28 Oct

This is the story of Martin Bicamumpaka, a Hutu and Cornell PhD who died in the civil war in Rwanda.  The story is also in a small way my mother’s story and I am going  to try relate what happened as I understand it from her.  The following is a record of his 1990 dissertation.  He was a year older than me, born in 1952.

Martin was given a research grant by the Presbyterian Church’s International Hunger Project in Ithaca when he was at Cornell.  My mother, Martha Mapes, who was on the committee, got to know him and when he was imprisoned several African students asked her if she could intervene.  The people who worked with him at Cornell also tried to get involved.

Dr. Plaisted, Martin’s advisor, told me the same story he told Martin’s daughter when he saw her several years ago.  At the time she was a college student with very little personal knowledge of her father because she had been so young when he died.  She was curious for anything she could find out about him.  As the story goes, Martin arrived by himself at the airport, all 6 feet of him.  His apartment was ready for him to occupy, but there was no furniture.  Dr. Plaisted said he would be glad to provide a “cot.”  Thinking he had said “cat,” Martin said, “No thank you, we do not sleep with animals.”

Dr.  Plaisted also explained to me that Martin did research for the Intl. Potato Center and that they paid for much of his education at Cornell.  He also said that Martin was a quiet man and self-contained.  He stated ruefully that Martin had been advised not to go to the conference, but that Martin was a grown man and had made that decision.

Christine Stockwell, a member of my Methodist women’s group, relates her involvement in response to an email of mine: “It is funny that you mention Martin – I was thinking of him as well.  I worked with him a little when we were grad students he in Plant Breeding and I in Plant Path.  When Martin was in prison I hung up a few posters distributed by someone in Plant Breeding asking people to write their representatives to urge our country to put pressure on Rwanda for Martin’s release.  Some !#$@ student complained about the posters and the Dept. head asked me to take them down! (The student  wanted to know how I could know for sure that Martin, as a Tutsi, hadn’t tortured people before he went to Cornell)  Of course if you knew Martin, it is impossible to imagine him torturing anyone.”   Christine and I and  our Methodist women’s group had gone to a presentation of Lily Weh , a Chinese-American artist visiting  Cornell.  She works to heal society’s wounds through painting.  One of the places where she worked was Rwanda.  She helped them to create a large mausoleum of sorts.  Seeing it jogged both Christine’s and my memories.

Martin’s story is that he and his wife both died, but their children survived.  He had managed to get out of Rwanda, and to move his family to Nairobi in Kenya, but then went back for a conference.  It is thought a man who had taken over his house reported him, and he was removed from a room at the conference, and then thrown in the Kigali Prison. 

My mother managed to go through channels and a minister from an adjoining country was able to get into the prison and talk to him, but he was already sick.  It was impossible to forcibly take him out of the prison where regular Rwandans worked. 

He must have known he was going to die.  He had messages for his wife.  Since she also died, I’m not sure if she received them.  He also told the minister to tell his advisor at Cornell, Dr. Plaisted, that he was thankful for all the help he had given him.

The conditions in the prison were terrible.  He died in the prison and his wife, who was at a refugee camp in Kenya, died of meningitis. 

However,  the three children were placed in a church school and the Ithaca Presbyterian Church, other Ithaca contributors, and a group of soil scientists helped provide money so that Canadian soil scientist, Peter Vander Zaag (originally from the Netherlands) and his wife, Carla, could go to Kenya, get the children, and adopt them. 

I may add more to this.

2 Responses to “Ithaca-Rwanda”

  1. Wies van Leuken October 14, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    I came across your posting on Martin Bicumumpaka while researching for a program I am editing on the 25th anniversary of the friendship center at which your mother spoke.

    I reported on Martin’s case at the time on my public access TV program and our Amnesty International/Ithaca chapter wrote many letters on his behalf. Laurie (I believe she is the “someone in Plant Breeding”) was on my crew and she first alerted us to what had happened to Martin. I want to offer 2 corrections for your writing. Martin was a Hutu, not a Tutsi. And his jailers were regular Rwandans and employed as such; they were not rebels.

    I believe Martin was in Kigali during the Genocide (most of its victims were Tutsi, but also Hutu that were seen as enemies of the regime). He was arrested and charged with participating in the Genocide. This was after the RFP had conquered Rwanda and put an end to the carnage. Participation in the killings had been massive and the huge amount of arrested people completely overwhelmed the court system and created dangerously overcrowded prisons. As I understood it, Martin was moved to a hospital a few days before he died, something his Rwandan friends contributed to the efforts made on his behalf and which gave them some comfort. His wife could not go to Rwanda to help him there, because the expectation was that she too would be arrested once she stepped on Rwandan soil. She died some time after Martin died. Peter VanderZaag had first met Martin in Rwanda.

    I think I talked to your mother over the phone when the Presbyterian activists and the AI activists finally linked up together – we had not known about each other until then. I was moved by how she had managed a pastoral visit for Martin.

    I am still in sporadic contact with one of Martin’s friends. If Martin’s daughter wants to know more about her father, this could be a good person to talk to. I might also still have some notes of our actions – I could look for them if she is interested.

    Your posting brought back many memories of that awful time. Thank you.

    Wies van Leuken

    • Thank you so much for replying, Mr. van Leuken. I will go ahead and make corrections to the text. My mother just read your note and was excited. She will contact Dr. Plaisted, who lives at the same retirement home, Kendal, that she does and they will contact the Canadian family. When people look at my blog, I can sometimes see the search terms they use, and I’ve been suspecting that some of the children were contacting my site and not finding new information. Of course, the children would want direct contact with you, I’m sure. Christine Stockwell is the person I know with a PhD in Plant Breeding or Plant Pathology who worked with Martin and put up posters, but I’m sure there were others.

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