Born in Burundi, a small mountainous country in east central Africa, Gilbert Tuhabonye loved to run everywhere. He ran to the valley's edge to get water for his family. He ran to school, five miles away, and he loved to race his friends. His favorite thing to do was to chase his family's cows.
Running barefoot, he won an 8K race while only a freshman. Gilbert became the national champion in the 400 and 800 meters as an 11th grader.
Now, 12 years later and more than 8,000 miles from Burundi, Gilbert is a celebrity in the world of running. He graduated from Abilene Christian University where, despite being covered with scar tissue from his extensive burns, he was a national champion runner.
In addition to coaching and training runners, Gilbert enjoys speaking to groups of all ages and backgrounds. He is also training for the 2007 World Championships and the 2008 Olympics. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Triphine and daughter Emma.
Running to the Arms of God
CBN.com From amid the ashes and charred bones of his murdered friends, Burundi runner Gilbert Tuhabonye recounts how he pulled his burning body free from the carnage to run his most important race—the race for his own life.
Twelve years ago, the centuries-old battle between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, spurred by the government-sponsored ethnic genocide of neighboring Rwanda, came to Gilbert’s high school. Fueled by deep hate and the political upheaval that wracked the country, the Hutus who attended the Kibimba high school, joined by their parents and other Hutu tribesmen, forced more than a hundred of the Tutsi children and teachers into a small room and used machetes and clubs to cut and beat most of them to death.
The unfortunate few who survived were set on fire along with the dead. The Hutu tribesmen, many of whom were classmates and lifelong friends of Gilbert, spent the next nine hours outside the room laughing, dancing and taunting the ones left smoldering and moaning inside the room.
After hours of incomprehensible pain, Gilbert alone escaped. On scorched feet and with his body burning, Gilbert used the charred bone of one of his classmates to break a window, jump free of the fire, and run into the dark of the night as the lone survivor of one of the most horrific massacres in the long, bloody history of the Hutu-Tutsi war.
In his book, This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Escape, Faith and Forgiveness (Amistad, 2006), Gilbert, an inspirational speaker and a well-known and beloved member of the world-wide running community, tells the harrowing tale of his courageous escape from the horrific inferno of the Burundi massacre.
The author recently discussed his experiences.
What was your life like in Burundi when you were a child?
Burundi is a very beautiful country and I grew up surrounded by family. We were farmers, and from an early age I had to do a lot of work in the fields and to tend our cows. I loved being outside and I got into a great deal of mischief with my friends while playing games. We lived very peacefully with the Hutu and got along well with everyone. I had to walk several miles to get to the nearest town and to my primary school. Only my wealthy uncle lived in the city and drove a car. For the rest of us, our feet and legs were our only vehicle. I loved to run from the time I was very young.
I always thought of the place where I grew up in the mountain highlands as a kind of paradise. We weren’t wealthy nor were we poor. The land was very fertile, and, besides the crops we grew, I could go out and find fresh fruits growing on the trees to enjoy whenever I wanted. Despite all that has happened, I still look back on my childhood as a wonderful and innocent time.
How did you end up in a private school so far away from your home?
The education system in Burundi is very different than it is in the United States. Here, the local school districts seem to have the most control over a student’s life. The state has oversight over each school. In Burundi, the national government has control over all the schools—public and private. At the end of what is the equivalent of your junior high school, every student in Burundi takes a national test to determine what type of school and where in the country they will attend secondary school. This is a very important test in the life of all students. Based on my scores, I was sent to Kibimba School in a province far from my home in Comina Songa (Songa County) where I was fortunate to receive an education that would prepare me to enter the university. Many of classmates did not pass the exam, or their scores sent them to vocational or technical secondary schools to prepare them for various jobs. I had very little say in where I was going to go to secondary school, but my parents and family kept telling me that education was so important. Being away from home was difficult at first, but all students had similar experiences to mine, so we quickly adjusted.
Tell us what happened to you, your classmates, and teachers in October 1993.
In June of that year, Melchior Ndadaye of the FRODEBU Party won a multiparty presidential election with 64.8 percent of the vote—the Hutu majority had its way. In late October, Tutsi soldiers assassinated Ndadaye in an attempted coup. Angered by the assassination, the Hutu people in the city near our school gathered together all of the Tutsi students and faculty at the Kibimba School. We spent hours surrounded by an angry mob, and then they struck. Those that survived the initial attack by machete and club were roped together and led to a building near the school grounds. I was among that bound group. We were beaten and slashed, and then forced inside the building. Eventually that building was set on fire. I was trapped inside with my classmates and teachers. I watched them all die. I was the only one to escape.
After your escape, you ended up in America. How did that happen?
It took me some time to recover from my burns, but eventually I began to run again. I was able to return to my past form and ran in national and international competitions in places like Rome and Japan. When it came time for the 1996 games in Atlanta, I was selected to represent Burundi at a training camp for developing nations. Through the grace of God and the generosity of a large number of people, I stayed in the U.S. hoping to earn a track scholarship to a university and to be granted political asylum. Because of the civil war that raged following the 1993 violence, more than 100,000 Burundians lost their lives. Since I had been a victim of the attack, I was granted political asylum and earned a scholarship to attend Abilene Christian University.
Tell us about your Olympic experiences.
First of all, I want to be clear about one thing—I did not run fast enough to qualify for the Olympics, and I didn’t run any Olympic races. Some people have misunderstood what my Olympic experience consisted of, and I don’t want anyone to believe something that is not true.
Second, I did come to Atlanta for the 1996 games. Along with several other athletes from Burundi, I was brought here to be a part of the Olympic development training program. The International Olympic Committee assists developing countries in creating programs for athletes in many sports. They believe that by being exposed to better facilities, training programs, coaches, and equipment, we can compete with more affluent nations in the future. The hope is that what we learn, and what our coaches learn from more successful athletes, coaches, and programs, we will pass on to others.
