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Survivor of Rwandan genocide finds a hopeful future in Charlotte

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/03/18/12/1r6lQN.Em.138.jpeg|316
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    After barely escaping the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago, Liliane Ntabana hopes to study at UNC dental school and become a dentist in the U.S. “I can say there’s no time that fear can be an excuse for anything,” she said.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/03/18/12/1j6Vr3.Em.138.jpeg|208
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Umuhire Liliane Ntabana collects her thoughts as she thinks back on her childhood in Rwanda, where she survived the country’s genocide in 1994.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/03/18/12/pYag7.Em.138.jpeg|316
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Liliane Ntabana sits on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University. Her parents were killed two days before the genocide ended in Rwanda in 1994. “I don’t want to go back to the past. It just makes me sad,” she said.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/03/18/12/zHtk6.Em.138.jpeg|210
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Liliane Ntabana stands in a lab at Johnson C. Smith University, where she is a biology major and maintains a 3.7 grade-point average. The university’s president, Ronald Carter, found her a scholarship for international students as part of the school’s support from the Duke Endowment.

There has always been something special about Liliane, even when she was 7 and the soldier who came to kill her pinned her arm to the ground with his boot.

“You look like my daughter,” he said. “So I’m not going to kill you. But we will have to kill the others.”

Now, 20 years later, Umuhire Liliane Ntabana (she goes by Liliane because it is easier for people to pronounce) is a biology major at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. She is a survivor of the genocide that swept through Rwanda in April 1994.

At least 800,000 people were slaughtered when Rwanda’s Hutu majority descended upon the Tutsi minority, who were persecuted and blamed for social ills. Men, women, elders, children and infants were butchered in their homes, at roadblocks, at churches and in schools. Hutus who rose in their defense were killed as well.

It lasted 100 days. On the 98th day, Liliane’s parents were murdered.

Liliane is the youngest of nine children. Also killed: her three sisters, her aunts and her uncles.

“People they didn’t know came to kill them,” Liliane said. “It’s hard to understand how they were killed with no reason.”

After the genocide was halted by a rebel army, she and two of her sisters were taken in by her godmother, who was already sheltering about 30 orphans living in her house in the Gitarama Province.

Life returned to a new normal. And Liliane returned to school.

Phone call in the night

Sparking the 1994 genocide was the mysterious crash April 6 of the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. Hutus blamed the Tutsis for shooting down the plane.

Local officials, military groups and Hutu civilians were encouraged to kill Tutsis through radio broadcasts. Many of the Tutsis were killed by their Hutu neighbors, who were often brandishing machetes or garden tools.

Liliane remembers being awakened by a phone call late in the night after the plane was shot down. She listened as her father, Ntabana Trojan, talked on the phone and could tell by his tone it was something serious, something menacing.

“He was on a list of people who had to die,” Liliane said.

Her father was a dentist, and her mother was a nurse.

Her father was funny, she remembered. Her mother was calm, always calm – even on the day when she told the children they would have to go into hiding.

Her mother and father decided to split up the children to have a better chance of surviving. “He kissed us, and we went to say goodbye to my mom. She asked my oldest sister to be like my mom.”

Across time, borders

Decades after the genocide, trials are still going on in Rwanda. After testifying against a man involved with the genocide who then went to prison, Liliane left Rwanda in 2008 because it was no longer safe for her.

She went to Boston, applied for asylum and started learning English. She found work cleaning airplane interiors between flights, as a hotel maid, as a parking lot attendant and at a Moroccan restaurant. She attended Bunker Hill Community College.

In Boston, she came to the attention of Eugenie Mukeshimana, whose husband, father, sister and cousins were killed in the genocide.

Mukeshimana was eight months pregnant and went into hiding when the killings began. Hutus found her in a garbage pit. They decided not to kill her or her baby. Instead they raped her and kept her prisoner as a cook, she tells audiences to raise awareness of the genocide.

Mukeshimana, now 42, came to the United States in 2001, earned a college degree in social work and founded the Genocide Survivors Support Network, which helps survivors rebuild their lives and uses their voices to raise awareness about genocide through education.

As she got to know Liliane, she realized there was something special about her.

“Everyone wants revenge, but we’re doing it the way Liliane is doing it – by working hard, going from surviving to living.”

Going into hiding

Slender and vivacious, Liliane weeps and stares into the middle distance when she talks about being on the run.

At first, she and some siblings were sent to live with nuns. When the nuns had to leave the country, they were sent to the protection of a priest, and then friends.

Throughout the 100 days, there was a recurring refrain: “Men were coming to kill us.”

She said she prayed constantly while staying with the nuns. Something came over her.

“I heard in my heart every day – ‘They’re coming to kill you, but you’re going to be OK.’ 

