Genocide Survivors – 15 years later

Interview with Richard & Olivier Mandevu of Gatumba Survivors

By Katia Parella

   I clearly remember the day that I turned 21. It was a hot August day & I invited a few of my friends to my apartment for food, drinks & dancing. We had a wonderful time! We were young, careless & free. On the same day as my birthday, on August 13, 2004, a different group of people suffered unimaginable, horrific loss at an attack on a refugee camp in Burundi. As I was partying, those people were suffering. And now, we are forever bonded by that date – in good times & in bad. 

   Little did I know in 2004, that 4 years later I will meet the survivors of that attack, become friends with them & will worship God together. Who else can orchestrate that, but God? This year is a 15-year anniversary. I might sound like a long time has passed, but to the survivors the pain never goes away & the memories don’t fade.

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   I meet with Richard & Olivier Mandevu, two brothers who I first met back in 2007. We meet at City Harvest church in Albany, NY to talk about the events of that fateful day, about the present & their future. Unlike the year we met, today they are both married, with 8 children between them, with jobs & no immediate threat of being killed. 

   The Sunday of our meeting, Olivier was speaking at their weekly evening church service. And his brother Richard translated mainly to the older generation, who have not adapted the English language. Their fellowships started out as Albany Revival Fellowship & now operates under African service at City Harvest church. As long as I can remember, the members of the fellowship would always be welcoming to others & would acknowledge everyone coming to visit them.

   The day I come, Olivier talks about stepping out in faith & starting whatever it is God wants you to start & “He’ll do the rest. If you don’t start something, Jesus can’t finish it”, he says. And he knows full well about starting his life over in another country, with a new language, new friends, new culture, new system, new rules. It wasn’t easy. Just like anyone, he was afraid, but persevered. “Sometimes people initiate something & it’s difficult, they back up. Don’t look at the winds, look at Jesus!”, he exclaims, “I’m moving forward because I’m with Jesus!”. 

   After Olivier is done talking, Vance Parella takes the pulpit: “So many things have happened because of Gatumba! Praise God for your perseverance & faith! God is getting the victory! You blessed many people”. He encourages those who came to believe that although they went through a traumatic event, that God has used it for good! 

  The three of us (me, Olivier & Richard) meet after the Sunday night service to talk about the Gatumba Genocide. Richard & Justin Bigabiro work together as leaders of the African evening service. Olivier used to be the leader, but has since stepped down & is now a “supporter”, as he calls himself. 

   Richards recalls the events of August 13, 2004. He had been living in Burundi (a country in central Africa) refugee camp with hundreds of others for only a week. That night around 10 pm he was getting ready to go to sleep for the night. Then they heard gun shots, but thought that the robbers had come to steal cows from the local Burundians. After about minute, he together with other about 30 men realized that the gunshots were attacks against them. The attackers blocked the front entrance of the tent. “Some died right away there, others got shot, myself, too. They shot me in the right leg”, he remembers. After he felt the bullet go through his leg, he told another man: “We are not going to die like this. We [need to] try to run away”. He proposed to tear the tent with bare hands. They ran out: “Whoever is able to walk out, just come with us! Don’t stay. They’re going to kill you”. Four of them were wounded. They made their way to nearby bushes & decided to stay there to “see if they’re going to follow us”. They hear the gunshot coming closer, so they moved further down until they found a hole in the ground, where they hid for about 2 hours. After they heard the gunshots die down, they decided to come out & check if it was safe. At that point, the military from Burundi government got there & were calling out those who were still alive. “They were putting people into vehicles & drove them to the hospital”, Richard says. He stayed to look for his Mom, brother & others: “I’m not leaving until I see them!”. He waited until the last hospital car & saw some of his nieces & nephews. At last, he went to the hospital & stayed there for 2 weeks. He says: “We have nowhere to go. We lost everything. The clothes that [we] had - that’s it, nothing else! No shoes, nothing to eat. By God’s grace, we were able to come together, my sisters & brothers, we decided to move to another country, which is Rwanda”. He lived there for 2 years, taught kids at school. And that is where “US government was looking for Gatumba survivors. We did interviews & they brought us to America”. He calls his move to Albany, NY a blessing, where he met other Christians, formed a community & was now going to church. Olivier adds: “By God’s grace, we found re-settlement…here, in the US”.

   The Fire Magazine (TFM): Who attacked you?

   Richard Mandevu (RM): Rebels from Burundi & Congo & the other from Rwanda. 

   He was able to recognize the attackers origins by their languages that they were speaking.       

   One of the things he heard them say: “We are going to finish you guys!”.

   TFM: Do you know what their purpose was?

   RM: They wanted to kill us, because of the way we look. They don’t like us. They don’t want us to live where we used to live. They think that we don’t deserve to live there. It’s their own place, their own land. 

   TFM: And you being who?

   RM: In Africa there are tribes. In the East Africa there are Hutu & Tutsi tribes. Hutu were coming together & trying to kill all of us. That was the purpose. We ran away from our city & were in refugee camp temporary, so we can return back home. 

    And the Hutu then decided to kill the Tutsi in the refugee camps. 

   TFM: Did anyone from your family survive?

   RM: My Mom passed away, my brother. My sister, my brother & my nephews - they survived. 

   TFM: How many people total died that day?

   Olivier Mandevu (OM): 166.

   TFM: And what about you, Olivier? Can you briefly tell me where you were when it happened?

