God will take care of us
The boy reached for my shoes, his rifle dangling from his shoulder.
“Nice,” he said, running his hand over their polished leather before stuffing them into a worn bag. I sat, numb and unprotesting, a Rwandan university student in sweater and blue jeans, now sock-footed, a ring of armed militia between me and the border. The month since that April afternoon when Aline and I had driven home for Easter vacation had become a horror-filled eternity. “See you soon,” she said when I dropped her off in Kigali before driving on to visit my parents.
“Soon!” The word blocked in my throat. I was supposed to be preparing for my final medical school exams. We planned an August wedding. She was going to do her master’s degree in economics while I interned. Instead President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was downed on April 6, 1994. Then the bloody aftermath, the crazed mobs, the ethnic hatred, the killings, and now these armed ruffians between me and the border.
When I was a boy, ethnic pressures forced my Tutsi mother from our home. My Hutu grandmother tried to comfort me, to help me understand the complexities underlying animosities between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and to encourage me to live at peace with both.
My grandfather and his cronies cursed the Tutsi killers who sneaked in and murdered Hutus, and they bragged about what the Hutus would do if they ever caught any.
I feared for my own future. I knew I was Hutu because of my father, but people said I looked like my mother. Tutsis are generally taller, with pointed noses, slender hands and feet—compared to Hutus, who are a stocky, more muscular Bantu people. Problems eventually settled, and my mother had been home for years when this new tragedy exploded. A cold panic seized us when we heard of the slaughters. Tutsis and suspected Tutsi supporters were targeted. “Things will calm before the trouble reaches here,” we bravely assured one another.
Calm before the storm?
Things did not calm. A week later, a mob swept along our road. The family scattered in a windmill of panic. My feet pounded across the courtyard and into the kitchen hut. Instinctively, I grubbed in my pocket for the razor blade I always carried for medical emergencies. Then I dug my fingers and my toes into the rough, adobe walls, clawing upward, bracing myself, as I whittled through the shriveled cording that twined lengths of bamboo into a solid ceiling.
The shouts neared. My breath grated in my throat. Dust showered into my hair and onto my shoulders. Finally, a section of bamboo popped free. I knocked it back and grappled my way into the stuffy closeness under the thatch. A trembling seized me, but I willed myself to settle the loose bamboo back into position. Then I eased onto my stomach. Momentarily, I wondered what it would feel like to die and to join the ancestral spirits in the mysterious other world. As a boy, I had wanted to become a Catholic priest. Then at the university, I drifted away from church, confusing the Christian God with the supreme deity of our ancestors.
“Traitors!” The mob battered open the gate and three of them pushed into view. Filthy. Hair matted. Rags coiling their heads. One with a club. Another a spear. The third a machete. My breath froze. No! Even through the white mud streaking his face and the layers of rags flopping around his sweating body, I easily recognized an old schoolmate.
They bolted on. Splintering wood. Banging. Hollering. Crashing glass. Cursing. Then new screams. My life blocked into a wooden slow motion. Detail followed horrible detail. My machete-wielding classmate. The other two. My mother. Dragged before the open doorway. Pleading for pity. Crying out her innocence. Praying.
My mouth scorched with silence. A frantic impulse pushed me to throw myself down from my hiding place. To stop her attackers. But I lay rigid, eyes wide. Watching what I had no power to stop. It was as though they did not know her. Did not hear her. The machete. The club. The spear. My mother! Then it was my sister. Then a brother.
I lapsed into a stupor, lying as still as the bodies in the scarred courtyard. After the mob left, even after darkness fell, I still did not move. My heart cried, begged, shouted at me to climb down and scrape out a hollow grave for their poor bodies, to give them the dignity of being received by the earth. My good sense, though, kept me where I was. Warned me not to move. Not to do anything that might show that anyone there was still alive. On the second evening, when Malachai, our Hutu servant, came to tend to the cows, I forced myself to climb down.
“Richard?” The stocky Hutu froze.
“I need your help.” I counted on our years of living together as brothers.
“What should I do?” Malachai’s voice sounded as dull as the shadows.
“I have two friends...” The door to my room sagged open. I wrote them a note. Handing it to Malachai, I asked the question that I dreaded: “My father?”
