Once Upon a Rwandan Nightmare

Author: Rudy Nkinzingabo '08

Rudy NkinzingaboIt is often said that miracles happen; however, only some of us live to experience them. I have come to believe that my journey has been a miracle, one that has led me from war-torn Rwanda to Kenya to the United States and then to Notre Dame. This is the story of my journey, the story of the Notre Dame miracle.

April 6, 1994, is a day I will never forget. During the night I was awakened by lights and noises outside our Kigali home. Through the windows I saw a distant blaze of fire. Lately in the Rwandan countryside near our house, there had been gunshots and bombs going off. I thought this was nothing different and went back to sleep.

Early the next morning, I overheard my parents saying the president had been killed. First I thought it was a joke. I had always believed that presidents were untouchable; they were like gods. I asked my brother what was happening, and he said the president was indeed dead—his plane had been shot down as he was returning from Tanzania. Yet I still did not believe it.

I remembered later sitting down in the TV room with my parents and watching CNN. I couldn’t understand English, so I did not know what was going on. All I could think was, “Wow, Rwanda is on TV. This is so cool.” I was only 9 years old.

My sister and I spent the day playing video games until the power was cut. Gunshots could be heard outside, so we stayed inside. My parents had spent the whole day listening to the radio, trying to comprehend the situation. That night we had to sleep on the floor, since the bed raised you to the level of the window and a bullet could easily hit you. It was a dark night, and the only light was from the bombs.

The next morning my sister and I ventured outside the compound. The streets were empty and lifeless: no cats, no dogs, even the kids who used to play games on the street were nowhere in sight. Everyone was either inside or had left to find a safer refuge.

On the killing list
The idea of fleeing our own home became an issue when a maidservant sent by my father’s brother arrived at our gate breathless, as if she had been running in a marathon. She told us that my uncle’s house had just been ransacked by Hutu-led militias, who were looking for my family to kill all of us. My father had built the house my uncle lived in and had donated it to him as a gift. The militias had thought we lived there and had therefore searched for us at that house.

The news shocked my father, who decided it was time to leave. I did not fully understand the situation, but to be prepared I put on four layers of clothes. As I was trying to take the little money that I had saved, my mom told me not to. We would be back soon, she said. As she left the room, I ran back in and still took some money with me.

When we were all ready, along with our guards and maid, my father drove us to nearby Saint Vincent Seminary. He believed we would find refuge there.

At the seminary, people were everywhere. It wasn’t a palace, and I remember thinking: “What a dirty place! How can people be living in such unhealthy conditions?”

The priest responsible for the compound had set the rule that any incoming refugee must be cleared by him to avoid the admission of unwelcome troublemakers. So when we arrived, he came outside and talked to my parents. He seemed nice, and it wasn’t long before we were taken in. There was only one room left.

The one bed in the room had already been assigned, so the priest asked us nicely what we had brought to sleep on or to cover ourselves. He quickly understood that we had nothing with us and went to his office to get the only items he had left: a small carpet, a small mattress and a small bed sheet. We were very grateful. That night we shared one carpet—my mom, dad, brother, two sisters and our two guards.

That evening I kept complaining. I had never been a refugee and did not know how to act. The dinner was just rice, and I made it clear to my mom that I wanted meat on top, I wanted meat from home. I ate only to show respect and obedience to my mother.

After dinner I was tired. “Where do I sleep, Mom?” I asked. “Here,” she said, “on the ground, on this sheet and this pillow.” When I protested vehemently that the ground would be too painful, my mom told me to stop making a fuss. She said I was disturbing those who were already enjoying their sleep. Still crying, I lay down and eventually fell asleep.

On this first night at the sanctuary, all had not been that bad. As soon as the priest had settled us in the room, I walked outside with one of the kids whose parents shared our room. We instantly became friends, and he had shown me where I should expect to find such things as food and restrooms. He also introduced me to other kids.

