I was born in Kigali, Rwanda, in the heart of Africa. My parents didn’t have much, but I admired how they worked very hard to raise me and my brothers. My family – who are Tutsi – faced discrimination, and years before the genocide many Tutsi people were imprisoned and killed.
I remember being asked about my ethnic group at school. I wasn’t sure how to answer because I was afraid, so I told the teacher I didn’t know. I was sent back home to check. The next day all the Tutsi children were asked to raise their hands. There were only three in my class, and we were called many insulting names and beaten.
The genocide started after the death of President Habyarimana. It was the night of 6th April 1994 and I was eleven. I remember playing at home when a bulletin came on the radio. My father said to us: “The president is dead, the Hutu will finish us.”
The following morning, the Interahamwe (the Hutu militia) came to our house, looking for “cockroaches”, which was the term of abuse they used for Tutsi people. Dad said we had to separate otherwise they might kill us all, so I hid in the pit latrine outside our house. It was awful. This was my hiding place for about three weeks. If I was lucky I had rainwater to drink, but other than that nothing passed my lips. I overheard the Interahamwe laughing about who they had killed and the women they had raped. I could do nothing other than stay there, hoping they wouldn’t find me. It was terrifying.
One day I decided to leave my hiding place, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Dead bodies lay all over the ground. I passed a child sucking milk from its dead mother and this really upset me. The image has stayed with me to this day and I still wonder whether I could have done something to help that baby.
People began saying that the Inkotanyi had arrived in the village. They were the soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF) who had come from outside the country to liberate Rwanda. With this news the Hutu realised their time was limited, so they tried to kill as many Tutsi as possible. As I ran amid the terror and chaos, I fell over and landed in a ditch. The person behind me was carrying a large sack of beans on his back, which fell off and landed on top of me. The sack was crushing me and I couldn’t move or breathe; I thought I was dying. All I could hear were children screaming and people begging for their lives. Unable to lift the sack off me I lay in the ditch for a few hours and eventually fell asleep, exhausted.
When I awoke the sack was no longer on me but beside me. I have no idea how this happened but I believe it was a miracle. I made my way back home while saying to God: “Please protect me, if you exist.” Eventually I arrived back at the latrine. I sat in my safe place for many hours until my dad and two of my brothers, who I thought were dead, found me and told me that we had to leave. We were going to another town where my father had a friend who might protect us.
It was a long, exhausting journey and there was shooting all around us. On arrival, my father’s friend gave us a place to stay at night but said we would have to find a hiding place outside during the day.
On one occasion, while I was hiding in a bush, I saw two dogs eating dead bodies and this absolutely terrified me. Even now, I cannot handle being with dogs. One afternoon when I was returning to our friend’s house, I was noticed by one of the Interahamwe and was added to a long line of Tutsi who were waiting to be executed with machetes. The queue got shorter and shorter as one by one people were killed. There were only two people in front of me when the news broke that the National Bank in Kigali had been broken into. Immediately the killers stopped and ran in the direction of the bank to get a share of the money. Dazed, I escaped to find my dad and brothers.
The end of the war
The RPF liberated Kigali on 4th July 1994 and everyone was transferred to a high school that became a makeshift refugee camp. It was there that we discovered the awful news of what had happened to the rest of our family. My mum and brothers had been murdered. My brother Jacques was just two years old and had been hiding with 50 other children in a burrow dug in haste as parents desperately attempted to save them. The killers found the hiding place and made a huge fire with diesel at the entrance. All the children died; they had no mercy on them. My other brother Emile – who was just six – was hit by a grenade and was refused treatment at the hospital because he didn’t have Hutu identification. I don’t have a photo of him but I remember him every day. In total more than 100 members of our extended family died.
I became a Christian in 2000 after joining the Christian Union at the college I was attending. I was initially attracted by the singing, because that had always been one of my hobbies, but after becoming friends with the Christian students I realised I also wanted a relationship with God. So I responded one day to an invitation by a preacher and I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and got baptised. Before then I had found it very difficult to enter churches because I had seen so many people killed in them.
Because of what Jesus has done in my life, I have found the strength to forgive those who killed my family. I have embraced forgiveness as a fundamental key to freedom and a stepping stone to reconciliation. However, my forgiveness journey has been tested many times. I have discovered that forgiveness is a choice you have to make over and over again. I still have to forgive people associated with my loss.
Through forgiveness I have found a freedom that I did not have when I held on to unforgiveness, when I was in bondage to hatred, bitterness, resentment and anger. I couldn’t see the killers as human beings; their acts of evil made them lower than animals in my eyes. True forgiveness is a deeper level of understanding just how much we have been forgiven by God. Luke 6:37: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” has brought me so much inner peace.
Antoinette is now married and working as a missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). You can purchase her book at highstreet.church/antoinette