The mass slaughter in Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s shocked the world. Beneath the headlines, there are stories of individuals like Yolanda Manirakiza, whose journey of courage and faith is almost beyond belief.
- The Southern Cross
Yolanda Manirakiza will never forget the days after the Hutu president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated in 1993.
The students at her school were rounded up into two groups – the Tutsi were to go south and the Hutu north – or so they were told.
One of the Hutu students found a piece of paper on the ground which proved the Tutsi soldiers’ real intent was to kill them. They were tempted to run away but had nowhere to go and spent a frightening night waiting to die.
“All that night they didn’t come,” Yolanda recalls. “We made plans to leave but we didn’t know what we would do; we went outside and then came back in … oh my, we were scared, but the person who picked up the paper went and found another group, and they said ‘go quickly, quickly’ before the soldiers come.”
Yolanda and her classmates left just minutes before the government soldiers arrived.
“Lucky that paper dropped, I don’t know how God made it happen,” she says, holding her head in her hands as she relives the traumatic experience. The normally smiling 40-year-old mother of four and aged-care worker questions why anyone would want to know her story. “It’s too horrible,” she says.
Yolanda’s parents were forced to flee Burundi to Rwanda in 1972 at the height of the genocide in the former Belgian colony. They had nine children, two of whom died as babies, and they raised their children in the Catholic faith.
Yolanda remembers religion being “very important” to the family, especially her father who made sure they prayed together every night before eating. She went to a government school where children learnt in French and prayed the Hail Mary every day.
After elections were held in Burundi in 1993 and Ndadaye came to power, Yolanda and her younger brother were repatriated to Burundi to register for secondary schooling, with her family planning to move back the following year.
After her narrow escape from the Tutsi soldiers at boarding school, Yolanda stayed with friends from the Church and then an uncle but he couldn’t afford to send her to school. A priest asked her why she wasn’t at school, and when she explained what had happened, he approached the principal of a nearby college.
“He presented me to the director of the school, I didn’t have to pay anything, he (the priest) even bought the bed and the linen – he was my sponsor, it was amazing,” she says.
Photo: Ben Macmahon