The next morning I woke up early, full of energy. I was thinking that my new friends and I would be exploring more of the neighborhood or that we would be playing a lot of games together. Indeed, my friend and I went to take a shower and clean ourselves. We ate the breakfast people had prepared for anyone who was hungry. Everything seemed okay.

Mob violence
Too soon, however, we saw an awful situation unfolding on the gate: On one side, a mob was assaulting the gate and trying to get inside the compound. Inside, people were organizing the resistance to oppose the mob with whatever was available to them: razors, bats, swords.

My friend and I were coming close to that gate to check what all that fuss was about when members of the mob broke the doors down and erupted into the compound. They were fully armed and had a list of names of people to kill. My friend and I rushed into hiding under the table in a room with an open door where we continued to watch what was going on outside.

These mobs were the Hutu militias, the people purportedly acting on the side of the legal army to save the legal government, and looking for enemies, or supposed accomplices of the enemy. They went to the priest who had welcomed us in that sanctuary and asked him to show them where these “traitors” were. The priest refused and said that he did not want any violence in the sanctuary. At that point, one of the officers walked up to him. I heard a gunshot as I saw the priest=s body fall to the ground.

The shooters approached a second priest. He also refused to point out the people on their list. They shot him as well. One of the gang members recognized my father and shouted his name, pointing a finger in his direction. My father panicked and tried to run away. He was shot three times. My mother was now running back to the room to hide, and, together with my friend, we crawled under the bed after she locked the door.

The situation outside was chaotic: we heard shooting, cries and screams of agony, people running in all directions, distress. A man walked to the door of the room we were in, ready to open it, when his fellow militiaman called out to him: “Let’s go!! The job is done here!” Sometimes I think of what would have happened if he had opened that door.

They left, but more chaos broke out. The priest responsible for the seminary had been murdered in front of everyone. Now there was nobody to reorganize the people. Everyone was trying to find loved ones. My mom was holding me, but the fear and anxiety were obvious in all of us. We didn’t know the whereabouts or fate of other members of our family. Everything was a blur of confusion. Then my brother walked into the room we were in and yelled, “Dad has been shot.” My mom broke into tears, and we could hear the fear and anguish piercing her heart.

Back in 1990 the Tutsi rebels who had invaded the country had massacred dozens of her immediate family; now the side she thought she belonged to had set upon her and her beloved husband. It was too much for her. I was too young to feel the severity of the situation; everything was going too fast for me. My sisters came back into the room. I could tell they were afraid and traumatized by what they had just seen: coldblooded murders, dead bodies everywhere, people hacking other people. It was all horror.

Dad, bleeding
When my brother carried my father into our room, we did not know what to do; my father was lying on the ground losing blood very fast. I remember wondering: “Why does he smell so bad? Maybe,” I thought, “it is the way the human blood smells, once outside the body.” Later, my brother explained that he had dragged my father to the restroom to hide him. And, obviously, the floor of the restroom was littered by filth.

We had no medical knowledge. The only one of us who did was my father, and he was the victim. My brother was a big fan of the Rambo movies, and he recalled how a badly wounded Rambo would use a big knife to cut into a wound, extract bullets, wrap with any dressing at hand, and that was it. So that was what my brother did, trying to take out bullets from my father’s back and hip. However, each attempt ended with more bleeding and with no bullet coming out. My dad managed to gather a bit of breath and told my brother to stop because it was not going to work; worse, it was even more dangerous.

The distance between our seminary sanctuary and any hospital was spanned by deadly roadblocks manned by the militias. We were stuck in a dreadful situation. The crowds buzzing outside the gate of the compound were another danger, for they were busy settling their differences by swords and machetes. We feared that by showing up outside, it would be our fateful end. We stayed in the room and prayed to the Holy Mother. Then my mom placed a rosary around my dad=s neck.

Soon after this prayer, a man with a gun broke into our room. I thought he was about to kill us all. Then the man kneeled down to have a better look at my father. “This man is one of our people,” he said. “We have to get him to safety, help me get him up.” The miracle man, my brother and my mother picked up my father and carried him outside.

