Alex Nsengimana escaped a bloody genocide that claimed the lives of his uncle and grandmother and 800,000 other Rwandans. Last month he returned to Rwanda to share Christmas gifts at his former orphanage and forgive one of his family's killers.
As his country plunged into a brutal genocide, Alex Nsengimana escaped death time and time again before he was seven years old. His journey took him through witnessing the murder of his family, across continents, and ultimately back to Rwanda, where, nearly ten years later, he forgave one of his family's killers and offered his hand in friendship to the man.
Thanks to the sponsorship of a local family, Cotter High School, and others, Nsengimana moved to Winona in 2003. Now a college student in Rochester, he began volunteering with the charity Operation Christmas Child, packing boxes of gifts and necessities for poor children overseas. Years ago, some of those very same boxes brightened his life as an orphan in Rwanda.
Last month, Operation Christmas Child flew Nsengimana to Rwanda to help give out gift boxes to children at his former orphanage. On the same trip, Nsengimana sat down with one of his family's murderers.
'They took his life right in front of us'
"I grew up calling my grandmother 'mom,'" said Nsengimana, whose mother died when he was four and who never knew his father. Nsengimana was raised by his grandmother and an uncle, but the events of 1994 changed his life and the course of Rwanda's history forever.
Years of civil war and divisions between Rwanda's ethnic majority Hutu tribe and the minority Tutsi tribe came to a head with the alleged assassination of the country's Hutu president in 1994. That sparked a wave of Hutu-led massacres aimed at wiping out the Tutsis, the United Nations (U.N.) reports.
According to the U.N., about 800,000 people were killed during the 1994 genocide, close to three-quarters of the Tutsi population. Hutu militias supplied by the Rwandan army tracked down Tutsis throughout the country. The New York Times describes one of the worst massacres, where 500 Tutsis hiding in a church were "methodically hunted down" and "shot or hacked to death."
Nsengimana's grandmother was spared during a similar period of ethnic violence in 1959, but she was scared as the rampant killings of 1994 swept the country. She felt she would not survive this time, recalled Nsengimana who was then six-years old. As militias scoured the area where they lived, she, Nsengimana, and his young siblings fled their home and hid for several hours. Thinking the danger was passed, the family came back to their home.
Then the militias returned.
"They threw rocks at the house and told [my grandmother] to go outside and lie down," Nsengimana said. "They made us kids go back inside house. We were watching through the windows when they killed her."
Nsengimana's uncle avoided the militias that day, but a few days later, one of Nsengimana's neighbors led more militia men to the house. The militia was searching for Nsengimana's uncle. The neighbor told them where he could be found.
"When they came to kill my uncle he was in the house. They told him to get out, and then they took his life right in front of us," Nsengimana explained.
After he'd lost his grandmother and uncle, another uncle protected Nsengimana and his siblings for a while by bribing the militia men. One day the uncle told Nsengimana and his siblings that he had no money left. "He told us to run," Nsengimana said.
Nsengimana and his siblings ran, living on the streets of Rwanda's capital and the surrounding countryside. That "wasn't any better," he said. They were constantly fleeing and hiding from gangs that were looking to kill Tutsis.
"We ran for four months. Wherever the night would find us, that's where we would sleep, and finding food was tough.
"There were so many times we would have been killed and we made our way out," Nsengimana reflected.
Once two militia men grabbed Nsengimana and his brothers and joked about how they were going to kill them, before another militia member told them to leave the boys alone. "They're going to starve anyway," he sneered.
Later, while fighting for his life on the streets of Rwanda, Nsengimana was running from gunmen when he slipped on a cow pie and fell just enough so that a bullet grazed his head but did not kill him. Nsengimana laughed about the cow pie that saved his life. "How funny it is."
glimpse of hope'
The genocide and Nsengimana's never-ending flight ended as Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu-led Rwandan Army in the summer of that year. After the fighting stopped, Nsengimana was able to return to his remaining family, but an epidemic of cholera broke out shortly thereafter, claiming their lives.
"That's when we were left in the orphanage, and we were really hopeless." Nsengimana remembered. "There were over 253 kids in the orphanage and a lot of nightmares."
Nsengimana said that after the genocide, "I was asking myself why I was alive. If there is a God who really existed, why would he take the two most important people in my life? I couldn't find an answer to that."
The following year, a surprise lifted Nsengimana's spirits. Operation Christmas Child delivered gifts to all of the children in his orphanage.
"I can remember how excited we all were," Nsengimana said, recalling the orphanage directors struggling to make all 253 children wait to open their gifts until everyone had one. "It was something that made us forget the war, the nightmares. Personally, it was the first glimpse of hope that I had."
The following year, Nsengimana tried out and was selected for the African Children's Choir, an organization that sponsors education for the orphans of African wars, disease, and famine and sends them overseas for awareness-raising choral tours. He was shocked. "I didn't even have a good voice," Nsengimana said.
