Genocide in Rwanda: A Young Survivor's Miracle
An Interview by Margaret Gayle
As a young child… and a *Tutsi, Yannick Tona survived the Rwandan Genocide that took place in 1994. Today he brandishes a beautiful smile and exudes a confident hope in his future and that of his country.
Q: You were only four years old when the genocide happened. It must have been very traumatic for you. Do you have vivid memories of what happened?
A: I remember well the day we fled our home. My sister who was three and I were playing outside, and we saw lots of people running on the street. They were carrying bags and running—children, women, old people. As a kid, I had never seen anything like that. People were shouting, “They're killing in Nyanza. They're killing Tutsis!” Nyanza was the village next to our town. I knew what killing meant because I had seen it in movies, but I didn't know what Tutsi meant. I didn't know I was a Tutsi! My parents never talked to me—a four-year-old—about that. So I thought maybe Tutsi was an animal. I thought those people were running to kill an animal.
At that time my family was living in the south province of Rwanda. My dad was in the transportation business; my mother was a teacher. Besides my sister, I had a little brother who was one. We had a big family—grandpa, grandma, uncles, cousins. My dad was a wonderful dad and my mother a very hard-working woman.
The killing started in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and our family had heard stories from other areas that Tutsis were being killed—as well as Hutus who didn’t support the genocide. So my family— aunts, uncles, cousins—had already gathered at my grandma's house to decide what to do if the killing came to our area. Of course, as a child, I wasn’t aware of what was going on.
My family immediately began calling everyone to gather in my grandma’s sitting room. She told everyone: If we go together as a family, and they take us, they will kill all of us and that will be the end of the family. The best thing to do is to separate into different groups so if they take one group, maybe another group will survive. And that’s what my family did. We divided up into groups. I was chosen to go with my mother who was physically handicapped and needed a cane to walk—which meant she needed to go with a child who was big enough to walk and help her. My sister was going to go with one of my uncles; my little brother was to go with my grandma.
We left our house in different ways. I actually thought I was going to the market with my mother because I always liked going to the market with her. We started walking…and we didn't know that would be the last time we'd see many members of our family—because more than half of them did not survive the genocide.
Q: When you fled from your home there must have been many other people—your neighbors and friends—also fleeing.
A: Yes, there were lots. This was not just one area; it was the whole country. This genocide was planned by the government. They had lists of Tutsis, where they lived and what they did. This was not someone from far away coming to kill us—they were our neighbors. The government had put out lots of propaganda saying Tutsis are enemies of the government, they don't belong in our country, they are enemies, you need to kill them. The propaganda worked very well. The government at that time preached the propaganda so much that they convinced the Hutu that when they were killing the Tutsis, they were working for the country.
Q: How did you know where to go? What path did you and your grandmother take?
A: We walked in the bush…hiding in the bush. The militias had put roadblocks on all the streets and were killing everyone who tried to escape by car. Our only choice was to hide in the bush. The only trouble was the Hutus knew people were hiding in the bush, so they would send dog squads to find you. We walked in the bush for more than three weeks. The thing I don’t understand even today is how we survived. For three weeks we had no food; we survived by just drinking water.
Q: What do you remember about this journey?
A: I don’t remember days. I remember specific things like people trying to kill me. Once we were hiding in a vacant house and my mother heard the militia coming. She told me to get inside a big box. And she went and hid herself somewhere. I could hear people coming in the house and by this time I understood the situation: People were trying to kill us! So I did what my mother said. She said, “Stay here until I come back.” So, I stayed.Years after the genocide, my mother and I went back to this house and I remember seeing the very corner where the box was. It was very emotional. I realized my life was saved here.
Q: How did you finally escape?
A: We managed to escape to the country nearby, the Democracy Republic of Congo, which is west of Rwanda. When we crossed the border, we were taken with all the other people to a refugee camp, but because my mother had a family member living there, we were allowed to go to her house. I was very weak, so I was taken to the hospital. I was not only weak, I was traumatized. I had gone a week without sleeping. But, by God's grace, I was healed.
Q: Is this one of God's miracles you talk about?
A: The doctors told my mother they didn't think I would live. But my mom's cousin was so kind. She helped me to eat food again… and she prayed for me! I don't remember any of this because I was so sick, but I do have this image in my mind of her carrying me on her back in the early morning to the church to have people pray for me.
Q: When were you able to go back to your country?
