Escaping a Nightmare, Pursuing a Dream
By Kristina Sauerwein
Olive Mukabalisa believes she survived the genocide in Rwanda for a reason: to bring peace and reconciliation to her homeland. Her studies at Webster University have set her on the path.
Olive Mukabalisa dreams of Rwanda. Sometimes she is home, in the small country in east-central Africa where tire-roof homes dot red-clay roads and volcanic mountains stretch across a looming sky. There, a temperate climate inspires trees and bushes to beam in a green so bright, the color’s shades can be classified as bright, brighter and brightest.
In these memories, the happy ones, Olive is 5 years old, barefoot, playing and laughing with her sisters, brother, cousins and neighbors. In her village, everyone was family. Mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunties and uncles, relatives and friends’ parents cared for all of the children. It was as if everyone shared the same bloodline.
Other times, Olive’s mind unearths haunting memories that make her weep: A lake overflowing with dead bodies. A beloved church turned into a human slaughterhouse. A neighbor she once prayed with hunting Olive and her family as if they were wild animals
In these memories, Olive remembers the smell of rotting corpses, the brush she hid in and the unwashed scent of human skin as she and her siblings huddled together in terror. Often, it rained, drops pounding their bodies, mud trickling down their legs. She recalled the dark sky, her quiet breaths and her heart pounding as the killers chanted hateful hunting songs
She wishes to forget her memories, but Olive knows she cannot.
She must not.
Olive relives the memories even now, 16 years later and nearly 8,000 miles away from Rwanda. She remembers despite her new life as a junior at Webster University. She wears jeans and puffy coats as she trudges across campus. She sends text messages, eats pizza and uses Facebook to rally her friends to support international human rights.
But even in her role as a hard-working college student in America’s heartland, Olive is never far from the happiness and the horrors of her homeland.
Olive comes from Rwamagana, a city in the Eastern Province of Rwanda that today is home to approximately 50,000 people. Rwamagana sits 30 miles east of Kigali, the country’s capital, its largest city and its cultural, economic and transportation hub. Kigali also is home to Rwanda’s president.
It was in the capital on April 6, 1994, when extremists assassinated Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, shooting down his airplane as it prepared to land in Kigali. This event is widely viewed as having incited the murder of an estimated 500,000 to more than 1 million men, women and children in what today is known as the Rwandan Genocide.
The history leading to the genocide is politically complex, emotionally twisted and steeped in biases and tensions that began hundreds of years ago between two ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Traditionally, the Hutus labored as crop growers while the Tutsis, many of whom migrated from Northern Africa, worked as herdsmen and owned most of the land in Rwanda, which Belgium oversaw under a League of Nations mandate from 1919 until the African country’s independence in 1962.
Although the Hutus and the Tutsis intermarried, spoke the same language of Kinyarwanda and, for the most part, worked and prayed together, tensions ebbed and flowed throughout the years. The Hutus outnumbered the Tutsis in population and many felt slighted that European colonists favored the Tutsis. Once Rwanda gained its independence, tensions increased and, at times, civil war erupted as both groups sought control of the country.
|“I believe I must live up to my namesake of peace, I believe I survived the genocide for a reason.”
When Rwanda’s Hutu-president was assassinated, Olive was 5 years old, almost 6, and more concerned about running, laughing and playing with other neighborhood children near the plantations. Her friends were Hutus and Tutsis but she neither noticed nor cared and neither did anyone else in her village.
Children ran in and out of neighbors’ homes, welcomed by mothers and invited to share in prayers and matooke, a favorite dish of steamed green plantain. On the eve of the genocide, Olive, her two older sisters and her 3-year-old brother went to sleep in their three-bedroom house, content with their lives which were modest in most regards but extravagant with love.
The next morning, Olive woke up with a peculiar feeling: Something was not right, she thought. Olive heard no chatter or laughter, just silence. She glanced at her parents’ faces, their expressions somber.
