Braided Lives

From brutality, death, survival, and triumph, a family emerges

With no direct contact from Rwanda, our home felt terribly isolated in the summer of 1994. Not only was the news of immediate family cut off, but now all news of the country itself was filtered through U.S. reporters after interviews with partisan French and Belgian experts or United Nations staff. Local newspaper, radio, and television reporters sought out Egide for a homegrown angle to this international horror. Telling his own story, instead of hearing it from everyone else, felt therapeutic.

Then came the terrible day when we learned that Letitia, a cousin, was not safely home in Quebec as we had presumed, but was in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Letitia and her family were the only in-laws I had met. She welcomed me at a time when I was desperately hoping for family acceptance. What an unhappy accident that she had chosen to visit Rwanda in the spring of 1994! Letitia is Hutu, but was endangered through her family connections. After several weeks, she telephoned that she had escaped the city and returned safely home. Egide asked about the area where his brother, Theogene, lived. A younger brother and two sisters had moved in with Theogene and his two little children in Kigali. Egide's two other brothers and his parents lived on farms near a village, Cyangugu.

Letitia asked Egide to describe the part of town where Theogene lived. "But the militia went from house to house there. No one is alive in those houses!" Egide went to his job, I went to my job. I felt like I was married to a wooden statue. We were in a limbo, waiting for someone to call from Rwanda with news.

My mother was home with Egide when the call came. I was grateful he was not alone. The exiled Tutsi army had taken the capital city and driven the militia out of Rwanda. The genocide ended only at this moment, when the militia and their families were forced to run for their lives. A cousin, Pie, had escaped the country early on. He returned to Rwanda and searched for survivors. Egide's parents and all of his brothers had been killed. Theogene and his younger brother had been dragged off in front of Theogene's two small children and shot. But the children and Egide's two sisters were alive. Egide was clear-eyed the night of the phone call. "We'll bring them here to live. If I cannot bring them, then we will live there and take care of them," he said.

In May, 1994, thugs had approached Theogene's house to drag away the men and kill them. The murderers shouted to the women and children that they would be back to kill them, too. The sisters grabbed the children and fled to their neighbor's house, where they stayed with neighbors until they were taken to a sanctuary: the children could be sheltered temporarily, but not the adult women. Beatrice and Dativa ran for their lives, hiding in the bush and living as fugitives. We are still learning what happened during that period. Only the children know their full story and they are just beginning to talk about it. After the civil war ended, the children and their aunts were reunited. The aunts were astounded to learn the children had survived, because they couldn't be found in the neighborhood after the massacre. Paul had starved to the point where he could no longer walk. Theogene's house in Kigali had been stripped. It had been a comfortable house, well-made and replete with luxury goods including a television, VCR, video camera, etc. Not only had every piece of equipment, furniture, and clothing been taken, but the toilet, the doors, the windows and their frames were ripped out. The reunited family camped together in the looted house.

Theogene had sent us photographs in 1993 of his daughter, Ruth, who was five years old, and his son, Paul, who was three. They were dressed up for formal portraits after the death of their mother, Monique. Monique had suffered complications in childbirth, and although she had good medical care, she died with her newborn son. The children in the pictures were solemn and familiar looking, with my husband's facial features. It took no imagination at all after watching the newscasts for the last few months to understand how desperate life would be for any survivors in Rwanda in the fall of 1994. Egide and I didn't discuss whether we would adopt the children or not. We were committed to them, and Egide prepared to go to them.

We received astounding gifts from the community in those first weeks and then throughout the next two years as we worked to bring the children home. Egide's coworkers at Josten's in Bloomington became our personal disaster relief force; in less than six weeks, they raised $4,000 among themselves. Jennifer from the cafeteria, Cindy Serratore, Merlin Olson, Greg Kahler, Jim Fisher, and many others stepped forward with life-saving acts of generosity. The company followed their lead with a contribution of another $1,000.

I work in fundraising for Minnesota Public you want something. I asked local businesses for contributions in goods to send along to our family in Rwanda. I came to understand in a concrete way the importance of independent small businesses: when the owner of a shop could be reached directly, there was opportunity for an immediate response.

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