A Survivor’s Tale of Genocide and Grace

Alex Nsengimana
Alex Nsengimana

By Susan LeDoux

In 1994, seven-year-old Alex Nsengimana was running for his life. He slipped on a “cow pie” and crashed to the ground. The bullet meant to blow his brains out sailed overhead.

That year, the assassination of the Rwandan Hutu president sparked an explosion of hatred that had been simmering for years between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. It resulted in a million deaths and created 400,000 orphans from April 6 to July 4.

Nsengimana spoke at an Operation Christmas Child rally at New Beginnings Church in Brockport, this past August, and told how living through the Rwandan Genocide shaped his life.

At the time of the genocide, his mother was already dead and he never knew his father. He lived with his grandmother and two uncles. Fearful, the family huddled inside their home, but it was no use.

Neighbors broke down their door and told them to come out and lie down. After a while, they told the children to go back into the house. It was then they killed his grandmother.

“Why in the world would a person we knew by name, a person we grew up with, all of a sudden, just because we belonged to a different tribe, why would they do that to our grandmother?”

Nsengimana struggled to understand, even as more senseless devastation surrounded him.

After gunmen assassinated his other uncle, his remaining uncle led them to the city where he and his siblings would live with his aunt and her husband. In order to support the growing household, the family sold local beer from the house.

“I joke they were selling moonshine in the living room,” he said.

It’s a wonder he could joke, because in the next few days a customer sneaked into the family’s backyard and ordered Nsengimana to lie down. Terrified, he watched the man lower his weapon and take aim at him. And then the bullet fell out. As the man struggled to reload, his aunt’s husband accosted the stranger, who claimed he was just joking and “playing with them.”

“He was not playing. If that gun had been loaded, I would not be standing in front of you today.”

Finally, all the Nsengimana children could only run for their lives; and it was then he slipped on that “cow pie.”  They eventually found safety in an orphanage, where he and 250 children, would live in a facility built for 60.

Alex continued his story.

“Now that we were not physically running…our minds were processing everything. And you know very well what happens with post traumatic stress. (It) was at the greatest when children were screaming in the night because they were reliving everything.”

Samaritan’s Purse responded through Operation Christmas Child, bringing hundreds of shoeboxes, filled with toys, hygiene items, and school supplies.

Grace entered Nsengimana’s life. “We were so excited, shaking the boxes, trying to figure out what was in them. All of us, screaming with excitement, not because we were scared, but because we could not contain the joy.”

Nsengimana said the shoebox returned hope and life to him because the orphanage used it to share the power of Jesus Christ in the Gospel — that great gift of hope. But seeds of faith landed on bitter soil in his heart. Questions haunted him. Why was he still alive? A million people lost their lives, why did nothing happen to him?

“I felt guilty being alive and blamed God for everything that happened in my life. The more I blamed God, the more I missed out on the miracles that had saved my life.”

Yet God was at work. While in the orphanage, Nsengimana was selected to go to Uganda as a member of an African choir. There, he learned English and began to read the Bible. Jeremiah 29:11 held special meaning for him. “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (NKJV)

“That’s when I figured out there has to be a plan for my life and I wanted to find out that plan. I was going to follow it.”

Later, travels to America with the choir led to his “adoption” by an American family in Minnesota. While in Minnesota, through high school and college, he learned more about Operation Christmas Child and joined the project while at Crossroads (Bible) College. He returned to Rwanda and delivered shoeboxes to children in the same orphanage that had been his home.

Although he had given his life to the Lord, the following years were difficult because his heart was still full of bitterness toward the man, now in prison, who had killed his grandmother. He had a mountain to climb before he would find peace. Nsengimana’s first step was to visit the man and ask why he had killed his family.

“Some of the things we did were just following orders,” the man said. “I don’t remember specifically, but I remember three children being there, especially a boy and a girl. Who was the girl?”

“My sister.”

His journey to find peace continues. He hopes to learn more about forgiveness when he meets the other men who killed his family. He plans to run a marathon over those 28 miles in Rwanda he had covered as a fleeing child.

He challenged his audience to face people who caused them the most pain. “What will be your next step?…Maybe your next step is to stop blaming the Lord for what happened in your life and seek  him as Lord and Savior for the very first time— the best decision you will ever make.”

If you wish to fill a shoebox, National Collection Week for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes is November 12-19. Drop-off locations near you will be listed at https://www.samaritanspurse.org/operation-christmas-child/drop-off-locations/ after October 1st.

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