In 1994 the world stood by as Rwandan Hutu extremists massacred nearly one million Tutsis and Hutu moderates in 100 days of the 20th century’s most extreme violence. People are less familiar with the corollary attacks against Tutsis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, arguably the most savage aspect of that country’s war. The killings began shortly after the Rwandan genocide, when the Hutu Genocidaires fled into the Congo and incited the locals with their hate ideology: Eliminate all Tutsis or they will kill you. This violence brought a powerful and efficient engine of cultural destruction roaring to life. Sparked by politically engineered ethnic hatred and fueled by avarice for Congo’s vast natural resources, the conflict has become known as Africa’s world war. Seven neighboring nations have been drawn in, each with its own agenda. The victims, 3.8 million people and counting, include Tutsis, Hutus and others from virtually all of Congos hundreds of ethnicities. This is among the world’s greatest war-related humanitarian emergency. Although efforts at peace continue, fighting still spikes in some regions. Among the tens of millions affected, some individual journeys from suffering to hope stand out. The young Tutsi Daniel Kanyaruhuru’s escape and subsequent search for his family is one of these stories.
Daniel was tall and lanky for his age. At fourteen he was away from home studying when soldiers threw him, his older cousin Tembo, the cousin’s wife and their five children into a death prison. Daniel belonged to a tribe of Congolese Tutsis called the Banyamulenge, and when Rwanda’s Tutsi army entered the Congo in August 1998 the invasion triggered countrywide massacres of Congolese Tutsis. Soldiers executed Tembo immediately. A few weeks later they killed Tembo’s wife. Daniel was left to care for his five orphaned cousins and watched helplessly as the youngest, a three-week old baby, grew progressively weaker and finally died.
Daniel’s trials were just beginning when his baby cousin died. Soon after soldiers beat him nearly to death. “They killed so many people around me, and I was sure that I at some point I was next,” says Daniel. Over the following sixteen months Daniel cared for his orphaned cousins, a 12, 8, 3 and 1 year old amidst sickness, terror and death in the various prisons to which they were shunted. “I did what I could. Sometimes I would carry Amani [the youngest] on my back. But most of the time I was so weak from the beatings that I couldn’t do much.”
In the Kasai Occidental region’s Kananga prison, his longest stay, Daniel escaped death in part because some of his captors knew him from home and prevented other soldiers from executing him. Finally, soldiers loaded Daniel and his cousins onto a plane and shipped them to Kinshasa, the capital, so they could be killed away from the watch of acquaintances. “Why do you want to protect those Tutsi cockroaches anyway?” Daniel heard one of his captors ask another soldier. Daniel and his cousins waited to be killed in the Kinshasa airport, but instead they were brought to a special protection center for Tutsis established by the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Free from the fear of imminent death, Daniel was overwhelmed by worry for his parents and siblings. Had the military killed them as well? In fact, his family was going through its own horrors. Soldiers burned his grandmother alive in her home. They captured his mother, father and four siblings and imprisoned them in a church compound with three thousand other Tutsis, intending to execute them all. Resistance fighters succeeded in freeing the captives before the massacre. “Soldiers only killed about 90 people at that time,” said Daniel’s father, “and then we ran.” But home was gone, burned to the ground, and the marauders had looted all of the family’s possessions.
Over the next six years Daniel’s family fled across the region, from the Congo to Burundi and back to various short-term safe areas, always just ahead of Tutsi-killing extremists. Finally in 2004 Daniel’s uncle spirited the family to Rwanda. But that country didn’t hold the key to a new life. In Rwanda Banyamulenge Tutsis from the Congo are viewed as foreigners, and Hutu Genocidaires, lurking just over the boarder, had already attacked a Congolese Tutsi refugee camp. “We are hunted down and not accepted or wanted anywhere in Africa,” said Daniel’s father.
The US government had come to a similar conclusion and launched emergency evacuations of threatened Tutsis in 1999 and 2000. On the final evacuation mission the rescue team discovered Daniel and his cousins in the protection center a week after they arrived. “That boy was so traumatized when we found him that he wouldn’t talk,” said Sheikha Ali, one of Daniel’s rescuers. “He was so malnourished and had such a troubled face that I never thought he would smile again.”
The team flew Daniel and his cousins to a refugee camp in northern Cameroon, where they stayed for six months before the US government resettled them to Arizona. It was in Cameroon that he heard the most important news of his life: His family was alive. “It was like I could suddenly breath after suffocating for so long with worry,” recalled Daniel.
The five children went to live in a foster home in Phoenix. The first thing Daniel did was to send refugee family reunification documents so his parents and siblings could join him. He was 16 years old at the time and started high school, where he discovered a previously unknown talent – running. Although he had never competed before, his skill and perseverance launched him onto the national scene. Now, four years later, Daniel is in his second year on full scholarship at Paradise Valley Junior College, chosen for its proximity to his cousins. He has been named a junior college All American in four events – the 3000 meter, the steeplechase, the distance medley and cross-country, and receives daily phone calls from university recruiters.
But Daniel’s dreams ranged far beyond athletic stardom. His nightly prayers would always begin with his hope to see his family again, but they were stuck in Africa and Daniel was only able to communicate occasionally through static-filled phone lines. Years of separation and a seemingly endless wait weighed heavily on Daniel. “They could easily be killed over there while they wait,” he said despairingly a few years ago. September 11th more or less halted the US refugee program, and other complications stalled Daniel’s family. Not even Senator John McCain’s advocacy could accelerate the process. And although his family was ready to travel in September 2004 – all the documentation had been processed – they faced a new problem: the Rwandan government was refusing to allow Tutsi refugees to depart for the US. So, on the dark night of November 12, 2004, Daniel’s father smuggled the family out of Rwanda to Kenya with the hope that perhaps they could fly to the US from there.
The fact is that Daniel’s family no longer has a place to call home. And the ever-present Tutsi-hatred has followed them and their fellow tribesmen beyond country boundaries. Last August Hutu rebels based in Congo crossed into Burundi, bypassed two non-Tutsi refugee camps, and attacked a group of Banyamulenge refugees in the Gatumba transit center who had fled their homes some months earlier. With guns, machetes, grenades and gasoline fires they killed 164 people, mostly women and children, many of them Daniel’s relatives and friends. This massacre is only the most recent violent manifestation of an incessant ethnic hatred that has ravaged the region for a decade.
Miraculously Daniel’s family is still alive. They survived the 1994 Rwandan holocaust and its deadly ripple effects, which have reached across the region to decimate Banyamulenge Tutsis. Daniel himself has not only survived, but has become an exceptional national-level American athlete. And now, as if in answer to his prayers, Daniel’s dream has come true. The US has given him and his family a chance to live a safe life together, something that scores of thousands of Banyamulenge Tutsis in Africa may never have. On December 8 Daniel’s family arrived in Phoenix. As he watched his mother and father, brothers and sisters, emerge from the arrivals area Daniel ran to them and threw all of his love, hope and relief – the accumulation of six years of the most fear-ridden, intense emotion — into his embraces.
They are finally together again, fortunate and courageous survivors of a decade of Tutsi extermination that continues to wrack the DRC. But for every inspiring story of courage and perseverance rewarded, 1000 other Daniels and their families meet with darker fates. Rwanda is not the past, but the present. Its legacy haunts the Congo.