Leonard Sebarinda, now 70-years-old, was haunted for decades by the disappearance of his daughter, a toddler, in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The last time he saw the child, two-year-old Beata Nyirambabazi, was in 1994 at the Mengeti Orphanage run by Italian priests and nuns in Nyamata, Bugesera.
The onset of the genocide in April 1994 saw thousands of Tutsis from most of Bugesera region and the surrounding hills seek refuge at the Nyamata Catholic Church and nearby areas because they thought they would be safe there.
To their shock, the Interahamwe descended on the area and surrounded the church where hundreds of civilians had taken refuge and threw grenades into the church — now a genocide memorial site — leaving no room for anyone to escape.
After the killings were over and the militia had retreated, villagers found little Nyirambabazi alive among the dead bodies. The killers thought she was dead as she lay there. Her mother, twin sister and brother lay dead close by.
Unknown to the villagers, her father was alive, and was hiding in a different location along with his other three children. Well-wishers later took baby Nyirambabazi to a nearby orphanage, named after an Italian priest Mengeti who lived in the area.
According to the local community, there were hundreds of other minors sheltered in the orphanage, rescued from all sorts of places as the killers intensified their slaughter of Tutsis around the Bugesera region.
And it was at the orphanage that her father found her after days of searching for his family which turned up dead except for one baby, whom he confirmed as missing.
He was directed to the orphanage where hundreds of rescued minors were being sheltered.
“I went to the orphanage and I found her. I confirmed that she was indeed my Beata, she even smiled at me when I saw her. I left her there to go plan on how I was going to get her out of the orphanage so that I could take care of her together with her siblings who had survived,” says Sebarinda. I left the orphanage with plans of coming back,” he said.
What he didn’t know however, was that, days later, a number of children, including Nyirambabazi, were flown to Italy, reportedly by some faith-based organisations, charities and individuals who registered them as orphans to be given up for adoption.
A few days later when Sebarinda returned to the orphanage, baby Nyirambabazi was gone.
Sebarinda says his relentless search for a child he saw, touched and confirmed as his own, bore no fruits since no one was forthcoming with information. Not the faith-based organisations or the orphanage.
The family only knew that she had been shipped off to Italy but had no details of where or whom could have taken her in.
Her whereabouts remained unknown to her family for close to 23 years and Sebarinda’s hopes of ever seeing the daughter he last saw as a toddler were fading by the day. The search seemed impossible.
“I kept wondering what would bring her back before I die. I wondered whether it could even be possible for her to come back since we had not received any information about her for a long time despite our inquiries,” narrated the father.
One of Nyirambabazi’s brothers however, made it his life mission to find and bring her home.
The brother, Vincent Twizeyimana, completed his high school education in 2006 and embarked on the search mission for his sister even though he had no clue where to begin.
“I decided to start at the orphanage and I managed to get a few pictures of the group of children she was in when they first arrived in Italy. My father and some members of our family who survived the genocide, separately identified her in the pictures. This removed any doubts that she was taken to Italy and I narrowed down my search to that one child in the picture,” said Twizeyimana.
It however took him four years to trace her through the orphanage paperwork, and eventually confirmed her given name as Jeanette Chiapello, and obtained her e-mail address through former workers at the orphanage who knew children who had been taken to Italy at the same time as his sister but were lucky to have returned to Rwanda.
However, the reply to the first e-mail he sent her in 2010 was not encouraging. The person who wrote back confirmed that she was of Rwandan origin but was orphaned during the genocide and therefore she could not be the person that Twizeyimana was looking for. She further rejected all notions that anyone in her family was still alive in Rwanda.
“After the initial shock reaction, I kept off, but in 2011, I was bold enough to send her pictures of our father, my other two siblings and I at home. But this time the reaction was even worse. She warned me never to write to her and that I should stop the communication, and she made it clear that it was the last time she was talking to me,” said Twizeyimana of his emotional ordeal.
“I was puzzled by the reaction and had no idea how to proceed. I nevertheless wrote to her three more times and got no reply,” he added.
To his surprise, Nyirambabazi got in touch with him early this year, six years later, indicating that she wanted to reconnect with her Rwandan roots and sought detailed information about Twizeyimana’s family. They went on to communicate regularly through Facebook.
“Our Facebook correspondences would start from 11pm to 3pm, while WhatsApp conversations would sometimes last the whole day,” said Twizeyimana.
It was through the social media conversations that the two agreed to do a DNA test to confirm they were indeed related. They each sent DNA samples to the United Kingdom for testing.
They were both thrilled when the DNA results came back positive in August of this year, forcing Nyirambabazi — now a mother of two and married to an Italian man — to make quick plans to travel back to Rwanda to meet the rest of the family.
Their reunion in October was marked by tears of joy as family, neighbours and friends congregated in an emotional homecoming ceremony at a community hall to welcome a long lost daughter and sister.
The ceremony was marked by dancing, exchanging of gifts and general merrymaking reminiscent of a wedding, to welcome back a member of family lost to them for over two decades.
Accompanied by her husband, Massino Ghersi, Jeanette Chiapello (formerly known as Nyirambabazi) who can only muster a few words in Kinyarwanda, spoke directly to her father for the first time in her life this October, through a translator as she only speaks Italian and a little English.
She narrated that she lived in an orphanage upon arriving in Italy as a toddler in 1994, and later got adopted by an Italian family.
“It took me until when I was an adult to start reflecting on my African roots and biological parents,” she said. Chiapello’s story mirrors that of many minors, some now with families of their own, who in 1994 were taken to Italy, Belgium and France to be adopted by European families.
Although some children later returned following government intervention, quite a number, especially those whose entire families were massacred or had no well-informed relatives to trace them, never returned.
In other instances, adoptive families reportedly make it difficult for Rwandan relatives of such children to get details of their current status. Unconfirmed reports show over 40 of close to 100 children from Bugesera taken to Italy in 1994 never returned, let alone those taken to other foreign destinations. This means there are Rwandans still out there yet to reunite with their families.
For Nyirambabazi, it took 23 years of searching by her family to finally see her come home. Her family now lives in Ntarama, Bugesera district, where she received a communal welcoming ceremony.