NEW YORK—Alex Nsengimana’s mother died from HIV/AIDS when he was 4. For the next two years, his grandmother and his uncle were his world. They lived on a farm in Butamwa village, Rwanda, where they grew avocados, bananas, and sweet potatoes. He watched his grandmother plant their food and run their house.
Little would he know, this dignified, authoritative, woman, whom he had just begun to call mother, would be one of the first to die during the Rwandan Genocide.
When Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, the media and government disseminated hatred and fear toward the Tutsi tribe. Nsengimana’s family was Tutsi.
On the morning of April 7, they knew their Hutu neighbors—who had been their friends before that day—were coming to kill them.
They went into hiding in the morning, but snuck back into the house during the afternoon.
There was a noise.
Nsengimana’s older sister went to check what it was. As the late-afternoon rays shone through their window, a large rock flew through the glass. A moment later the anti-Tutsi militia smashed through the door.
The militia told everyone to go outside and lie down.
For a reason that Nsengimana still does not know today, the militia told the children to return inside.
Then, slowly, the militia clubbed their grandmother to death. Nsengimana, 6, saw everything from the window.
“When she was killed, that was the worst day,” he said. “Everything I did was because she did. Losing her, that destroyed my life.”
One week after his grandmother died, the militia came for his uncle.
Men stormed through their house searching for his uncle. The children lied and said they did not know where he was.
The militia looked under the bed, and missed him by inches, for he was holding himself up against the mattress by clutching to the edges of the bed.
Three days later, the militia came again and found him this time. They brought him outside and asked to see his identity card. He took it out, revealing his Tutsi ethnicity, and they shot him on the spot.
The bullet pierced his uncle’s rib cage. Nsengimana recalled his last words, “Please, shoot me again.”
During the Rwandan Genocide, when an estimated 800,000 people died in 100 hundred days, it was a luxury to get shot. Most were butchered to death by machete. People paid to get shot.
They did him again, but the second bullet hit the same spot and his uncle did not die.
The scene that occurred next was one that would haunt Nsengimana for the next 18 years. On countless nights, he awoke from this scene in an icy sweat.
To finish his uncle off, the militia fiercely, yet ploddingly, thrashed him, as if he weren’t human, as if he were a “sack of beans,” Nsengimana said, like that, they beat him until he died.
An Existential Question and a Shoebox
Nsengimana, 26, rested on a bench at Zuccotti Park after giving a speech in Lower Manhattan. His large eyes revealed a timid, genial conscience.
Nsengimana is currently the spokesman for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization. He spent four days in New York City talking about his experience as a genocide survivor.
Nsengimana smiled softly as a loft of pigeons flew to its cooing, disheveled master, and began to explain how a shoe box filled with hygiene products, a candy cane, and a portable hairbrush, answered an existential question for him.
“We didn’t understand why they didn’t kill us,” Nsengimana said. “One of the tactics was to wipe out the young generation.”
A year after the genocide, Samaritan’s Purse sent each child in his orphanage a shoebox filled with presents. It was 1995 and Nsengimana was 7 years old.
“It was so special, to have something to call our own,” he said. “It distracted us from what happened during the war.”
Nsengimana’s favorite item was the candy cane; he had never tasted one before. He recalled how 250 children stared at their curving, peppermint sticks, whispering, discussing among themselves whether it was edible.
Nsengimana was mesmerized by the portable hairbrush, which he had to twist and flip before the little pins popped out. It was a symbol that there was an awe-inspiring and wonderful world out there, and that there was love waiting for him. He kept the brush with him for three years.
“The person who packed that box may not know the impact it had on me,” he said. “The candy cane and the brush is gone, but the love, I still feel it today.”
“It helped me see I was created for a reason,” Nsengimana said. “It’s to show people love.”
The box came at a pertinent time, for Nsengimana had just lost another family member—his last adult family nearby—his aunt.
