From early April to mid-summer 1994, a little more than 100 days, the then Hutu-dominated government of Rwanda orchestrated the murder of 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Rather than “senseless tribal rage,” as the Western news media often described it, the genocide was a carefully planned and executed campaign led from the highest reaches of Rwandan Hutu political and economic elite. Abandoning my efforts in the Sudan, I tried making my way to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It was impossible, and I was left to only speak with the journalists and aid workers as they returned from witnessing the horrific scenes of death and destruction.
It wouldn’t be until later, after years of learning and writing about the genocide, that I finally made it to Rwanda. On one of those trips, I met Alice Musabende, then a teenager with a charismatic mien, engaging smile, and a sometime wary look about her. At the time I was helping lead an educational tour of Rwanda that included sobering discussions of the events of 1994 and visits to many of the genocide memorials scattered about the country. Many of them were churches where Tutsi had sought refuge during the genocide. Often, instead of safety, they found themselves trapped in a charnel house in the making. For days at a time, men, women, and children were systematically butchered. One church we visited with Alice as our guide still had the remains of thousands scattered on the floor of the sanctuary, in side buildings, and on the church grounds. The bodies had been left where they fell to serve as testimony to what had happened. Like many churches in Africa, the pews were simple wooden benches without backs. One can step from bench to bench as if one were stepping on stones across a pond. In theses churches, however, one instead stepped across a sea of bones, shards of clothing, shoes, children’s schoolbooks, and other personal artifacts scattered across the floor. In one church someone had placed a skull on the altar. At several memorials, roughly hewed wooden shelves contained row upon row of skulls, many of which bore the marks of machete blows or gunshot wounds.
Through all of this deeply emotional emersion into the human toll of events in 1994, an incredibly brave and stoic young woman patiently answered my questions and the questions put to her by my students. Mature beyond her years and obviously bright, Alice was our liaison to Rwanda and to its history. She never cried or offered a hint of what her own experience had been.
It wouldn’t be correct for me to share Alice’s story. That is for her to do. What I can say is that it was only owing to a the fact that she was running an errand for her mother that she was not home on April 7 when her family was murdered within hours of the start of the genocide. They lived very near a military base. Whether it was soldiers or Hutu gangs that killed them, it isn’t known. But at that moment, Alice was several miles away at her aunt’s house. Over the next several weeks while hiding with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, Alice watched the unfolding horror. She would eventually witness Hutu génocidaires kill her uncle as he protected her, a 12-year old child, from her own certain death. Once the Hutu government was driven from power, Alice found herself in an orphanage. Her strength of character, big heart, intelligence, and perseverance carried her through what must have been unimaginable depths of grief and suffering.
And now she does me the profound honor of thinking of me as her father. Two years ago, I gave her away at her wedding in Kigali to a marvelous young man. Although they are Canadian citizens, it was important for Alice to return home to marry. Her supportive Canadian husband wholeheartedly agreed. At the wedding, I stood there imagining all of the souls who were there with us. Her mother and father, her uncle, all of the family members she lost during those days in April 1994 were there with us, smiling and with hearts bursting with pride and joy. Alice and her husband now have a delightful new-born baby boy.
Immediately after the wedding, Alice led her new husband and me on a pilgrimage. We visited the site where her family home once stood. Like most homes in Rwanda, it had been constructed out of the rich, red clay of the earth. It was a simple farm surrounded by banana trees and fields filled with root vegetables. As I stood there with the weight of the moment and of the events that had occurred on this patch of earth in 1994, I looked down and saw a glint of sunlight off a piece of quartz. In a single motion I bent down, picked up the rock and put it in my pocket.
Later, Ross Matteson, my friend of almost thirty years, captured the meaning of that rock, gathered at that moment and place, in the piece he made for Alice at my request.
Alice Musabende offers testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and to the power of love. She is loved and admired by people all over the world. I have seen her speak at public events and leave the audience mesmerized and profoundly moved. After a bit of time spent as a journalist in Canada, Alice starts a second masters degree in the fall with plans for a PhD. She is remarkable, and I am very lucky to have a woman like Alice think of me as a father.
Alice Musabende is an Ottowa-based journalist, writer, and producer for television and radio.
Her personal story and endorsement for The Structure of Love Is Indestructible can be heard (in edited form) in the Matteson Kickstarter video, viewable here. To hear the unedited audio recording of Alice Musabende's story, click the triangle play button below. A written transcript (unedited) of this audio is also available (see below).
In addition, the story of Alice Musabende's necklace, written by Steven Livingston, PhD, can be found on this page, below.
Click the play button below to hear Alice Musabende's story
(unedited audio recording)
The story of Alice Musabende’s necklace referenced in Matteson Kickstarter video
By Steven Livingston, PhD
The course of one’s life turns on transformative moments, occasions when the path one was on changes abruptly. From that moment, everything else, all that was thought important and real, is understood differently. In the spring of 1994, I was in East Africa trying to understand why Western news organizations and governments tended to pay attention to some humanitarian crises but not others. In 1992 and 1993, as war, famine and disease in Somalia was firmly fixed in the international spotlight, equally painful challenges could be found in the Southern Sudan. Yet very little attention was given to its trauma. Why? Working out of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, I spent weeks flying on U.N. relief aircraft to visit refugee camps in the South Sudan so that I might find possible answers to this question. Yet it would be Rwanda and the unfolding human catastrophe there that would soon fix my attention and change my life forever. In the midst of looking at other humanitarian crises, one of the worst genocides in modern history was taking place just an hour’s flying time from Nairobi.
Alice Musabende, 2013
Alice Musabende's necklace, created by Ross Matteson