Even now, Olive can recall seeking reassurance from “mama” and “papa:”
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Our president is dead.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“There’s going to be war.”
Her parents explained the tensions between the Tutsis and Hutus. Some neighbors were Hutus. “We are Tutsis. They’re going to come kill us.”
“Impossible,” Olive said. “They’re our friends.”
“Things change,” her parents said.
‘I’ll always be there for you’
During the first few days of unrest, Olive and her family stayed inside, where they could see and smell fires burning nearby houses. Sometimes they heard Hutu neighbors speaking in conspiratorial tones and singing war songs. Mostly, Olive’s family listened to the radio broadcasts in which Hutu military leaders urged other Hutus to kill Tutsis, including spouses, in-laws and children of inter-ethnic marriages.
Olive remembered the Hutus’ chilling orders:
“Kill the Tutsis. Kill the snakes. Spare nobody. Kill children and babies and pregnant women. Kill friends and neighbors. Kill the cockroaches.”
“We have to hide,” her father said. “Otherwise, they will come here and kill us.”
They snuck out in the middle of the night. Many Tutsi families were fleeing in pairs to increase the chances that at least some would survive. But Olive’s family initially decided to stay together: Olive, her two sisters, younger brother, cousin, papa and mama, who was pregnant and showing.
“I take care of my family,” Olive’s father told them.
Long days stretched into weeks as Olive and her family hid in untamed grass, crouched in dirty ditches and sidestepped dead bodies. Her family almost sought shelter in a crowded church, believing a holy site to be safe, but they kept going. Days later, they learned that Tutsis were massacred inside of the church.
|Olive takes a break from her studies abroad in Leiden.
Olive’s family moved mostly in the dark; otherwise, they’d be recognized, if not by someone they knew, then, perhaps, by their Tutsi features, which tended toward taller bodies, longer noses and lighter skin complexions. However, physical differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis often appeared indistinguishable, which is why the Hutus issued ethnic identity cards that, in most cases, determined who lived and who died.
Olive and her family walked and, if needed, ran miles a day, despite their fatigue from a lack of food and water. One night, Olive recalled, her father told his family: “If we survive this war, we could die from starvation. I cannot leave you here to die.”
He told his family he planned to venture out to search for mangoes, oranges, avocadoes or any edible morsels.
“We’re hungry,” Olive and her siblings said, “but what if something happens to you?”
“I’ll take care of you,” their father said. “I’ll always be there for you.”
Then he hugged his family. He told them good-bye. And he never returned.
Today, Olive is 21 and thin, with high cheekbones, thick braids pulled into a ponytail and almond-shaped eyes that meet a stranger’s eyes with a welcoming shyness. As she recounted the genocide, her sentences seemed cautious, as if she wanted to protect listeners from the pain she has experienced.
Her voice was almost a whisper as Olive recalled the day during the genocide when Olive, her sister and her cousin left the family to look for food. All across the land lay human corpses, some battered by bullets, others sliced with machetes, all in various states of decomposition. Olive and her relatives had to navigate around the bodies as well as the wild brush. At one point, Olive fell into a pit and if it hadn’t been for her sister and her cousin, she probably would have died there.
Eventually, the three children came face-to-face with an armed Hutu:
“Where have you snakes been?” he asked.
The Hutu cocked his gun, pointed it at the children and fired.
Fortunately, he was out of bullets. Even more miraculously, Olive and her sister and her cousin escaped, running into the forest to the sounds of Hutu war songs and machetes rubbing together.
Toward the end of spring, in 1994, Olive and her family made it to a refugee camp, although, as Olive noted years later, “we were refugees within our own country.”
Even there, Olive shivered in the rain, slept on the muddy ground and tried to ignore the stench of unwashed bodies, human waste and hundreds of decomposing bodies, which were overflowing in nearby lakes and ponds, floating in rivers, stacked in schools and churches and randomly discarded throughout the land.
