Surviving Genocide: The Power of Story

Olive Mukabalisa shared her story of being 6 years old when she lost three out of four of her family members as some Rwandans hatcheted, burned and boiled other Rwandans for twelve weeks straight in 1994.  She spoke October 21 at Lewis University in Romeoville.

There are experiences of common human beings on this earth that can barely be expressed.  Enduring and surviving the sights, sounds and realities of genocide happening all around a person is surely one of those.  And yet, with grace and calm, Olive Mukabalisa shared her story of being 6 years old when she lost three out of four of her family members as some Rwandans hatcheted, burned and boiled other Rwandans for twelve weeks straight in 1994.  Estimates are that between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandan people, mostly Tutsis, but Hutus and Twas as well, died during this time.

Ms. Mukabalisa, now a graduate in International Relations and accomplished woman living in St. Louis, came to Lewis University on October 21, 2013 to share her story.  I was put in touch with her by a mutual friend and Comboni missionary, Fr. Ruffino Ezama.  Fr. Ruffino graced one of my theology classes with his own take on Christianity and culture on the continent of Africa.  As we discussed what he might cover in my class during his visit, their reading materials came into the conversation.  When he heard that my students were reading Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibigaza, he suggested that they needed to hear someone’s story of the Rwandan genocide first hand.  Olive’s willingness to come and share her heartrending experience was a gift to all who heard and met her.

The takeaways from a talk like Olive’s are unquestionably many.  For this reason, I was pleased to welcome students from other courses and disciplines to hear her speak.  There were about 70 students in the crowded room.  She shared the fear, the ways that different family members took turns seeking food while the others hid, and overhearing those who were dedicated to slaughter plot the murders of those she loved.  All of us in the room were struck by the gruesome picture painted by her words.

Beyond grappling with the horrible details of this one woman’s story, however, were several realizations.  One was that the entire story had a history embedded in the lasting impact of colonization.  Divisions and hierarchies were fostered by the colonizers prior to independence in 1960.  As we listened, we were struck by the ability of a few to rile up the many to perpetrate the unthinkable.  We wondered how someone could go on after waking up in the blood of her slain mother.  How does one heal from such a nightmare?  Moreover, how does a nation of people heal?

Olive was asked how she had found healing in the aftermath of her terror-filled experience.  She admitted that her faith was sorely tested, and after the talk had concluded, she affirmed that the nightmares still come.  Despite this, she is determined to find meaning in what she endured.  She is determined to make something of her own precious but solitary life.  She wants to be sure that she survived for a reason and hopes to give back to a world that took so much from her.  And what about us?  What will we do with the life we have been given?  How will we transform the world around us to make it safer, more loving and more just for all people regardless of tribe, culture or other differences?

Dr. Christie Billups

About Dr. Christie Billups

Dr. Christie Billups is an assistant professor of Theology, Director of Pastoral Ministry, and Coordinator of Service Learning at Lewis University. She has been a practical, pastoral theologian in both academia and ministry in schools, jails, parishes, and hospitals. Some topics may include ministry with LGBT youth, juvenile justice, confronting racism, restorative justice and prison ministry.

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