At the gate it was tense. People who could not show identification papers, which mentioned the carrier’s ethnicity, were killed on the spot. We did not have any of these papers, and it seemed like this was going to be the end of the road. Then one of the men grabbed my mom and accused her of being a Tutsi.

Without these papers the mob had to resort to the arbitrary method of identification: the examination of the outward appearance, inherited from the colonial era. My mother, Leocadie Mukaneza, is of a mixed descent, and the militia had probably spotted one or another trait described in the colonizer=s legacy.

A Hutu in the crosshairs
For my father, Emmanuel Rugina, it is quite a different story. He is a Hutu. He holds a medical degree from the National University of Rwanda and a doctorate from the Free University of Brussels, in Belgium. In Rwanda, he served as lecturer at the School of Medicine of the National University of Rwanda and then as a physician in Kigali’s main hospital.

While at the Kigali hospital, he was appointed by the government to the Neutral Military Observers Group (NMOG), a peace-keeping force of the Organization of the African Unity (OAU). During his services with the observer’s group, my dad was under pressure from the Hutu-led government to kill the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) Tutsi soldiers by medical means. He refused to do so.

Consequently, at a public function he was awarded a medal in recognition of the services rendered to the mission by the OAU secretary general. This infuriated some government officers.

His misfortunes started on August 23, 1993. On this day, RPF members had gathered to celebrate their capture of a town in the northeastern province of Byumba. My father and other members of the neutral observers group were present.

The celebration was filmed, and the tape fell into the hands of National Security Intelligence. Since my father, a Hutu, was at a Tutsi-dominated RPF function, he was considered an accomplice of the RPF. To the government this explained why he refused to give poisonous medicines or injections to the RPF soldiers operating within the neutral military observers’ group.

From then onward, my dad and my family were a target of government political victimization. It found its fulfillment on the fateful day of April 9, 1994, when my dad was shot and left for dead.

Outside the gate that day, militia members had decided that my mom was a Tutsi. They were ready to kill her when the miracle man who had protected my dad earlier appeared. He lectured his colleagues about us and told them that we were their people. The man who had started shaking my mom backed off and apologized. He let us out and was kind enough to take my father to an abandoned house nearby, away from the mob.

Defining choice
My father was laid on the floor for the obvious comfort he needed, then the militiaman asked my brother and one of our servants to go to his friend’s house nearby and ask him to help my father. We sat down and waited. Someone found a gun in that compound, a little pistol, but no one took it—a significant choice, because we could have easily taken the weapon and joined the war. My brother and the servant must have gone at sprint speed, because after a few minutes, they were back with a truck to drive us to the nearest hospital, the military hospital.

My sisters and I were welcomed to stay in the house of my dad’s friend. We were able to watch TV again, play around with the other kids. At the beginning of our stay, the noise of gunshots and blasts were remote; later they became increasingly louder, meaning the Tutsi rebels were closing in. Soon the bullets, bombs and mortar shells started flying in the immediate neighborhood. Fearing for his and our lives, our host took us back to the hospital to regroup with our parents and took his own family to a safer location.

At the military hospital, my father was visited by a friend of his, a ranking officer in the military who lived near the hospital. The officer offered to give my sisters and me hospitality and pledged to provide food to my parents in the hospital. In Rwanda, hospitalized patients were expected to receive food from their own families, except for the deprived who would receive their food from the Catholic charities associated with the hospital.

The hospital was part of the military barracks that had been considered unassailable. But soon bombs and mortar shells started falling around and inside the walls. At times my sisters and I would rush into hiding underneath a table, believing it would provide protection from any bomb that fell over the house.

With the help of the high-ranking officer, we were relocated to the Kigali hospital where my father had been working before the actual crisis. The officer’s deputy accepted my sisters and me in his home nearby.