She recalled the ink-black sky and falling asleep next to her pregnant mother. She awoke to a rising sun and friends telling the 5-year-old that her mama “was no more.”
Olive screamed and cried: “No, no, no. It’s impossible. No, no.”
Olive never learned how her mother died. She said her mother was one of many women who had died mysteriously at the camp.
Shortly after losing her mother, Olive said her mind “went a little crazy.” She started to question if she was dead or alive. Olive wondered if her older sister was an apparition. She called her a ghost.
She also screamed a lot. Especially when Olive saw more ghosts, including one of her older cousin, John Munyarugamba, who had gone into hiding with his family.
Olive had assumed her cousin had died. She believed his ghost was following her. But there he was, playing with other children. And there he was near a tree. And there he was hugging her sister and a Catholic priest.
John never saw Olive watching him until the day when he hugged the priest. John noticed Olive and Olive realized that her cousin was not a ghost. The cousins embraced. They cried. And they listened with hope as Father John Boscotheir uncle, an African missionarycomforted the children: “Life will continue,” he told them. “Who knew that I would find you here? Life will be good again.”
As a Catholic, Olive thanks God every day. She is grateful for surviving, and for her uncle discovering her, her sister and her cousin John at the camp in Rwanda as well as arranging for them to live and attend school in Uganda in East Africa. (As the genocide continued, Olive’s family had scattered and dispersed into different camps).
“(Father Bosco) gave us opportunities so we could have a good life again,” said Olive, who speaks with a soothing and soft accent that she acquired while learning to speak English in Uganda, a former British colony.
Olive also is thankful to Lawrence J. Jehling and his wife, Lynnette S. Lui, successful optometrists who founded the popular Clarkson Eyecare chain in metro St. Louis. Dr. Jehling first heard about Olive six years ago when, at the request of nuns, he was providing Father Bosco free eye care.
During the exam, Father Bosco told the eye doctor about his orphaned relatives, who had experienced the genocide. Father Bosco recounted what had happened to his nieces and nephews: Some had died, such as Olive’s younger brother. Others had returned to Rwanda, such as Olive’s sisters. And then there was Olive and her cousin John, who were in school.
Shortly after that conversation, Dr. Jehling began sending generous donations for the education of Olive and her cousin, John Munyarugamba.
About three years ago, Father Bosco provided Jehling with an update on Olive and John: They were graduating and needed to attend a university or risk being sent back to Rwanda. Jehling made it happen, although he did not do it alone: His family helped, as did Father Bosco and, perhaps most instrumental, was his friend from church, Patricia McLeese, who at the time was director of Webster University’s Academic Resource Center. Within months, Olive and John had their visas, academic records and acceptance letters to Webster. They also had their tuition, food, housing and other expenses covered by Jehling and his family.
|John Munyarugamba and Olive Mukabalisa at the World Peace Flame in The Hague, the Netherlands. The monument stands outside the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice as a symbol of international cooperation and unity.
Olive and John arrived in St. Louis in July 2007.
At first, Olive and John lived with Jehling and Lui at their Chesterfield home. “They’re our kids now,” said Jehling, who has three biological adult children and has since moved to Arizona but returns to St. Louis frequently to visit Olive and John. “As far as I’m concerned, I have five kids. I even made Olive promise that if she marries, I get to walk her down the aisle.”
Once Olive, who is studying international human rights, and John, a junior majoring in political science with a business minor, acclimated to the university and to St. Louis, Jehling got them a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on campus. That is where both students live today, earning good grades, participating in campus life and working part-time jobs.
The cousins rely on each other for support and encouragement. “The love that I have for Olive is beyond description,” said John, a sweet, soft-spoken 23-year-old with scars on his head, including a six-inch gash from a machete. “Though we knew each other before the genocide, we were not so connected like we are now. Right after the death of both of our parents, we grew up together under one roof so we shared whatever life brought us. This kind of sharing and living together cemented the special love we have…In reality, I’m like her elder brother.”
