Christine Elsie Niwemfura, 32, is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Her parents and siblings were murdered when she was eight years old. Picture: Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)
Johannesburg - On Human Rights Day, South Africans reflect on their rights, and how they can protect those rights and the rights of others from violation.

Observed on March 21, the public holiday is linked to historic but brutal events of 1960 - the Sharpeville Massacre - which left 69 people dead and 180 wounded after police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the pass laws.

In commemoration of the public holiday, The Star sat down with two women who survived significant historical events that were violations of human rights, although not linked to the March 21, 1960 events.

Irene Klass, 88, is a survivor of the Holocaust, where 6 million European Jews were killed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, while Christine Elsie Niwemfura, 32, is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the mass slaughter of about 800000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority.

Klass was an eight-year-old living in Lodz, Poland, when World War II started. Klass, her mother, uncle and grandmother were forcibly moved into the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It was the largest Jewish ghetto during the war.

“The conditions were very bad. There were no doctors, hospitals, medicines and no facilities for hot water. Disease thrived,” she said.

Her father, who did not look Jewish and could speak German, managed to obtain false papers.

After two years in the ghetto, Klass managed to escape with the help of her father, who forged her papers and bribed a guard. Klass’s mother was left behind. Her father found her a hiding place with a French woman, Mrs Sulega, who didn't know Klass’s true identity. Her father would visit every two or three weeks, until he stopped coming.

“I still don’t know until this day what happened to my father. He was one of the 6 million who were killed during the Holocaust,” she said.

In 1944, during an uprising on the “Christian” side of Warsaw, Schutzstaffel forces (SS) evacuated the building where Klass and Sulega lived and the pair were almost shot in a large square. However, the SS changed their minds and took them to a transit camp, after which Klass was placed in a concentration camp.

Holocaust survivor Irene Klass.  Picture: Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

Her aunt, upon hearing about the evacuation, arrived at the camp disguised as a nurse to save her niece.

She told the guards she was taking typhus victims out of the camp.

“She put flour on my face to make me look pale. As we went through the gate, I was pretending to be fainting and they let us through,” she said.

Klass was reunited with her mother, who had escaped the ghetto through a sewer and lived on a farm outside Warsaw until the end of the war in 1945. In 1947 Klass left Poland for England, where she lived for a year until she went to Israel, where she met her first husband and got married. In 1951, Klass came to South Africa and met her second husband.

“I would never go to Germany. My husband and I used to travel overseas but that was one place I would never go to because of what the Germans did to us,” said Klass.

Similar to Klass, Niwemfura’s whole life changed at the age of eight. Niwemfura’s family - parents and all four siblings - died during the Rwandan genocide. In April 1994 when the genocide started, the family had to flee their home in Kamonyi, a district in Southern Province.

Niwemfura’s mother hid her with her three siblings in the home of their Hutu neighbour. A few days later, they were retrieved because the family wanted to die together by drinking poison. “They gave us poison to drink so we could die before the killers came. We drank the poison but didn’t die. And then they came,” said an emotional Niwemfura.

They started hacking at Niwemfura’s family with machetes in the yard of their hiding place. “They hit me and I fell. My mother fell on top of me and all her blood was on me and they thought I was also dead,” she said.

Her brothers and her badly injured grandfather were still alive, but the siblings fled the scene and returned to their neighbours to hide again.

“When we arrived there we were full of blood everywhere. On our clothes, our bodies and our hair. They had to give us milk to drink so the poison wouldn't kill us,” she said.

The Hutu militia heard of their whereabouts and returned to finish the job. Community members tried to plead for the lives of the two children, but they refused and killed Niwemfura’s brother because he would “produce other Tutsis”.

Multiple times the militia would return and Niwemfura would need to hide.

Niwemfura stayed at an orphanage where her maternal aunt worked until her paternal uncle arrived. Niwemfura returned to school and obtained a degree from the University of Rwanda. She came to South Africa in 2010.

The women are adamant about making sure their stories are told to prevent such human rights violations from happening again.

They work as volunteers at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Forest Town. Their stories were used in the permanent exhibition which opened on March 14.


The Star