Note: This article was originally published in my university’s news magazine. I didn’t know Angelique* before the interview that brought about this article, but we have since become great friends. Thank you, dear friend, for your goodness, your friendship, and your willingness to share.
Angelique was only a child the first time she watched someone dear to her be taken away to be killed. She was even younger the time her mother held her by the hand as they raced against death down a small road toward her village in the rain. The streams in the street were red from the blood of hundreds who had already been killed, and they would come home to a robbed and ransacked version of what was once their home.
Angelique’s story starts in a small village called Bibate, in a small farming country of 8 million called Burundi. Many people recognize Burundi’s neighbor, Rwanda, from the coverage and attention that was given to its horrific government-enforced genocide in the late ‘90s. Few know, however, of the ethnic struggle that continues to this day in this small, war-torn nation just to the north.
Angelique is a Tutsi. While that may not mean anything to most people outside Burundi’s borders, it meant years of tribal civil war—of Hutus versus Tutsis—within the country. “I was born in a family where I never was taught by my parents to hate another tribe,” said Angelique. She didn’t even know she was a Tutsi until a girl at school told her not to play with a Hutu girl. “You are a Tutsi,” the girl had told her. “She is a Hutu.” She went home that day and asked her mom what those words meant. “My mom told me not to listen to that kind of teaching. We are all humans,” she said. “My mom was a really good example. She never taught us to hurt anyone.” Despite this childhood lesson, Angelique would find herself in near-death situations many times throughout her life because of ethnic hatred.
“My own experience happened in 2002,” she said. She was living in the city, and had gone to her village to say goodbye to family members before embarking on a trip to the U.S., where she hoped to begin work at the Burundian embassy. “On my way back to the city our bus was stopped. … They shot people. Robbers attacked the bus,” she said. She looked around as the noise from the shots was still ringing in her ears, shocked to find herself still alive. “It made me ask ‘Why? How?’ Someone next to me had just been killed.” She was taken with others into the forest as a hostage and denied food and water for four days. “By a miracle I got saved,” she said, repeating again and again, “It was just a miracle.”
Stories of heartbreak and horror like Angelique's are not uncommon within the borders of Burundi. “Everyone has a story to tell you. Many have seen crime and other situations,” she said. While the war is now officially over and the U.N. has left, Angelique believes there’s still plenty of work to be done. “People still die every day. And within this situation, poverty is big, corruption is at a high level and HIV is really high.”
Angelique has seen a series of miracles that led her first to the United States and eventually to an American university, where she recently graduated with a degree in social work and minors in public management and international peace building. She feels God has granted her life so she can do something for her people. With tears in her eyes, she said that she has asked herself countless times why she is still alive. Now she knows. “My path has led me all the way here. There must be a plan. … I’m feeling that I’m changing and … with all these blessings … I hope to one day go back and help my country,” she said. She mainly wants to focus on women, children, and the elderly in her nation. “They are more vulnerable in many cases.”
Not only does Angelique have big plans for the future, she continues to work on projects in the present that can benefit her fellow Burundians. With five nieces and nephews in an orphanage in Burundi, her heart especially goes out to the children. “There are thousands of children on the streets, not only orphans from war but from so many other diseases. … There are so many bad conditions,” she said. With this in mind, she recently planned a “Stop and Serve” in cooperation with her university’s African club, allowing students to write messages to children in a Burundian orphanage.
“I’m not doing so much, but I feel this is just the beginning, and I won’t stop,” she said.
*Per her request, the name has been changed.