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Rwanda’s miracle orphanage

As Rwanda marks the anniversary of the 1994 genocide in which almost one million people were killed, an orphanage that played a key part in protecting people is still serving its community.

Seventeen years ago today marked the start of what’s known as one of the worst genocides in modern history, when ethnic fighting in the central east African country killed more than 800,000 people in 100 days.

The Gisimba orphanage, just outside the capital, Kigali helped save more than 400 people’s lives during the atrocity.

It was set up during the 1980s by Peter and Dancilla Gisimba, who opened their home to about 12 unwanted local children. While ethnic tension was mounting, the family, who were mixed Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity, took children from all backgrounds. It became known locally for its good work and by 1994, the orphanage was caring for about 60 children.

But on April 6, the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the country’s Hutu president was shot down near Kigali International Airport. Hutu-led media claimed that the plane was targeted by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel group led by Paul Kagame, now president of Rwanda. Within hours, Kigali was gridlocked by roadblocks and attacks against were launched against the Tutsi minority.

When he got home that day, Jean-Francois Gisimba, one of the orphanage owner’s sons who was 24 at the time was shocked by what he saw. "There were around a thousand people there,” he told the BBC World Service.

"They didn't come because they thought we could save them,” he said. “They came because they didn't want to die alone."

The family hid people in the roof and basement and Jean-Francois and his older brother Damas started trying to bargain with the Hutu youth militia for their safety, bribing them to stay away.

Word spread about their kindness and the amnesty that the militia gave them, mainly because of the Hutu side of their heritage. But that protection stopped suddenly. The militia started to kill people hiding there including children.

One of the last westerners to leave the country was American missionary Carl Wilkens, who went over to the orphanage. “They were starving,” he told US broadcaster PBS. “They had no water, kids were being killed, and were dying from dysentery."

But because there was a white person there the militia didn’t attack the orphanage. Mr Wilkens' called the UN and that led to the army taking the people to safety in a Catholic church in central Kigali.

Today the orphanage houses 150 children and struggles to find funding for building repairs and even food and clothing for the children. A volunteer worker there said "It is a symbol of survival and signifies the resilience of the Rwandan people. The children are happy, and the family, staff and community members involved are devoted to their care."

Hayley attribution