I loved my time at the games. I got to meet with, train with, and become friends with other athletes from around the world. I even got to carry the Olympic torch in the relay. I was especially pleased that my segment of the relay was in Birmingham, Alabama. I so greatly admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and being in that city meant a great deal to me. I also got to meet some runners who I consider to be wonderful role models, both for what they’ve accomplished on the track and off it. Two people especially come to mind: Abde Bile, who at the age of thirty-seven managed to qualify to compete, and Hicham El Guerrouj. Known as the “King of the Mile,” he holds the world record in the 1,500, 2,000, and the mile. Since we both spoke French, we were able to speak to one another. What impressed me the most about him was how normal he seemed. The guy was recognized around the world as perhaps the greatest middle distance runner ever, and you would have never known that by how he carried himself. Just to show you what kind of guy he is, the same year as the Atlanta games, the International Association of Athletic Federation honored him for his humanitarian efforts and he remains a UNICEF ambassador. Along with Gerrouj, I got to know Frankie Fredericks of Nimibia, Driss Mazouse also from Morroco, and a whole host of other medal winners.
The highlights of the Olympics for me were attending the opening ceremonies and being in the stands when Venuste won the gold medal in the 5,000 meters. It was awesome! Venuste was in the middle of the pack with 600 meters to go and put on a finishing kick that had him breaking the tape and winning the gold for Burundi. It was a thrill to hear our national anthem being played in the Olympic Stadium and watching our flag rise above the Kenyan and Moroccan. Venuste was the only winner and medalist from Burundi, though Aloise Nizigama did finish fourth in the 10,000, narrowly missing a medal.
The title of your book is This Voice in My Heart. What is the voice in your heart and what does it tell you?
The book’s title refers to a voice that I heard when I was inside the building that had been set on fire. Though I’m not proud to say this, I thought of killing myself to avoid the heat and the flames. Everyone else around me was dead or dying, and I didn’t want to suffer as I had seen them do so. I had climbed up on a counter and dove off of it, hoping that I would break my neck. I couldn’t do it successfully the first time. When I was thinking of doing it again, I heard a voice. Even at the time, I knew it was the voice of God. He was telling me that I was going to be okay. That I was going to be spared. Up to that point in my life, I had been a person of faith, but not to the degree that I am today as a result of hearing that voice and feeling its presence.
More than just telling me that I was going to survive that ordeal, the voice in my heart told me that God was an active presence in my life. He wasn’t just someone who I could visit on a Sunday. The voice also let me know that He has a plan for me. At the time of the attack, I was so wrapped up in exams, my running, and worrying about my future that I had let God slip in my priorities. Imagine this though—God had not let me slip from His view.
That voice has remained a guiding force in my life. It leads me and inspires me, and makes me want to spread the good news that it shared with me with the rest of the world. If I just listened to my heart, to what I knew to be true, to what God had to say to me about my salvation, I was going to be okay.
What is the significance of the role your faith and spiritual beliefs play in your ability to overcome such horrible circumstances in your life? Tell us about your faith.
Faith was always a major part of my life. The missionaries had converted many in my family, but it was grandmother who had an especially enduring and powerful faith. I can still hear her singing to me these words:
O victory in Jesus, my Savior forever
He saved me and I love him and all my love is due to Him
He suffered for me at Calvary and shed his redeeming blood.
Like many young people, as I got older I lapsed a bit in my church attendance and was not tending to my faith as I should have. My experience in the fire and God’s voice coming to me and assuring me in the time of my most dire need shored up the foundation of faith that I had as a youngster and allowed me to have a much sturdier and more stable platform upon which God has built a stronger, more resilient me.
I always knew that my faith would be tested, and it certainly was in those hours when my school was attacked. My belief in God never faltered. I never blamed Him or wondered how He could have let such a thing happen to me or to my classmates and teachers. I accepted what was taking place and knew that it was all part of a plan much larger than me. When God intervened on my behalf and spoke to me, I knew then that one day I would want to add my own voice to the chorus proclaiming God’s mastery and power. He saw fit to spare my life and I was forever changed. I began the book with a proverb from my country, “It is easy to start a fire and difficult to extinguish it.” That has many meanings in the context of my story, but primarily it means that the light that God put in me is something precious and resilient. It is never too late for that smallest of embers to be revived. God’s faith in me is like that, and He chose me again as a reminder to others how infinite His faith is.
How would you encourage others who have endured great tragedy in their lives? What words of advice would you share with them to help them move forward as you have?
It took me some time to recover physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually from the attack. I’d like to be able to say that my faith in God and man never wavered, but that wouldn’t be true. I had an especially difficult time trusting people again. I grew suspicious of those around me, thinking that anyone could hurt me. In time, my defensiveness weakened.
God’s healing words of forgiveness eventually came easily to me. I saw that there was evil in world, but, more importantly, I saw how much good there was as well. So many people came to visit me in the hospital when I was first recovering from the attack—Hutu and Tutsi alike. They gave me so much hope.
If I have any advice for anyone who has suffered a tragedy it is to find those glimmers of hope. They are there, and no matter how small or insignificant they may seem in face of the pain of the tragedy you’ve endured, they are far more powerful and more enduring than anything you will face.
I’ve seen the horror that people can inflict on one another, and I’ve also experienced the generosity of hundreds if not thousands of other people. Those who attacked me and hated me could not defeat me. I survived through the grace of God and the support of many people.
Once you’ve experienced that kind of love and support in your life, all you want to do is give those feelings back to others. I became determined to survive that violent attack because I wanted the world to know that the darkness can never extinguish the light.
Courtesy of The B&B Media Group. Used by permission.
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