Gisa, the War Child

th‘Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.’ ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

His life wasn’t short for he was larger than it. He accomplished his duty, played his part and set the people free. He had many sides; an irresistible dancer, a heartbreaking lover, an absent husband and father, a fleeting, evanescent life…

Like Mohamed Ali another black icon, Fred Gisa Rwagema was strikingly handsome, powerful and highly intelligent; girls fell for him, his troupes revered him and his enemies feared him. Yet he was gentle and human. He spread love and hope on his path; he mastered the art of war, which devises to a soldier never to kill the people for whom one is fighting.

Gisa was gifted, but also intrepid. Fear was not one of his attributes; He dared death many times and won. On the first day of the struggle to liberate his country, death finally had the best of him and he fell on the battlefield.

We owe our country to the blood of the one who was touched by the grace. He was sent to us to redeem our victory and return to his creator, the One who obliged us with the gift of him. He put Museveni in Power, recruited Paul Kagame into the army, he conquered nations and mentored leaders; he was the greatest freedom fighter of the twentieth century.

Fighting came naturally to him; so did charisma. When he spoke to his troupes, he didn’t only speak, he sung, he jumped, he danced and he ran…


While describing him, typically cerebral elders loose their composure. Some cry others laugh; others stand up and cheer. His energy was contagious and his flame still burns in the heart of veteran African freedom fighters; those who were fortunate to serve with him or under his command…

‘Tuzafata ikibuga cy’indege kimwe. Niturangiza tujye mu misozi… Mama we!’ – Agahita asimbuka (We’ll hit an Airport, take control of it and set up our positions in the mountains; Mama we! – Then he’d jump!) – An RPF Cadre recalls with a smile; ‘Fred was no ordinary man’. We never knew what the plan of battle was, we never wanted to know, we had Fred; he was the plan; he was the one.

His legend stretched from Mkotho We Sizwe’s ANC military wing in the bushes of Mozambique through MPLA in Angola to CCM in Tanzania. Fighters from Samora Macher’s FRELIMO in Mozambique, John Garang’s SPLA in Soudan; of course Museveni’s NRA had all rendezvoused in Rwanda’s ibirunga mountains; ‘the War Child has finally returned’, they said to each other, he’s finally gone to liberate his country! Let’s pay him back and all meet there, it is going be legendary!’

All knew he was the one: Moses; Umutabazi (The redeemer) – And as it is told in ancient Rwandan folklore and reproduced in scripture, he was never to make it to Promised Land. He had another calling, that of setting in motion the long walk to freedom.

maj-gen-gisa22‘With Fred we had a sense of invincibility. We were sure of a quick victory. We were overconfident.’ – one of his brothers in arms recounts…

To many, when he died the war seemed lost; many young men died; too many… the struggle had failed. His enemies celebrated victory, but that’s only because they were ignorant of the ways of Imana Y’Urwanda. Intsinzi yari yabonetse, (Victory had been bought) as Mariya Yohani would sing in her song of victory: ‘Intinzi bana b’uRwand’ Intsinzi, jye ndayireb’ Intsinzi, Mubice byos’ Intsinzi…’

Oscar Wilde also said, Some things are more precious because they don’t last long. We are still heartbroken, but perhaps it was right that he fell, for he then passed on the mantle to Joshua and Caleb to reach promised land with us, the twenty ‘Amoko y’Abanyarwanda, bene Kanyarwanda’ – the twenty tribes that make this land of a thousand hills, where God retires to sleep with every sunset.

We remember you Gisa. We Rwandans, your people, were pleased by your passage in our midst. Twarakwishimiye. We will teach the young ones to walk in your footsteps. Still, your name is strong and alive in the country and in our minds. It always will be.

This piece was written on 1st of October, when Rwandans celebrate their heroes…


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