Burundi Genocide Survivor: Running Eases Mind

Twenty years ago today, Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president was assassinated by Tutsi extremists. It sparked a genocide. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with survivor Gilbert Tuhabonye about how forgiveness — and running — helped him heal.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

It's been 20 years today since a small East African country descended into turmoil after the death of its president, and I'm not talking about Rwanda. A year before the genocide in that county, the Hutu president of neighboring Burundi Melchoir Ndadaye was assassinated. Hutus retaliated by slaughtering thousands of their Tutsi neighbors, perhaps as many as 25,000. A decade later, the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi called it a genocide.

When the violence began in 1993, Gilbert Tuhabonye was a high school track star dreaming of someday running in the Olympics. But on October 21 of that year, Gilbert and the rest of his Tutsi classmates and teachers were beaten and locked in a burning building and left to die. Gilbert lay beneath the dead bodies of his friends for hours before slipping out a window. He was the only survivor. Today, he is a long-distance runner, motivational speaker and author of the 2006 memoir "This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor's Story of Escape, Faith, and Forgiveness." And Gilbert Tuhabonye joins me now. Welcome.

GILBERT TUHABONYE: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure.

HEADLEE: It's a pleasure to have you here, really. You know, I've read your account and you've had to repeat this story many, many times over the course of the past 20 years, which I have to imagine is painful. Is it still painful to talk about that day?

TUHABONYE: No, it's not painful because right now I moved on. It feels good to talk about it, just for myself, and that's the only time that the story comes to life, to me. Otherwise, I don't think about this anymore. I used to have nightmares, but all those are gone because of running, because I was able to do a lot of things for myself to move on. But when I talk about it, especially I love your intro, how everybody now remembers Rwanda, but people forget that whole violence ignited in Burundi in 1993, so.

HEADLEE: That was the second genocide in Burundi in recent memory, at least. There was an earlier one in 1972.

TUHABONYE: Correct.

HEADLEE: And I wonder, did you feel - growing up - did you feel these tensions, did you feel as though there was the possibility of violence, or did this seem to come out of nowhere?

TUHABONYE: No, you hear, but as a young boy, my dream was just to be the best I can be in sports. I never liked politics. So they would say, you know, 1972, there was a lot of killings. So I'm always looking forward. There's nothing I can do for the past. There was just a little tension, but I didn't pay attention. I guess I was ignorant.

HEADLEE: But you've been back to your village many times since then.

TUHABONYE: Yes, I have. 2011, I went back with my family 'cause the children haven't been to Africa, and it was amazing to visit and see where I grew up or visit the school. And I got a chance to go see the memorial, too. I felt that it was a chapter that needed to be closed, and I went as I'm trying to capture the moment, to tell the story of what happened, something hit me hard. I lost my voice. That's really all the people that I witnessed dying, they started coming to life and I couldn't talk.

HEADLEE: How do you explain this to your kids? I mean, it's such a horrifying experience that you went through. And not only that, but watching kids that were your friends - that you thought were your friends, a teammate that you'd run with that was then trying to kill you, how do you explain that to your children?

TUHABONYE: My children are young. The oldest is 12. She read my book. And every time in the morning, she would get up and look in my eyes and she want to hug me. And one night, after she finished the whole book, she came up to me. She was in tears, and she said, I am sorry, dad, that you had to go through this. It really broke my heart. I didn't want her to know, but at one point, you have to. After she read my book, I think she understanded really where I get the joy and she appreciates more having me here in this country and how free - we can do whatever we want to do, and she understands really who I am after she read the book.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with genocide survivor Gilbert Tuhabonye as he remembers the day in 1993, 20 years ago, when Burundi's genocide began. I was really interested in your discussion of when you were lying in the hospital and you had burns, especially on your legs, and the doctors told you you wouldn't run again. And then you got the letter - I guess, it had been three months - the letter from Tulane University offering you a scholarship. But they didn't know what had happened to you, correct?

TUHABONYE: Correct.

HEADLEE: So they didn't know that you might not be able to run, and you must have made a conscious choice that you were going to ignore what the doctor said. What was that like?

TUHABONYE: People will tell you that I'm crazy, but when I was in the hospital, laying down, I couldn't do anything.

