The remarkable story of one woman’s escape from Rwanda
Once a year, Christelle Hitimana’s mother makes the long trip to Airdrie from Rwanda to visit her daughter. Other family members come to visit as well, drawn together by the bonds of love and shared history, but also by a bond forged through shared tragedy. Hitimana says she still doesn’t understand what happened but is strengthened and comforted by her faith and the resiliency of the human spirit.
In April 1994, 18-year-old Hitimana was living in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, with her parents and siblings.
CH: My mother was a social worker and my dad was an engineer/architect. Everything was looked after; our parents were able to afford everything. We had a quiet, good life.
Very suddenly, life changed. The genocide began and although Hitimana’s family had no political affiliations, they were on the “to be killed” list due to their ancestry. On April 17, the family left the imminent danger in the city for safety in Butare where her aunt, uncle, and five children lived.
CH: The trip usually takes two hours but it took us two days. We had to pay money. We had to go through a lot to get there. My aunt was my mom’s only sibling and they were identical twins. We grew up knowing we had two mothers.
Other families had fled there and all were waiting to see what was going to happen.
CH: You don’t understand what is happening. You don’t have the power to change anything.
The soldiers came and there was a massacre. Hitimana’s father, aunt, uncle and many others including children were shot. Hitimana, her mother and her siblings survived.
CH: There were bodies protecting us from getting shot. There was no other protection.
Eventually the family went back to the aunt’s house and when the phone rang Hitimana’s mother answered. It was a cousin who said he would come with a truck and take them to a safer place.
CH: We had just made supper. When the militaries came back they ate everything, then destroyed everything. They were looking for God knows what. We had to go back into the house we were taken from because there wasn’t an option. The neighbours didn’t want to help because if the militaries found out they would kill everybody. We just went back waiting for … we didn’t know….
The cousin took them to his family (Hitimana’s mom’s family) far out in the country where they lived for a month.
CH: The next day we were in the fields working like everybody because we were so many to feed. No grief, nothing. We were still covered with blood. We had on our mind how we were going to survive what was coming rather than what happened. We grew up in a Christian home and we were so mad at God. Why would we survive just to be killed again?
Hitimana’s father’s relatives lived close to the Congo border and put a plan in place to help.
CH: Congo was safe but crossing the border was another story. There were gates and guards and more killing. We waited and when it was a good time, we went to Congo.
It is estimated that 800,000 to 1,000,000 died in a three-month period during the Rwandan genocide. Hitimana’s father’s family took care of her for a year and a half. Her mother returned to Rwanda which was then safe and Hitimana and her sisters spent time in Central African Republic.
From there, her sisters then went to Togo but Hitimana, who met her husband, also a Rwandan refugee, in Congo, went to France.
CH: Amazingly, we met a man in charge of the airport who offered to help us go to Europe. He said that if his children were in these conditions he would want someone to help them. We arrived in France without a visa or any valid passport, but when God is in charge, amazing and unexplainable things can happen!
They spent the next four years in France living in a ghetto for refugees with no opportunity to work or get ahead and witnessing hopelessness, vandalism, violence and drug abuse. “We needed to find a place to raise our children,” she says. The family, which now included two small daughters, emigrated to Canada, first to Quebec in 2003 where a third daughter was born and then to Calgary and in 2013, to Airdrie.
Optimism, faith, determination and a background in educational psychology have helped Hitimana pursue a career as a youth worker in the Francophone school system, then at the Boys and Girls Club where she shares her faith and her story to show that human beings can go through tough times and recover. “Bad stuff happens but you keep going,” she says. “There is hope, always there’s hope.”
Since moving to Airdrie, Hitimana has completed the first draft of a book relating her experiences, survival and the strength of the human spirit. She has also completed the SMARTstart program for new entrepreneurs and is enjoying watching her new business take root and grow. Meals Made Easy is a meal-assembly business which provides prepared ingredients and recipes for customers to take home and cook later or freeze. She is currently operating out of the commercial kitchen at the Town and Country Centre and is looking for a storefront.
Hitimana likes the friendliness of Airdrie. “We feel like we would be feeling if we were in our own country,” she says. “We have nice neighbours and our kids have friends.”