Asking for help at JCSU

On a speaking engagement in 2010 at JCSU about the Rwanda survivors organization arranged by Racelle Weiman of Charlotte, who helps place genocide survivors in schools in North Carolina, Mukeshimana was invited to meet with university President Ronald Carter. She told him about Liliane and asked whether there was something the university could do for her.

“Liliane’s narrative was very compelling,” Carter said. “We have a commitment to working and supporting young men and women whose contract with life has been compromised.”

Carter found her a scholarship for international students as part of the university’s support from the Duke Endowment.

“I couldn’t think of a more deserving person,” Carter said. “She is quiet but an illuminating presence across the campus, not afraid to venture into the unknown.”

Part of the paperwork for entering JCSU included a survey for roommate compatibility. Under the question, “What do you do in your free time?” Liliane answered: “Pray.”

Escaping from killers

Sometimes during the genocide, Liliane said when the men came, they would ask for money for bullets to kill their victims rather than machetes. Sometimes the men would accept the money and leave, promising to return for more.

Usually they came at night. “To be safe, we would sleep in the bushes and come back in the morning,” Liliane said.

One day she was hiding in a house. She peeked out a window to see a woman begging on her knees, then hacked to death by a machete. Liliane hid under the bed.

Weeks later, the last group came and found them. “They said, We know you are Tutsi, and so we’re going to kill you,’ ” Liliane said.

Money was offered to save them, but the men burned the bills. That was when the soldier pinned her to the ground, then let her go because there was something about Liliane that reminded him of his own daughter.

The sound of gunfire interrupted them. The group went to investigate and never returned. Soon the rebels were in control and the genocide was ended.

Finding her way in Charlotte

Kirsten Hemmy, an associate professor in English at JCSU, picked up Liliane when she arrived at the Charlotte airport in 2010. Hemmy’s first impression of her was that she was sweet and nervous, and the professor soon came to realize there was something special about Liliane.

“She quickly became my weekend and holiday guest, or child – she’d come to stay at my house whenever there was a long weekend or school break. She’d cook, clean, hang out, watch TV, be a kid.

“From time to time, I just marveled at her: She had moments where she could really act like a kid, like a young woman, like a college student. It was remarkable to me, really, that resilience.”

Liliane had trouble making friendships with fellow students at first, but a retinue of adults began to gather around her, providing bedding, clothes, gift cards, cash.

“It was hard for her to imagine the randomness of it all: What she’d survived, what she was carrying – that burden of survival – the kind of opportunity that presented itself to her now,” Hemmy said. “There were lots of days of being overwhelmed.”

And there were inevitable miscues in light of the genocide.

“Some friends from a local religious organization took her to dinner and mentioned at some point how proud her family must be of all that she’s accomplished,” Hemmy said.

“Liliane was silently devastated, and the well-meaning people were mortified.”

An end to the killing

In July 1994, rebel forces restored order to Rwanda.

Liliane and others walked to a refugee camp in their province. “We walked all night to the camp, over dead people.”

Her parents had been hidden by a neighbor who was a Hutu and a Christian. In the camp, they encountered the neighbor’s brother, who told them what happened to her parents.

His brother was killed for hiding them. Her mother was killed by machete. Her three sisters were raped and killed by machete. Her father was run over by a car, then buried alive.

“I was really young. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s lying.’ I didn’t believe it. No one cried. We thought, ‘OK, maybe we’ll see them.’ 

Later, she returned to her home. She found it ransacked and burned. “Everything in the house, they took it.”

Looking to the future

Liliane found a spiritual home at Elevation Church in Charlotte. She helps in the eKidz nursery for toddlers. Though she has yet to meet him, she admires the pastor, Steven Furtick.

She works part-time at the uptown Westin Hotel in the coffee shop and has another part-time job at Innovo, JCSU’s small business incubator.

Liliane has a 3.7 grade-point average. She took physics this semester and found it difficult. She took her exam on Friday, though, and thought she did well.

She wants to be a dentist, like her father.

Liliane is on track to graduate in December. She will be in a pre-med program this summer at UNC Chapel Hill. She hopes to be accepted at the UNC dental school. If accepted, she will have to figure out how to pay for it.

“I can say there’s no time that fear can be an excuse for anything,” said Liliane. “It’s not an obstacle for me to do anything.”

Liliane will apply for citizenship. Her two surviving brothers and two sisters live in Sweden, England, India and Canada. She has another brother who is missing.

One of the women in Charlotte who helps watch over her is Shelly Crawford. Liliane said Crawford is like a mother to her.

When they’re out and about together, they sometimes see rudeness in others, which annoys Crawford. But, said Crawford, “Liliane tells me the person must just be having a bad day. She is such a good spirit and such a good heart.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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