Olive tears up when talking about her newfound “dad,” “mom” and “brother.”
“I thought I would never again experience parental love, family love,” she said. “I am lucky. I have a family now.”
Not many people at Webster University know the details about Olive’s past. Even friends she has met through Webster’s ONE Campaign chapter, a global advocacy group that emphasizes human rights, do not realize how close she came to becoming a victim of the Rwandan Genocide.
At a ONE meeting last March, before spring break, in Room 215 at Webster’s Emerson Library, the dozen or so members planned a pool party aimed at raising awareness about unhealthy water and sanitation in countries struggling with extreme poverty. Members wanted to make an in-your-face statement to inspire outrageand, therefore, actionabout the dirty, disease-ridden water in far-away places.
ONE Webster could fill the campus pool with muddy water, one member suggested with youthful exuberance. Or cut off the school’s water supply, except for one drinking fountain, causing students to form long lines for a few drops of water, chimed in the group’s president. Yeah, it would make everyone angry, members agreed, but, wow, what an impact.
As other ONE members spoke loudly, in fast, high pitches, with their hands and eyes darting back and forth in excitement, Olive, who serves as the treasurer, sat calmly and quietly, her right hand resting on her chin, her mouth slightly smiling like a mother listening to her children’s imagined adventures. While her ONE friends reveled in the moment, as if turning off the university water supply was a realistic option, Olive knew it would not happen, which it did not.
“It’s important that we acknowledge what is happening in other countries,” Olive said after the meeting. “It’s also important that we (in the United States) realize how lucky we are.”
Olive doesn’t just live with memories of the genocide, she revisits them. During school breaks over the years, she has returned to her homeland and found herself face-to-face with Hutus who had threatened her life and, she believes, murdered family and friends.
About three years ago, when Olive was in Rwanda, she attended a hearing through the Gacaca Courts, a government-backed, grassroots-style trial in which victims of the genocide face the perpetrators. There, she saw a man who is believed to have participated in the killing of her grandmother.
|Landscape in the Lake region of Rwanda.
And she forgave him.
“It was not easy,” Olive said. “It still isn’t. But my heart is open and willing to forgive. I want to have a discussion with the killers. Many are ashamed. They’ve said, ‘We are so sorry for everything.’ It is difficult. It is hard to greet them. But if we, as a country, want genocide to be no more, we have to reach out and have discussions.”
In Rwanda, the government has promoted forgiveness and reconciliation as a way to rebuild the country. Some perpetrators have gone to prison, but not all. Too many people participated in the violence. It would be logistically impossible to incarcerate everyone, which means that in current-day Rwanda, victims can find themselves living next to the people who once wanted to kill them and their families.
Forgiving, however, does not mean forgetting.
“I will never forget,” Olive said. “Every day I thank God. He is great. I almost died so many times. I cannot forget, but I have to focus on tomorrow and on making Rwanda a better place. We have to move forward.”
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Olive’s parents named her after the olive tree branch, which, in Christianity, symbolizes peace. “I believe I must live up to my namesake of peace,” Olive said. “I believe I survived the genocide for a reason.”
After she graduates, Olive plans to go to law school and then return to Rwanda, where she wants to educate and advocate for her homeland, perhaps with a position in the country’s government or with a humanitarian group. She also plans to urge the international community to take a stand against human injustices.
Those who know Olive are confident that she will be successful. “I have no doubt Olive will achieve whatever she sets out to do,” said Krista “Kritter” Keirnan, a sophomore broadcast and digital journalism major and president of ONE, the student advocacy group.
Keirnan’s eyes moistened. “Olive is going to save the world.”
Kristina Sauerwein is a freelance writer and author of the critically-acclaimed book, “Invisible Chains: Shawn Hornbeck and the Kidnapping Case that Shook the Nation.” She formerly wrote for the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.