Swiss foundation honours Rwandan hero

The Paul Grüninger Foundation has awarded its prize for humanity and courage to a man who saved hundreds of lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

This content was published on March 19, 2004 - 11:44

Damas Mutenzintare Gisimba is the second winner of the prize, set up in memory of a Swiss police chief who rescued Jews during the Second World War.

The prize, which is to be presented at a ceremony in St Gallen on Friday, is given to individuals or organisations deemed to have made a significant contribution towards safeguarding the freedom and dignity of others.

In a statement, the foundation said that Gisimba had won the award because he had shown exceptional courage during the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994.

Ten years ago tensions exploded between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus, and in the ensuing violence an estimated 800,000 people - mostly Tutsis - were killed.

At the time, Gisimba was the director of an orphanage in the capital, Kigali. A Hutu but married to a Tutsi, he sheltered more than 80 adults and 300 children in his orphanage.

The 32-year-old managed to feed and shelter them for several months – the massacres took place between April and June – at considerable risk to himself and his family.

“The orphanage… which was the home of 64 children, was at the time of the massacres a refuge for about 400 people who practically had no other chance of surviving,” said the foundation.

“Damas Mutenzintare Gisimba therefore opposed this genocide with incredible humanity, determination and courage,” it added.


Gisimba, who still runs the orphanage set up by his father in 1980, said he felt that he had to do something to help.

“I saw that everyone was in danger,” he said in a newspaper interview. “I told myself I just can’t let this happen.

“If I had to die, then at least I would have died after having done something.”

Every day, Gisimba would find food and water for his charges. He also protected them from the frequent searches by the Hutu militia, as well as dissuading them from joining in the violence themselves.

However, Gisimba denies that he was a hero.

“I only did what my conscience and my faith told me to do. And with God’s help I survived,” he said.


Gisimba is due to receive his SFr50,000 ($29,240) prize at a special ceremony at the foundation’s headquarters in St Gallen.

It will be handed over by William Schabas, a Rwanda expert and director of the Irish centre for human rights at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

It is only that the second time that the triennial prize has been awarded.

The first winner was Afghan doctor Sima Samar in 2001. Samar was commended for her work running a network of hospitals and schools for Afghan women and children.

The award was set up in memory of the former St Gallen police chief, Paul Grüninger, who took advantage of his position to help Jewish refugees enter Switzerland.

Grüninger was posthumously pardoned in 1995 for faking documents to save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution.


In brief

The Paul Grüninger Foundation was founded in 1998 in memory of the former St Gallen police chief, who died in poverty in 1972.

It is financed by the canton of St Gallen, which has given SFr 1.3 million to Grüninger's descendents to be used for the prize.

Paul Grüninger lost his job in 1939, because he helped hundreds of refugees across the border with Germany, saving many lives.

There were 40 candidates for this year's prize, from four continents.

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