Rwandan tells how he reconciled surviving genocide

Rwandan tells how he reconciled surviving genocide

Monday, April 25, 2016
By Tyler Graef ~ Southeast Missourian
Alex Nsengimana, who saw several family members slain during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, speaks Sunday at Cape Bible Church in Cape Girardeau.
Tyler Graef

As Rwanda entered 1994, Alex Nsengimana was 6 years old, with a 6-year-old’s grasp on politics.

But he knew he and his family were Tutsi.

He lived with his grandmother and several other relatives who shared the Tutsi ethnic identity. He had lost his mother to HIV/AIDS and had never known his father.

“I followed in my grandmother’s shoes,” he told the crowd Sunday afternoon at Cape Bible Chapel in Cape Girardeau. “If she was lazy, even, I was lazy, too. I loved my grandmother.”

But in 1994, he developed a vague awareness of trouble brewing from radio bulletins and overheard conversations. Ethnic tensions between the tall, slight Tutsi and the stouter, shorter Hutu populations dated back to the country’s pre-colonial era and again threatened to descend into violence.

“Hatred continued to grow, little bit by little bit,” Nsengimana said. He explained that for various reasons, the Hutu generally resented the Tutsi, who were thought to occupy a more privileged place in Rwandan society.

The first week of April, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of neighboring Burundi, was shot down.

Hutus and Tutsis blamed each other for the assassination. While those responsible for the killings have yet to be definitively identified, the slaughter that followed is history.

“The next day, the bombs started going off,” Nsengimana said.

His village was about 25 miles outside the more serious trouble in the city but was by no means safe. Neighbors warned his family not to leave the house for fear of being killed, but staying put was not a better option.

“We closed all the doors, and all of a sudden, we began to hear noises outside the house,” Nsengimana recalled.

Armed men broke into the house and forced the family outside to lay on the ground.

“They told my sister and me to go back into the house,” Nsengimana said. “That’s when we watched through the windows as they took my grandmother’s life.”

The horror of that instant, Nsengimana said, was compounded by his familiarity with the marauders.

“These were people I did not consider strangers,” he said. “We were so confused.”

They spared Nsengimana’s two uncles, but they soon returned.

“These were the last words [my uncle] said,” Nsengimana recalled. “‘Please, do not destroy this house. These children need a place to live.’”

They granted his dying wish, and Nsengimana’s rapidly dwindling family lived for a time in the house while his uncle kept the militants at bay with bribes of beer.

But the beer soon ran out.

“And we were wandering again,” Nsengimana said. “You never knew when you were going to make it through the night.”

He was, he explained, unwittingly laying the groundwork for his later conversion to Christianity.

“At that point, I didn’t even know that there was a God,” he said. “Miracles were happening around me that I thought were coincidence.”

He later would learn to find what he called “God’s sense of humor” even in dire situations.

One day, he was running through a field when he slipped and hit the ground hard with what turned out to be inspired timing.

“I realized a bullet had missed by head by an inch because I slipped in a cow pie,” he said, laughing. “There’s nothing glamorous about that, is there? I never thought God would use a cow pie to save my life.”

Nsengimana survived the wave of genocide, but the roughly 100 days of killing had turned him from a first-grader in a classroom to one of thousands of children in orphanages across the country.

“At this point, we were just lost,” he said. “We were hopeless.”

While in the orphanage, he received a shoebox with gifts inside from Operation Christmas Child, a Christian program that provides millions of care packages to needy areas around the world each year.

“It was the very first time we had ever received a gift,” he said.

The comb in one of his boxes became his most prized possession, but he left the roll of Smarties candies in the box, suspecting they might be medicine in disguise.

“And I got my first candy cane,” he said. “Halfway through, I realized it tasted better without the wrapper.”

He also received a Bible in a box. He was 9 and developing a prodigious case of survivor’s guilt.

“Millions of people died, and I walked through it without a single scratch,” he said.

He began to question everything. Why his family members? Why not himself? How does one explain the mortal serendipity of a well-timed rifle jam or an inexplicably compassionate soldier?

It was too much, especially for a 9-year-old, Nsengimana said, and anger followed disbelief. He found a measure of solace in the word of God, but faith came with its own hurdles.

Chiefly, how could Nsengimana conceive of a God who would love equally an orphan and the neighbor who had killed that orphan’s uncle?

“The bitterness in my heart was so much that if I had seen the person who did that to my family, I would have done that, too,” Nsengimana admitted. “It’s scary to say that, even now.”

Nsengimana was able to attend school in America some time later. If it was another example of God’s providence, he said, it was another example of His divine humor.

“I went to Minnesota,” he said, “where lakes freeze and people drive on them.”

He now helps Operation Christmas Child by sharing his story around the country. What’s especially satisfying, he said, was going back to Rwanda in 2013 to give children the same gifts that meant so much to him as a child.

“Seeing kids so happy and smiling ... You see them just light up,” he said. “It was so special to me.”

But even more profound was meeting one of the men responsible for his uncle’s killing.

The man who killed his grandmother had escaped prison, but Nsengimana arranged a prison visit with the man who killed his uncle.

“Why did you do it?” Nsengimana asked the man. “He said, ‘Really we were just following orders. ...’ It was like Satan had come and built a nest in our country, and people were killing for sport.”

It was painful seeing that man, Nsengimana said.

“There is no part of me who wanted to see him,” he said.

But he had to.

“And in that moment, God healed me so much,” he said.

Nsengimana’s goal, he said, was not to garner pity or flaunt piety. Rather, he said he tells his story to illustrate the hand of God in life in the hope others might grow to be similarly mindful.

“I hope you can see the power of God in [daily life],” he urged the crowd. “I hope you can see the works of God in the cow pies he has laid in front of you.”

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