HEADLEE: It was painful to move.

TUHABONYE: I couldn't move. I couldn't move because I had a third degree burn on my back, third degree burn on the whole right side, and there was no place to lay on it. And it was a struggle trying to understand, trying to heal emotional and physical because I was betrayed by my classmate, betrayed by my headmaster. It was really too hard to understand how these horrible things can happen to me as an innocent civilian - the president is killed and these people want to kill me. And everything was so quick. Three months just being in a hospital, I was getting three shots a day - those...

HEADLEE: Antibiotics.

TUHABONYE: Antibiotics. They would just put in the quads. And it was so painful.

HEADLEE: Your quad. You're talking about your quadriceps, the muscles on the front of your leg.

TUHABONYE: Yeah, correct. And think about it as runner, that was the hardest muscle.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

TUHABONYE: It was so painful. And I received this letter - a letter inviting me to run on a full scholarship for Tulane University. But before all these things happened, I was world ranked in the national - I was good in 800 and the 400. So when I received this letter, it was a message of hope. I remember going crazy. I'm like, wait a minute, someone out there thinks that I can do it? Maybe let me try. A friend of mine, at the same time, came on a bicycle. I lied to him. I said, hey, sir, go talk to the doctor. He want to talk to you. And I jumped on the bicycle. I could not stretch my leg. It was between the knees.

HEADLEE: The scar tissue was hard probably.

TUHABONYE: I could not stretch my leg for three months. It was bent. It's, like, in the joint.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

TUHABONYE: So I had to stretch that joint, right here, in the outside of the knee. And from that moment, I cannot tell you how great that I felt 'cause I was, from that moment, I was going to start jogging and start walking. And I had gained the joy.

HEADLEE: Wasn't it painful?

TUHABONYE: It was painful, but it was snap, and from that point, I felt great 'cause I started doing therapy. It took me a year - a full year, and you have to be patient. Yeah, it took me a whole year to get back to where I was, to start training and start slowly jogging because running, for me, it's my therapy. It's my freedom. And to be able to start running, that was the day where everything started happening.

HEADLEE: Help me understand. I'm not a runner. And in fact, when I do run, that's when my mind starts spinning its wheels, right, it's going crazy 'cause it has nothing else to do. So help me understand what exactly does running do for you? I mean, you describe it in the book as how you found forgiveness for people who'd done this to you. Help me understand how that works.

TUHABONYE: You know, running for me has brought joy. When I run, my mind is clear. It's free. People run with music. I don't run with music. I sing when I run. And because of running, I was able to clear my mind and to move on. Instead of thinking about go kill other people that tried to kill me - 'cause of running, I was able to forgive and to move on. It was not easy, but running helped me to move on in my life. I've never seen a doctor. Most people suggested that I should go see a therapist because of what happened. But I never think about going back to kill other people. It's just forgiveness is huge, is powerful for me.

HEADLEE: And in fact, you've started a foundation that - a charitable foundation that brings - has so far - brought clean water to over 20,000 people in Burundi. I mean, I assume that's also therapeutic for you.

TUHABONYE: It is, especially - I don't know about you - I feel great when I help someone. It's a huge sense of accomplishment for me and also for the foundation to be able to help more than 20,000 getting clean water.

HEADLEE: Including Hutus.

TUHABONYE: Yes. There's no tribal specific. When we give water, we give water to the needy people.

HEADLEE: So it's been 20 years, and actually, you're using running as a way to mark the occasion, as well. And I understand that you've invited other people to run with you and you've promised you won't go too fast.

TUHABONYE: Correct. I'm running 20 miles, and these 20 miles is to celebrate life, what these 20 years has been. People will be helping me, you know, motivate me, inspire me along the way. I'm doing the 20 miles just to remember the journey - the journey of triumph, the journey of faith, the journey of courage, the forgiveness. And dear friends, always forgive your enemy, forgive your friends, forgive your family and move on.

HEADLEE: Gilbert Tuhabonye - a running coach, genocide survivor, philanthropist, writer and motivational speaker - kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much. It's really a privilege.

TUHABONYE: Thank you very much for having me.

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