Nsengimana performed all over the U.S. during his tour with the African Children's Choir, including a stop in Winona in 1999. Ellen Hongerholt and her former husband Rob Wunderlich hosted Nsengimana and his friend, Alphonse during their three days in Winona. Despite their short time together, "they made such an impression on my heart," Hongerholt said. "I loved them. I don't know why, I just did."
However, the African Children's Choir forbade exchanging contact information, so when the boys returned to Africa, Hongerholt thought she would never hear from them again.
Years later, back in Africa, Nsengimana was looking back at a photo album from his world tour, when he found a picture of himself and Hongerholt's kids standing at Garvin Heights. On the back of the photo was something Nsengimana had never noticed: a stamp with the Wunderlichs' address.
"So I decided to write to them, say hello, and just see how they were doing," Nsengimana said.
Hongerholt said she knew that there was little opportunity for education or employment for Nsengimana and his friend
Alphonse Bizimana in Africa. When she got his letter, "I was just pulled. I was just drawn."
Hongerholt felt called to do something. So she wrote back.
"They asked if there was anything they could do for us so that we could come back to the U.S. for education," Nsengimana said. "It was amazing."
"I thought, 'If it was supposed to be, the doors would be opened,'" Hongerholt said of her offer to sponsor Nsengimana and Bizimana. "Every door kept opening."
Rwanda did not allow for the adoption of Nsengimana and Bizimana because of their age, but Hongerholt became Nsengimana and Bizimana's all-but-official parent. In a small miracle unto itself, the boys received visas within three months with help from Cotter High School. They actually had more trouble catching their flight. Children have little status in Rwanda, and adults kept kicking Nsengimana and Bizimana out of their seats on overbooked plane after overbooked plane. Finally, they made it.
With support from the Winona community, the boys attended and graduated from Cotter High School. Bizimana is currently studying at St. Mary's University and Nsengimana attends Crossroads College in Rochester.
Forgiving a murderer
Since he became a Christian while in the African Children's Choir, Nsengimana has wanted to forgive the men who killed his uncle and grandmother.
How could he forgive his family's murderers? "It took a long time to come to that point to have the heart to forgive," Nsengimana said. "I knew him by name, and that made it even more tough," Nsengimana said of the man who led the militia to his family's house.
Nevertheless, for years, he struggled with the issue and asked himself, "How can I let God forgive me of my sins, yet I'm not willing to forgive those who killed my family?"
Ultimately, Nsengimana decided he wanted to share the grace he had found through faith with his family's killers. He prayed that one day he would be able to forgive them.
That opportunity came on Nsengimana's trip to Rwanda last month. With the help of Rwanda's National Prison Commissioner, Nsengimana found the neighbor who had helped kill his uncle. His name is Rwagakinga and he is currently serving time for the murder of 30 other people during the genocide.
Deciding to let go of anger towards a murderer is one thing. Actually meeting them face-to-face and telling them, "I forgive you," is another. Nsengimana said he was emotional when he met Rwagakinga in prison.
Nsengimana asked Rwagakinga how he came to the house. He said that he ran into two men who were looking for Nsengimana's uncle and that he offered to show them where they could find the uncle. Rwagakinga told Nsengimana he remembered kids being there when they killed Nsengimana's uncle, though he did not remember Nsengimana.
"Then I told him the reason I was there," Nsengimana explained. "It wasn't to condemn him but to offer that message of forgiveness, to help him so that he can have that peace."
Nsengimana said that Rwagakinga accepted his forgiveness, though he was shocked. "I don't think it sunk in 100 percent," Nsengimana said.
Nsengimana said that "planting that seed of forgiveness" gave him a sense of peace.
"My main message to him was that he may also have that peace that I have," Nsengimana explained. "He killed more than 30 people. That is a lot of blood that he has to live with, but if he can also understand that he can be forgiven, he can live in peace."
Nsengimana also told Rwagakinga that he wanted to be friends with him and visit him again. Rwagakinga said that would be okay.
"We both have something in common: that message of forgiveness," Nsengimana said. "We can turn it around so that whatever happened, we are not defined by what happened but we can both be defined by the peace that we have."
'I am very blessed'
While in Rwanda, Nsengimana returned to his former orphanage, where he got to hand out gift boxes from Operation Christmas Child to the exuberant children there. "It was one of the happiest days of my life," he said. "Just being back and seeing the kids excited. It brought back memories of my day."
Nsengimana is a senior at Crossroads College. One of his brothers was able to come to America, but he still has a sister in Rwanda. He says that, for now, he plans to continue an internship with Operation Christmas Child.
"I do have a huge connection to Rwanda," he added. "My dream is to eventually go back and do ministry there. My ultimate dream is to plant a church in the same place."
Nsengimana is thankful to Cotter High School, Crossroads College, St. Mary's University, the Winona community, his American family, and to God.
God saved him from the genocide, Nsengimana said, and has allowed him many unimaginable opportunities. "God continues to use people to support me and encourage me," he added.