Gilbert Tuhabonye, an aspiring Olympic runner and the sole survivor of an ethnically motivated attack on a Tutsi high school in the Republic of Burundi, recounted the story of his survival Tuesday afternoon at the Morse College Master’s House.
Tuhabonye fielded questions and spoke about the genocide in Burundi and how it changed his life to a large audience in Morse. Students said they found his story compelling and inspiring.
Tuhabonye said the attack occurred on Oct. 21, 1993, after the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected leader, Hutu Melchior Ndadaye, by a militant group of Tutsi soliders. He said the death of the president triggered an immediate Hutu backlash, culminating in the genocide of the country’s Tutsi population. Hutu militia killed over 250 children at Tuhabonye’s school, leaving him as the only survivor.
“It was a day I will never forget,” Tuhabonye said.
Tuhabonye said he expected a normal day at school until he heard static on the local radio station.
“Where I’m from, if the radio doesn’t work, something is going on,” he said.
Shortly after arriving at school, Hutu students confronted Tuhabonye about his Tutsi ethnicity and expressed their desire to see him killed. By midday, Hutu citizens and fellow schoolmates had taken control of the building and were systematically murdering the Tutsi students, Tuhabonye said.
Tuhabonye said those around him were hacked to death by machetes and burned alive. The grief he felt was immeasurable, he said.
“You want to cry, but crying isn’t possible,” Tuhabonye said.
After being trapped for eight hours in the burning school, he eventually escaped through a window and ran to a nearby hospital. Tuhabonye said he suffered burns over forty percent of his body and his right leg was temporarily paralyzed below the knee.
“God didn’t want me to die that day,” he said.
Despite his injuries, Tuhabonye went on to become a highly accomplished runner and Olympic hopeful. He received a scholarship while recovering from the attack and came to the United States to attend Abilene Christian University, where he competed in track and field, becoming an NCAA All-American athlete.
Tuhabonye said the memory of these hardships gives him drive and focus, and he uses running as an outlet for his emotions. He concluded his address by urging students to embrace the principles of forgiveness, discipline, perseverance and faith.
A number of students said they were touched by Tuhabonye’s story and impressed by his humility.
“He spoke very well,” Dambudzo Muzenda ’07 said. “I’m amazed at how much strength and conviction he has in faith and in himself.”
Amanda Eckerson ’07 found Tuhabonye’s ability to forgive fascinating.
“It’s interesting to hear people talk about their strength and where their strength comes from,” she said.
Tuhabonye was an alternate on the 1996 Burundi Olympic team, and is currently training for the 2008 Summer Olympics. He is the author of “This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Escape, Faith, and Forgiveness,” a personal memoir, and works as a running coach in Austin, Texas.