is now the office room for the minister for sports and youth. Just near the entrance Kabanda pointed at a middle-aged man and asked if I recognised him. He was Felicia, the man in-charge of electricity in the stadium. During the months of February and March, 1994, my first two months in Rwanda, Felicia lived in a small room inside the stadium where I often passed my time chatting with him.

It was Felicia who had first told me of the notorious Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines, the Hutu radio station that spat venom of hatred 24 hours a day towards the minority Tutsis. How shameful was it to learn that media provocation played such a role. I remember Felicia telling me one day sometime in March 1994 about a programme that urged the Hutus to take revenge on Tutsis. The narrator of the text in Kenyarwanda tried to justify destroying the Tutsis saying, " Before you kill an insect biting you, do you ever examine whether it is a baby or pregnant insect, male or female, elderly or young, sick or healthy?" That day Felicia warned of a possible genocide in his country saying, " it is on the cooking."

IN the morning of April 28, 2004 we were ready to meet Aougny in the village of Musave under the district of Casavo, about twenty kilometres from Kigali. Linda, Elva, Kabanda, our driver Yahya and me boarded the four-wheel drive from our hotel and drove past the airport. About eight kilometres from Kigali we arrived at a petrol pump and turned left on an earthen mountainous road. My heart pounded with excitement as we climbed up the green mountains towards Musave. Elva pointed at some children in blue uniform saying those children were walking to the same school where Aougny reads. All along the road to Musave thick vegetation amid wild flowers adorned the landscape. As we entered Musave, several hundred noisy children had just finished their morning shift. They gathered around our vehicle and waved. Amid so many children I was looking for a single face, that of Aougny. We drove past the school and fifty yards down the mountain overlooking lush green valleys a small mud hut stood in the middle of a farmland. "This is Aougny's house," whispered Kabanda.

I walked inside the house and there was the little girl, now ten years of age in a white frock. She came rushing towards me and we were soon locked in a long hug. I had found my lost daughter in an African village thousands of miles away from home. It was a reunion of two souls separated by destiny for years. Aougny told me she had heard about me from Maleri. She looked at her picture I had taken on the day she was born ten years and twenty-three days ago but smilingly said she could not recognise herself. She sat by me on the small bench and looked on. Beatha sat nearby and gazed at me. Kabanda at the entrance of the small room wiped away the tears from his eyes. Aougny attended grade-3 at the local primary school. She said she would have to go to school to attend the second shift. She soon changed herself into her blue school uniform and invited me to accompany her. I held her hand and walked the fifty yards to her classroom. Murekatete Justine, a young teacher of Aougny’s class said out of 35 students in class-3 she was happy with Aougny's performance. Aougny's classmates sang two songs as Justine asked them to greet us. According to Beatha, at school Aougny was known as Ishimwe Solange Aougni, meaning 'gifted by the God', a name later given by Maleri.

Beatha said she had also adopted a four-year old girl, Kitcheme, whose mother was working somewhere in the country. She said Aougny and Kitcheme were like sisters. But the bad news was Beatha was HIV positive. She said she was tested positive in 1903 but received no treatment for it. Beatha grew maize, potatoes and bananas on the small plot of farming land around their house and now she waited for the harvest time so that she could have some money for her treatment. She said she had been involved with Maleri and it was from him that she had contracted the disease.

"Before he died of AIDS I asked him why he was losing weight," said Beatha, " Maleri replied that he had diabetes."

It was time to return to Kigali for the day. For the next few days the more closely I saw Aougny, the more fatherly affection I had for her. I now have four children --- two sons aged 18 and 15, a ten-year old daughter in Bangladesh and a ten-year old daughter in Rwanda. I know it is a big responsibility but I will do what I can to support Aougny. May be one day we shall all live together as a family.




(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star