A: We stayed in the Congo for about a year. The genocide lasted 100 days, which was three months. Right after the genocide, my mother went back to see who she could find. She learned that my baby brother and grandmother had been killed in a very violent manner, and that my little sister was alive. The story we heard was that she had gotten separated from my uncle and was put in a well by a Hutu woman. We don't know what happened to this woman, if she was killed or if she left because her husband was involved with the killing. We also don't know how my sister survived in the well. We just know when she was found by a man, he thought she was dead except that her eyes were moving. This man took her to the hospital where she stayed for a long time.
Q: You haven’t mentioned your father. Where was he all this time?
A: My dad, when the genocide started in April, 1994, was not at my grandma's house. He had heard that they were killing rich men, so he had already left. While he was in hiding, he decided to join the rebel group which was fighting to stop the genocide. We didn't hear from him again until 1998. He had been told his whole family was dead—and we had moved to a different area.
When my dad came back to live with us, he had changed. He was not the man he was before. Before the genocide, he didn't drink. But now he was drinking a lot. This caused us much trouble because he would become violent and was very hard to live with. Perhaps losing so many members of his family—only four of the 16 people at my grandma's house survived—and seeing all the atrocities of the genocide, led him to drink. Many people in my country are like my dad—traumatized because of the genocide. In 2009 my dad and my mom divorced.
Q: Your family has suffered greatly as a result of the genocide, yet you have a positive outlook on life. How do you account for that?
A: It's true I grew up facing many challenging problems as a consequence of the genocide in my country. But in 2001 when I was eleven years old I became a Christian and gave my life to Jesus Christ. At that time I didn't know fully what giving my life to Jesus meant. But over the last twelve years I can testify that following Jesus has been the best decision of my life. God has done miracles that I never imagined could happen.
Q: What are some of the miracles you've seen happen?
A: Basically, it's my whole life. But one example is God providing school fees for me.
I was born in a wealthy family where we had everything. But because of the genocide, we lost everything. After the genocide my family struggled very hard to even get money to eat. But after I trusted in Jesus, I had a source, and that source is called God. He saved my life from the genocide, and He provided food and school fees. I don't know how, but a 20-year-old girl came to Rwanda with a volunteer group, a girl I had never seen before in my life, and she offered to pay my school fees. Somehow God touched her heart to help me and my family. That was a miracle!
Q: You are now studying on a full-scholarship at Texas Christian University. Is this another of God's miracles in your life?
A: I began praying for a scholarship in 2003, while I was still in primary school. I finished high school in 2010, but I didn't get a scholarship. In 2011, I didn't get one. In 2012—January, February, March, April went by—then in May, I got a scholarship! A friend sent me an email telling me TCU was going to give a scholarship. I applied…and I got it! God reminded me when I was on the plane coming here that He had heard my prayer nine years earlier. God hears and answers prayer. I believe in God. What other people call simple, like something just happened, I say God is doing a miracle.
God raised me from nothing, from be the guy who can speak in front of 3,000 people, and at the end of my talks, people come shake hands with me and say, “You're the best speaker I've ever heard.” That's not because I have a Ph.D or was raised in a wonderful, powerful family. It's just God showing that He can use anything. God can raise a person from nothing!
Q: How has the genocide affected you as a young person?
A: I'm 22 years old now. By the time I was 14, I had assumed the responsibility of providing for my sister…and a new baby born before my father left. Our lives after the genocide changed totally—economically, physically, and emotionally. As a young boy, I hated everyone. Because of what I saw in my country, because I had no grandpa, no grandma, no uncles, I was angry. But when I was eleven years old, I gave my life to Jesus Christ…and this was a big turning point in my life. I decided if I hated everyone, I got nothing from it. The big lesson I have learned from my life experience is to use my life to make sure nothing like genocide ever happens again—anywhere in the world. I want to help young people in my country who are going the wrong way to find a purpose bigger than themselves. I know if young people can be motivated to do the right thing, they can make a big difference in any country.
Q: When you became a Christian at age eleven, what support did you have? Did you have the support of a local church?
A: The church became not just like some place where I went, it became my life! My church stood behind me and supported me. They became like the family I lost. I found grandmas and grandpas in the church. I had mothers in church who would compliment me and say I had done good when I spoke in church. When people believe in you, that pushes you to want to do good.
The world we live in today is very complicated. I tell young people the program for their life is to give their life to God. It's very easy. If they want success, joy, happiness and a good marriage—whatever they want to achieve in life, God will help them. I tell people this because it has happened in my life. I have seen God work miracles in my life.
Q: What's your goal for the future?
A: My big dream is to become the president of my country. One reason is not because I want a body guard, and a nice car. I can have that without becoming the president. But because God has given me so much—everything, really, I have to help people. In the position of president of my country, my actions can affect so many people's lives.
Q: And if this happens… ?
A: If this happens, I will say, “God did another miracle!”