After the militia killed his uncle, his other uncle bribed the Hutus with beer and money. When the uncle ran out of money, he told the children to run.
Nsengimana, his brother, and his teenage sister ran toward the capital to find their aunt.
They were racing on the road, growing breathless, trying their best to push forward, when a Hutu carrying an AK-47 stopped them.
“Hey, come over here,” Nsengimana recalled the man saying.
The children began to cry. The man seemed shocked by their tears, softened, and let them go.
They ran again.
Not long after, a bus filled with militia appeared on the road behind them. Nsengimana and his siblings ducked in the bushes, hearts sinking, as they waited for the bus to come closer.
“We were sick with fear,” he recalled. But the bus drove past them. They waited 10 minutes. There was nothing. They resumed their run.
“It was obvious we were Tutsis. People knew my grandmother very well in the village,” he said. “There wasn’t any reason why they wouldn’t have killed us.”
They ran for 90 minutes before they reached the capital. They embraced their aunt and cousins in a short-lived moment of relief. That night, they slept under the bed. The debris from exploding buildings rained through the roof.
The fighting worsened. Two weeks later, they were on the run again with their aunt, even though she was dying. They ran into the hills of Kigali, trying to leave the capital. Amid screaming voices and a fusillade of bullets, Nsengimana slipped on a pile of cow dung. As he fell, a bullet went over his head. It would have killed him if he hadn’t slipped.
They kept running, for three months, until their aunt’s sick body could run no longer. That’s when she left Nsengimana and his brother at the orphanage. Their sister was too old. His aunt would visit them all the time, until, one day, she stopped. And he heard that she died.
“You see, I got that shoe box at a time when I really needed that hope,” Nsengimana said.
Full Circle, in Minnesota
A host family invited Nsengimana to go to school in Minnesota in 2003. There, Nsengimana graduated from high school, and then went to a Christian school called Crossroads College.
Nsengimana came across the shoebox donations logo in Minnesota, and decided to join the organization.
In March 2013, Nsengimana returned to his orphanage to hand-deliver shoebox gifts. “I’m living my childhood dream,” he said.
“I don’t tell my story for pity, but to show that a person here can make a big impact in children’s lives around the world by packing a little gift,” he said. “These gifts are used to bring hope and love to kids going through exactly what I went through.”
But he also returned for another mission.
Meeting the Killer
In a failed attempt to find the men who killed his family, Nsengimana returned to Rwanda in 2008.
“I lived in bitterness and anger for so many years,” he said. “I felt I would never move on in life until I forgave them.”
He went to a meeting where two of the men who killed his family were supposed to be. Rwanda’s court system is not large enough to give all war criminals a trial; hence, many small hearings are held in communities through a local justice system called gacaca courts. The men who killed his family were supposed to report to these meetings every month. But when Nsengimana went, neither of the men showed up.
“My bitterness and anger increased a little,” he said.
When Nsengimana returned to Rwanda to deliver shoeboxes to the orphans, he thought he must try to find the two men again.
This time, he gained access to the Nyarugenge Prison. The man who killed his grandmother had fled, but one of the men who killed his uncle was still there.
The guards took him to a conference room in the center of the prison, where a short, gaunt man in an orange jump suit sat, looking restrained and distant.
“I wanted to hear his side of the story,” Nsengimana said. “Why he did it, if he was remorseful.”
He said he saw that the man’s records stated he had killed 30 people during the genocide. “I wanted him to have freedom and not live in that guilt anymore,” Nsengimana said.
At first, the man thought Nsengimana was there to accuse him. He could not understand when Nsengimana said he was there to free both of them.
“Do you remember me when you killed my uncle?” he had asked.
“I don’t remember you specifically. I remember three kids, especially the older girl.” he recalled the man saying.
Nsengimana began to cry.
After a long, agonizing talk, they prayed and held one another.
“My heart was for him to have peace,” he said. “It’s an on-going process of forgiving and healing. But I would never forget that day. I had a sense of peace that I had never felt before.”
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