Both of my parents were teachers, and adamant believers that the only defense against poverty and hunger was a good education… Mom and Dad were the first high school graduates in their families, and they were determined that their children would go even further than they had in school. Dad led by example, working hard and studying throughout his life. He received many honors and promotions during his career, rising steadily through the ranks from primary teacher to junior high school principal. He was eventually appointed chief administrator for all of the Catholic schools in our district.
My parents were devout Roman Catholics and passed on their beliefs to us. Mass was mandatory on Sundays, as were evening prayers with the family at home. I loved praying, going to church, and everything else to do with God. I especially loved the Virgin Mary, believing that she was my second mom, watching out for me from heaven.
But our parents didn't teach us about our own history. We didn't know that Rwanda was made up of three tribes: a Hutu majority; a Tutsi minority; and a very small number of Twa, a pygmy-like tribe of forest dwellers. We weren't taught that the German colonialists, and the Belgian ones that followed, converted Rwanda's existing social structure—a monarchy that under a Tutsi king had provided Rwanda with centuries of peace and harmony—into a discriminatory, race-based class system. The Belgians favored the minority Tutsi aristocracy and promoted its status as the ruling class; therefore, Tutsis were ensured a better education to better manage the country and generate greater profits for the Belgian overlords. The Belgians introduced an ethnic identity card to more easily distinguish the two tribes, deepening the rift they'd created between Hutu and Tutsi. Those reckless blunders created a lingering resentment among Hutus that helped lay the groundwork for genocide.
Mom and Dad ignored the social and political reality they lived in, and instead taught that everyone was born equal. They didn't want their children growing up feeling paranoid or inferior because they were born Tutsi.
Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had fled Rwanda during the troubles of 1959 and 1973, as well as the many other times that Hutu extremists had gone on Tutsi killing sprees. They'd gone into exile to save their lives and those of their families. Mr. Gahigi called the rebels "foreigners" because most of them grew up in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Zaire—but that was only because President Habyarimana enforced a policy banning exiles from ever returning to Rwanda. He'd created a Tutsi diaspora, and entire generations of Rwandan Tutsis had grown up without once setting foot in their homeland.
As I said, if these killers are driven only by hatred, we will force them away. But if the government is sending them, if these attacks are part of an organized plan to exterminate Tutsis, we are in serious trouble. The government has guns and grenades—it has an army and a militia—and we have no weapons at all. If the government plans to kill us, all we can do is pray. Let us use the time we have to repent. Let us pray for God to forgive our sins. If we are to die, let us die with our hearts clean… It doesn't matter if we live or die—the important thing is that we fight against this evil that has come to our homes!
My brother, my soul mate, put his hands in mine, and they felt soft and light as feathers. No matter how hard I squeezed them, I couldn't feel the weight of his palms against mine—it was like holding the hands of a disappearing soul. My heart felt like it was exploding.
We sat in an uncomfortable heap, too afraid to adjust our positions or to even breathe too heavily. We waited for the gray light of dawn to fill the room, then carefully pried ourselves apart to take turns standing and stretching. A two- or three-minute break was all we allowed ourselves before resuming our awkward positions on the floor.
When morning broke, the birds in the pastor's shade tree began singing. I was jealous of them, thinking, How lucky you are to have been born birds and have freedom—after all, look at what we humans are doing to ourselves.
I knew that he wasn't entirely to blame for his ignorance because he'd learned his contempt for Tutsis in school . . . the same school I went to! Young Hutus were taught from an early age that Tutsis were inferior and not to be trusted, and they didn't belong in Rwanda. Hutus witnessed the segregation of Tutsis every day, first in the schoolyard and then in the workplace, and they were taught to dehumanize us by calling us "snakes" and "cockroaches." No wonder it was so easy for them to kill us—snakes were to be killed and cockroaches exterminated!
It was past noon, and I'd been praying the rosary since dawn for God to give His love and forgiveness to all the sinners in the world. But try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to pray for the killers. That was a problem for me because I knew that God expected us to pray for everyone, and more than anything, I wanted God on my side.
I took a deep breath and thanked God for answering my prayers and bringing me the tools I needed to learn English. Even though I’d be losing prayer time, I knew that God would be with me while I studied. He intended for me to learn this language, and I could feel the power of His intention coursing through me. I would not waste a minute of my time in self-pity or doubt. God had presented me with a gift and my gift in return would be to make the most of His kindness.
I knew that whatever I envisioned would come to pass if I had faith and visualized it with a pure heart and good intentions, and if it were something God thought was right for me. It was then that I realized I could dream and
visualize my destiny. I vowed that I'd always dare to dream for what I wanted. And I would only dream for beautiful things like love, health, and peace, because that is the kind of beauty God wants for all His children.
Damascene managed to get to his feet one more time, and then he smiled at the killers. His fearlessness confused them—they'd murdered many Tutsis and always enjoyed listening to their victims plead for their lives. Damascene's composure robbed them of that pleasure. Instead of negotiating or begging for mercy, he challenged them to kill him. “Go ahead,” he said. “What are you waiting for? Today is my day to go to God. I can feel Him all around us. He is watching, waiting to take me home. Go ahead—finish your work and send me
to paradise. I pity you for killing people like it's some kind of child's game. Murder is no game: If you offend God, you will pay for your fun. The blood of the innocent people you cut down will follow you to your reckoning. But I am praying for you . . . I pray that you see the evil you're doing and ask for Cod's forgiveness before it's too late."
I prayed that God would touch the captain's heart with His forgiveness, and I prayed again for the killers to put down their machetes and beg for God's mercy. The captain's anger made me think that the cycle of hatred and mistrust in Rwanda would not easily be broken. There would certainly be even more bitterness after the killing stopped, bitterness that could easily erupt into more violence. Only God's Divine forgiveness could stop that from happening now. I could see that whatever path God put me on, helping others to forgive would be a big part of my life's work.
The beautiful campus where I'd formed so many wonderful memories and loving friendships was no more. There was garbage everywhere, and many of the buildings were charred and crumbling. Student records blew across the campus like tumbleweeds, and after all these weeks, there were still so many bodies on the ground. I couldn't bear to look, fearing that I'd see the corpse of Sarah or one of my other dear girlfriends. I tried to conjure the memory of the school dances I'd enjoyed, the plays I’d performed in, the romantic walks I'd
taken with John . . . but all were obliterated by the devastation I saw before me.
I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.