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The white United Nations tank idled loudly outside the gates of our home as I hugged and kissed my parents and our three children—Mindy, Lisa, and Shaun–good-bye. Holding Teresa, my wife, extra tight I whispered, “Two weeks maximum, Love. This thing can’t last for more than two weeks, then I’ll come see you and the kids in Burundi, and probably in three weeks it’ll be okay for you to come home. I love you!”
Taking my hand, Teresa stepped up into our pick-up camper. I slowly closed the door behind her, pushing until I heard the latch click, and then I headed down the driveway. As I opened the gate, Colonel Luc Marchal, the commander of the Belgian troops in the UN force, emerged from the tank manhole and jumped down to my level. While shaking his hand, I couldn’t thank him enough for escorting my family to the evacuation assembly point at the US ambassador’s home. The colonel didn’t want to leave Rwanda, this picturesque little jewel on the belly button of Africa, until he felt he had done everything possible to complete his mission of evacuating all the foreigners.
His men formed a circle around the perimeter of the tank with their rifles at the ready as our pick-up camper crept down the driveway and poked its nose out onto the dirt road. The Belgian soldiers quickly piled back into the tank and led the way. Less than a hundred meters down the road stood a barrier, nothing but a log that was raised up on two stones to indicate an ID checkpoint. Those manning the barrier scattered as the tank approached. I watched Colonel Marchal once again climb out of his military machine and pitch the log aside. He could easily have driven over it, but our pick-up couldn’t.
Dad was at the wheel, sticking to the backside of that tank like a magnet. When they got to the intersection, the tank couldn’t make the turn in one swing. It started to roll back to make a second cut. Dad searched for reverse as the track of the tank crushed his parking light. At the last moment he popped the pickup camper into gear and lurched backwards.
I stood barefoot in the middle of our dusty street, waving goodbye to the most precious people in the world. The “Armadillo” -that’s what we called our camper- waddled around the corner as I lowered my hand. Looking around, I made sure our neighbors saw that I was not leaving. If anyone had ideas about breaking into our home and going after Anitha, the young lady who worked for us, or Janvier, our young night watchman, I would be there. I didn’t know what I would do if we were attacked, but I would be there. Going back inside our home, I could see the fear on the faces of Anitha and Janvier. Their ID cards both had the word “Tutsi” on them, classifying them among Rwanda’s minority tribe. But now it was more than simply a tribal designation – it marked them for extermination.
For Teresa and me, Anitha and Janvier put a very real face on the Tutsi people of Rwanda. Having them physically with us in our home kept our hearts engaged in our decision for me to stay, preventing logic or fear from dominating our thoughts. It’s amazing how the physical presence of a person can change the outcome of a situation. Simply being there is often the most powerful factor in making the right decision – a decision we will not regret for the rest of our lives.
Anitha and Janvier’s presence impacted our thinking, keeping me in Rwanda. Now I was counting on my presence impacting the thinking of the killers, and keeping them away from us.
Four years earlier, in March 1990, Teresa and I had come to Rwanda with our three young children, ages 6, 3, and 1 at that time. I was the country director of Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA), the humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Dad came to Kigali in January 1994 to manage the financial side of a post-war
clinic rehab project, and Mom had come for the last three weeks of his stay. They were both were scheduled to return home to the States in five days.
At exactly 6 p.m. on April 6, 1994, the lights went out on us at the ADRA offices in Kigali. Losing electricity didn’t surprise me. In the light of the setting sun I called out to Mom and Dad, “Let’s call it a day and head home. If the electricity’s off here, it might be off at home, and I’m pretty sure Lisa and Shaun are alone with Anitha. Teresa was planning on taking Mindy to visit a friend at another missionary’s home.”
The lights were on as we pulled up to the house – a good sign. Electricity had been pretty sketchy in the evenings recently. After dinner, everyone was busy doing his or her own thing when we heard a louder-than-normal explosion. I say “louder-than-normal” because grenade explosions around the city had become rather commonplace. The international community had forced “democracy” on Rwanda. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had refused to support a one-party state any long. Overnight, more than a dozen political parties sprang up. The arrival of this “democracy” brought instability that expressed itself with increasing levels of petty and sometimes not-so-petty crime. Some people now acted as if they were entitled do whatever they pleased.
“That was a loud one,” Dad said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I wonder if it was an ammunition stockpile or something.”
We didn’t think much more about it until the phone rang twenty minutes later. Jake, a Canadian friend teaching at the Adventist University located in the northwest corner of the country, anxiously asked, “Can you see the flames?”
“What flames?” I asked.
“They’re announcing on the radio that the president’s plane was shot down as it was landing!” he announced somewhat disbelievingly.
“Wow, we did hear a loud explosion. I’ll go outside and look towards the airport.” Hanging up the phone, I turned to my family. “The President’s plane was just shot down!”
A stunned silence filled the room, freezing everyone in place. The kid’s faces mirrored the question marks on the adult faces. I went outside but couldn’t see any flames glowing in the starry sky because of the hills between us and the airport five miles away.
A few minutes later we heard the first of sporadic gunfire echo through the hills and valleys of our city. Teresa and I telephoned other missionary families to see how they were. Teresa remembers one call in particular with Betty Stanic, a volunteer from the former Yugoslavia. Betty had been talking with some of her Belgian UN peacekeeper friends, and she ended the conversation by saying, “I’m scared.” Her comment caught Teresa off-guard. We had been living with this tension for so long that we did not immediately recognize how the President’s plane crash had spiked the situation to a very dangerous level.
Still, not feeling threatened, we all went to sleep in our own beds that night, unaware of the plans that had been set in motion by the president’s assignation – plans that would separate this tiny nation, like a single train car, from the rest of the planet and send it plunging into the most tragic one hundred days of the twentieth century.