search of a daughter in Africa
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
he died of AIDS I asked him why he was losing weight,"
said Beatha, " Maleri replied that he had diabetes."
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.