Malachai regarded me from hopelessly bleak eyes.
“Today. In a banana patch. They found him.”
“I don’t know. Some say FPR (Tutsi) scouts struck back because of your mother and others.”
Escape to safety
When Malachai left, I went into the house and, not wanting to believe what I was doing and why, took the family money and my own savings from their hiding places. I stuffed clothes and a few other things into a bag. After it was fully dark, a motorcycle growled up to the gate. “Climb on.” The driver wasted no words. “I am taking you to the border of the prefecture.” At the last militia barricade, he nodded toward the other side. “The Tanzania border’s just there. By morning...” He took for granted that I would flee the country, but when I reached a fork in the road I turned instead toward Butare. The university campus had always remained neutral. I expected it to be safe.
The campus did look the same when I arrived, yet everything had changed. Hutus and Tutsis no longer mingled, and those of us with mixed parentage did not belong to either group. The next day, I went back to my work as senior medical assistant in the student dispensary. That evening the city of Butare fell. “God will take care of us,” a friend said.
“How can you say that?” I demanded, “Don’t you know what’s happening?” Even then we could hear the shooting in the city.
“This is not God’s doings,” he replied. “Even if we lose everyone and everything, I know God will someday make it right.”
The next afternoon soldiers arrived on campus, rounding up Tutsis and suspected Tutsi sympathizers. They drove pickup load after pickup load out to lonely spots of execution. The horror of that night... I was in one of the first groups. A military buddy of my cousin jumped between me and the others, then kept me with him all night. The next day he hid me in an attic. Only the scorching temperatures under the metal roof by day and the cold at night kept me aware of passing time. One terrible night I called out silently to the supreme all-powerful One I did not know. “God! Help! Help me to escape!” I repeated the prayer over and over to myself. “Help me escape!”
Toward dawn, the name of an officer friend came to my mind. With full light, I slipped down the ladder and tapped the signal for the guard boy. He went for my friend. The officer agreed to escort me by jeep to the border. On the way, I met a classmate. “You’ve had news of Aline?” he asked.
“Oh, Richard, my friend.”
“You’ve seen her?”
“She was with those in the Catholic Church north of Kigali.” During earlier conflicts, people always found safety in churches. This time.... A gasoline-fed fire had devoured the church where Aline and her family had taken shelter. From somewhere in the distance came floating those words, “See you soon.”
The next day we reached the border. I waited. Hours passed while my friend bargained with the border guards. The gang of armed youths gathered around me. They took my jacket. Then my shoes. All I had left was the handbag with my personal documents.
“You!” My head jerked up. A guard pointed toward the gate. “Go!”
Clutching my handbag, I walked in the direction he pointed. Then I was running, sockfooted, through the open gateway and across the border.
“My money’s all gone.” I didn’t know what else to say when the mother of a former school friend invited me to stay. Until then, my family’s savings had convinced friends and soldiers to help me. She lived meagerly. She couldn’t keep me indefinitely. “But what can I do without money?” As I pondered my situation, horrible memories pushed in. “I have money. I’ll pay!” I tried to blot away those desperate pleas and how they had been hacked into silence and how afterwards the money had been ripped from their pockets.
“Money didn’t help them.” The sudden idea shocked me. “Then why me? Why?”
A new beginning
When I was a boy, my grandmother and my mother told me that God had a plan for my life. Since the night in the attic, I had continued to pray. Two other students invited me to go south with them. We traveled by boat, by bicycle, by foot. I finally found work so I could pause from my wanderings. Events chained. I met a Christian friend, joined a Bible study group, and started attending church. My thinking began to change. I realized that God has given me life, and I decided to give my life back to Him. On a beautiful Sabbath day, I was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
By the grace of God, I’ve been able to resume my medical studies. I don’t know of any other way to say thank you to Him and to all those who have helped me, except by devoting my life to helping others.
Corrine Vanderwerff is a missionary and free-lance writer based with her husband in Lubumbashi, Zaire. She helps manage REACH child-sponsorship projects and leads out in women’s Bible study groups. This story is an excerpt from her book Kill Thy Neighbor (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1996). Her address: P.O. Box 72253; Ndola; Zambia.