   OM: The tragedy happened when I was in…Rwanda. I was there for school. It was in the morning, I was just about to eat my breakfast. I received a phone call from one of my cousins, saying  - “Sorry [about] what happened to you”. What happened?! 

   And that is how he found out about the attack & the death of his family members - his mother & older brother. Olivier left the restaurant & took the bus to where the shootings happened. When he got there, he says, “it was a nightmare that I’ve never experienced in my life. Bodies were burning, the whole sky was full of smoke”. Some of the people were burnt alive in their tents, some gunned down, some children heads were smashed. “It was horrible”, he says. 

When their surviving family members decide to move to Rwanda, they decided to go “there by faith”, not knowing anyone there. 

   TFM: Who came first to the US? OM: I did. 

   TFM: How many of your family members came here?

   OM: Me, my brother Emmanuel, my two sisters - Solange & Aline. And then Richard came with Christine. Christine came with 5 kids. Eleven people [who] came. 

   TFM: From what I know, the attackers have never been charged? Is that true?

   OM: That’s true. One of the leaders in that attack, he’s a very big political figure. Military political figure in Burundi. He claimed publicly - through local & international media - to have been the architect…responsible for the attack. No charges have been brought against him yet. The guy is still free in Burundi. He’s even running for the office presidency this coming year. Some forces from the government of Congo, military forces - generals, great leaders - they are still free in Congo….As Christians, we believe that it’s not fair. And we are not demanding justice for ourselves, we are demanding justice to protect the living in the Great Lakes region of Africa. And as a way of saying ‘no’ to impurity & [killings] & hate. It’s a way of promoting peace. And saying ‘never again’ to these kinds of crimes. We always ask reporters like yourselves to try to spread the word.

   TFM: Do you think that justice will ever be served? It’s been 15 years. 

   OM: I’d say yes & no. You can’t tell for sure. Because there’s too much politics involved. Those who [are] supposed to serve justice, they are so corrupt…[and] they don’t like Banyamulenge group…they are the minority. And they don’t have power. 

   TFM: Just to clarify, Banyamulenge is a tribe?

   OM: Yes.

   TFM: And you also said you were…

   OM: Tutsi? Yeah. 

   TFM: What’s the difference?

   OM: The difference is - tutsi is like a big umbrella. And the Banyamulenge is a small portion underneath that umbrella. So, we are just a small community from a very small place.  But Tutsi are everywhere. 

   TFM: [Name] one good thing that came out of this? 

   OM: It’s hard to find something good that happens out of a tragedy, like Gatumba. But something happened…I think it brought me closer to God. I feel like it helped my faith & trust in God. Psalm 27 says “God is my stronghold”. You might feel powerless…shaken…sad…cry. It happens. It’s something that will stay with us our entire lives. It’s something we need to find a way of living with…You cling to the word of God. Another good thing that came out of it, is meeting with people, like yourself. Friends. The people have been a blessing for us. 

   RM: There [are] so many, but what I can say - just change. Where I used to live & then come to the new place, America…It was a big healing. And I found a church, friends, people that were very nice…[Spending] time with other fellow Christians has encouraged me. 

   Richard shares the story of when he first came to USA & the first person he met was Vance Parella. He started working with him while not speaking any English. “But he used to hold my hand & ride in the truck…and pray with me”, he remembers. Although they couldn’t understand each others prayers, Richard says, “he gave me hope”. He says that Vance would be “in prayer all the time”. They spent a lot of quality time together, which helped Richard & made him stronger. 

   Olivier also adds a “thank you” to “brother Vance”. He calls him “one of those people, who really helped us to adjust to life here…to navigate the American life, American system. He was very supportive. And we are so grateful”.

   In 2013, Richard got married & now he has 3 kids. “God brought back hope & a smile to my face”, he says, “God can do anything through what we went through, even if people will say ‘you’re not gonna live’. God has a final say”. 

   In the midst of the genocide & even today, Richard praises God: “I have such joy. God was with me from 2007 until today. He’s still with me. He’s my hope. He’s my rock. He’s everything to me. No one can do [what] only God can do”.

   TFM: What do you see as future for you & your people?

   RM: What I’d like to see…first of all, it’s a healing, which comes from God. People [who] did these killings, we would like to see them come & ask for forgiveness. I don’t [know] how someone can live with a blood of 166 people who [they] took their lives [from]…And we’ll forgive them, because we know God…We know the devil used them. 

   OM: What I want to see happen to my people, I envision & pray for a peaceful & prosperous Great Lakes region of Africa. I want that place to be free from killings…oppression…torture…any kind of danger…Not just for the Banyamulenge, but everybody, all communities. I pray that they…share the Gospel…Instead of sharing blood…What we can share is…prosperity, starting business, preaching the Gospel, bringing up our kids in good ways. That’s what I’m praying for. 

   In the last 15 years the survivors have held memorial gatherings throughout USA: New York, Texas, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio…To name a few. This year it was again in Iowa. 

   Both Olivier & Richard have been through a lot, but they are hopeful for the future of their families here & their community back in Congo. “I pray that control & power & influence shifts back into the hands of people of God”, says Olivier. 

   We might not experience genocide where we live, but there are places in the world today which experience hate, discrimination, oppression & death. The people in those places live in fear & poverty. It is not a problem of previous generations, but it is a present issue today. It is as old as Old Testament & as fresh as today’s latest news. The devil might try to kill & destroy an ethnic group or a country, but he is not able to destroy souls of God’s people. In the end, those people come out stronger & more powerful in God than ever.

   To learn more about City Harvest church, click here

   To learn more about the genocide, click here