“For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.” Psalm 116: 8-9
It must have been sometime in September, or maybe October, I am not entirely sure. Please bear with me as I try to relive the darkest period of my life. Allow me to tell you the horror of my childhood, almost three decades later, as a 13-year old, holding my chin up high, with hope rising. The genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda had just ended a few months earlier, by Rwandans who lived as refugees in exile. They had been denied to return to their home country, with the excuse that it was full. These refugees, formed a grass-roots army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front or RPF. The RPF came fighting without sophisticated artillery, armed with the love and dedication to liberate their beloved country and save any Tutsi who still had breath in them.
I lived with my paternal aunt at the time, whom I miraculously met at the same refugee shelter, Kigali International Airport, where RPF soldiers gathered survivors behind the enemy line. I think it was the end of May or beginning of June.
Our airport living quarters were empty cargo shipping containers located right across from the airport hangar. Downtown Kigali, twenty minutes or less north of us, was still an active combat between RPF soldiers and the Rwandan Army Forces who planned and executed the genocide. Some of the refugees were the survivors of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, dehumanized for just being born with certain physical features. This unimaginable cruelty would later be recognized as genocide too little too late.
My aunt and her two toddlers under age three had been hidden by her Hutu neighbor in Remera, just minutes from this airport. (Her husband, my uncle, had been on a business trip out of country before all this started).
As far as I was concerned, before bumping into my aunt, I was the only living soul left in my family and the world that surrounded me. Meeting my aunt was a small glimmer of hope, a connection to a forgotten happy past. I was grateful to see someone familiar and thankful she asked me to live with her, whatever that meant, since everything we held dear was gone.
On July 4th, 1994, the country was liberated by the RPF. Victory, we had a sense of hope. Soon after, we were allowed to return to homes, or whatever was left that resembled our lives.
Fast forward a few months later, I believe it was September or October, when my aunt’s friend came to visit in Remera. As soon as he saw me, he said there were two small boys from my family living in an orphanage in the next town, Ndera. I couldn’t believe my ears! Two boys? We initially had two boys and four girls in my family, and my older brother had been killed along with my mother. Besides, there was no way he could be called little, standing at 6 feet tall at fifteen years old.
When we were separated the April before, I left my little brother and two sisters. If there were siblings at the orphanage, I wondered which of the three was not there. My young mind was trying to make sense of it all. Now there was a possibility I still had two siblings. I might not be the only one who survived. I couldn’t believe it. It was a lot to process!
I honestly don’t recall how I arrived where my siblings were at the time. I probably walked since there was no public transportation in place yet. Then the most life-changing moment arrived. I saw my siblings! And the greatest part was, there were not two, but all three. Memories flooded back to that April 24th day, that life and death defining moment and the last time I saw them. We had just been informed my older brother, Jean Felix, was being held by the Hutu militiamen. My mom, cousin, and I rushed to see Jean Felix. When we arrived at the “crime scene”, which sat at the mouth of a mass grave, our physical features must have given us away. The killing squad leader asked my mom where she had been hiding for that long and if she had any other kids not with us.
For reasons I don’t know today, rather than lying, my mother told the truth. She perhaps thought that we wouldn’t be able to survive on our own, or she was ready to see the Lord. I will never know.
I was immediately given an armed soldier as an escort and sent to bring my three younger siblings from hiding, instead of my brother Jean Felix who was believed to be a flight risk. For whatever reason that I still don’t understand, this soldier decided to leave my younger siblings in their hiding place. Moreover, rather than taking me back where my mother, brother and cousin were being held, he took me somewhere else. Sparing you details for now, I am alive today to tell the story because of his decision. This same soldier knew my mom, brother, and cousin were dead and how they had been executed.
I have so many questions that I won’t have answers for in this life. Ironically, I owe my ability to tell this story to this same soldier. Whatever he did or didn’t do, he spared my life.
Five or six months later, after that horror, I stood in shock unable to believe my eyes at the sight of my siblings. They were so malnourished that I could understand why someone would think my two sisters were boys.
I may have intentionally blurred a lot that happened before and after, such as the fact that my youngest sister didn’t recognize me. While that and so many broken memories shattered my heart, this encounter remains the most treasured moment of my life. From that very moment, I found my life purpose. My survival finally had a meaning!
Now, what about the Sacred Promise I gave the title of this post?
Sometime after I had found my surviving siblings, I had an incredibly vivid dream. In it was my father, Alphonse, looking as handsome as ever in a white robe. You cannot believe my shock thinking how I had been applying for documents that would exempt me from paying school fees because I was an orphan. Yet, there stood my father looking at me with a big smile. The dream ended with me making a promise to him, that I would love and take care of his surviving children as he would have done himself. When I awoke, I felt like I had met an angel and I felt my father’s presence.
April 7th, 2022 begins the twenty-eighth commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Today, I can humbly divulge that keeping this promise remains the most important accomplishment of my life. And if this is the only success I will ever achieve in this life, I will call myself the luckiest person on God’s earth. Before my God who Has my parents and two siblings with Him, I have unconditionally loved my three younger siblings as my own children, and their children as my grandkids. With every fiber of my being, and breath I take, I will keep my sacred vow to my dad in that dream late 1994 for as long as I shall live.
There’s nothing in this life that I cannot do for my siblings I call my children; God is my witness. Their happiness fills my heart with joy and gratitude before God! I love them more than life itself. I am immensely grateful to our Father God Who has been everything we ever need. He provided, protected and carried my siblings and I through the darkest and trying times of our lives. He truly is the Father to the fatherless!
I am married to my best friend, my partner in righteousness, who’s not only understanding of what my siblings and I endured at a young age, but also supportive of my keeping the sacred promise I made to my father in that dream! When Jesus will come with the clouds and all eyes will see Him, before the heavenly congregation, I will tell my dear parents that I had kept my vow to them and our God!
I found hope, faith and purpose amidst great loss!