The General Military Headquarters was across the road, and it was a selected target of the rebels’ shelling. When that specific target was missed, the hospital would be the one to take it. Each day and night my sister and I would experience heavy bombings; however, it was now different. The bombs did not frighten us as much as before. It seemed that we had adapted to it.

The bombs
I had been assigned the mission of delivering the provision of food to my parents in the hospital, which I did every day. One day I was on my way to the hospital when bombs exploded in front of me. I hit the ground, but when I looked up I saw a shattered building, yet nothing stopped me from going ahead to deliver the food. When I walked in I found that the room next to my dad’s was one of the rooms that had been badly damaged.

My mom and brother were hiding, and when they saw me they were amazed. I thought they would have been disappointed in me if I had not delivered the food. What I did not realize was how close my dad, my mom and my brother had been to being killed by these bombs.

It was clear that the actual conditions at the hospital would not allow us to continue defying death. The bombings were becoming worse. My mom decided we should leave that hospital for the north province. There I met my grandpa for the first time. It was a great moment for me.

After two weeks with my grandpa, we headed to the border city where our Good Samaritan officer had been transferred. We lived in a house that had been raided by the militias and the looters; there were signs that the tenant had been tortured and killed. I started to have nightmares. I would wake up during the night and see people walking in the air. I would then wake up my sisters to show them these phantoms, and I would be told that these were possibly spirits.

The city itself was relatively peaceful. But it came to be swamped by angry militias and other hardliners, and then everything turned upside down. At the city’s hospital, my father was turned away by the doctor who had been his student at the school of medicine! This doctor blamed my father of having been spotted in the rebel strongholds and insisted we vacate the precinct immediately. Every single law of common sense had been drowned in the hurricane of hatred. There was nothing else to do but cross the border to the neighboring country of Congo, which we were able to do with my father’s contacts and pure luck. From there we took the plane to Kenya where we applied for resettlement to the United States.

The resettlement process was long and laborious. We were fortunate to live across the road from Saint Vincent House, a residence of brothers and priests of the Marianist Congregation, an extension of the Society of Mary, sponsored by of the University of Dayton. One member, Brother Peter Daino, S.M., pleaded our case to his fellows of the University of Dayton, who in their turn forwarded it to the Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley in Dayton. It was done! And we could be flown to Dayton on April 29, 1997.

A miracle
Being here and safe from the Rwandan tribulations has been a miracle. My family and I were caught in the cyclone of the tragedy; death was always close. My mom has been the hero who led her badly wounded husband and four young children on her shaky shoulders to safety. She had only her faith, prayers and the promise of the Holy Mother.

During one of the apparitions of the Holy Mother in Rwanda in 1983, a visionary in contemplation had made her way through the crowd to come to my mom and quote a message from the Holy Mother: “My child, through your life you will go through tribulations, but I will be always with you, to help you.” At every turn of our fleeing ordeal, we have seen the intercession of the Holy Mother in action to save us from deadly situations. I saw it when my mother hung a rosary around my father’s neck. I saw it when my father’s hospital room was spared from a bomb disaster; I was there when an angry militiaman recognized my wounded father and changed from our would-be killer into our actual shield against the mob.

I can testify for my father’s health condition. The profuse hemorrhage he had suffered when he was shot in the Rwandan turmoil precipitated chronic renal failure. His case found an answer at the Notre Dame Grotto. My family came to visit on the weekend of the Michigan State game in September 2003, and my dad spent most of the time at the Grotto and the basilica, praying. Two weeks after that pilgrimage, an unexpected call came from the Ohio State University Medical Center. A Good Samaritan had offered to donate his kidney to save my dad.

Finally, I can also feel the Holy Mother’s intercession when I review all the steps of our journey including even my schooling process here in the United States: I started at Our Lady of the Rosary School, which was located on Notre Dame Avenue in Dayton, then I attended Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, a Marianist school; now, I leave the University of Notre Dame, having lived the Notre Dame miracle.

Rudy Nkinzingabo works for Deloitte & Touche in Phoenix.