WASHINGTON – Natalie Piraino,47,was washing the dishes at home the evening of April 6,1994,when a phone call from a friend changed her life.
Thousands of miles from her Baltimore home,the Rwandan presidential plane had crashed at a Kigali airfield,killing the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi,Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprian Ntayamira.
Ten years later,the Rwandan Tutsi woman who married an American aid worker and moved to the Unites States in 1979,still remembers that day as if it had just happened.
“I did not think he was going to die. There was tension … but we never thought they'd wipe out generations of families and villages,” said Piraino about her native country's president and the genocide that would start that same night.
In just 100 days,Rwandan military forces with the help of Hutu civilians massacred at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Piraino,who worked as a bridal gown seamstress and raised a daughter,had left a large family behind when she and her husband,David,a Catholic Relief Services worker,left the capital,Kigali.
“I lost over a hundred family members to an indescribable cruelty,” she said during a panel discussion Monday about the genocide. Piraino,her husband and other relief workers spoke at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies here to mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre.
“During the genocide,I was in some kind of denial,hoping and wishing that only some few people in my family would be killed,” Piraino said.
Her youngest brother,Narcisse,34,was tortured from morning to sunset. She learned of his death from a nephew who witnessed the killing but survived by hiding in a nearby swamp. The nephew now lives in Brussels,Belgium.
“They would go and cut his ears,his hands,his fingers … Why this? He had never done anything to his Hutu neighbors except that he was born Tutsi,” Piraino said.
Piraino said she tried to picture what was going on in the mind of her sister,Tereza,52,when she paid her killers to use guns instead of machetes.
Piraino couldn't hold her tears any longer,telling about how Tereza was first forced to watch her teenage daughters,Clarice,19,Shantar,17,Claire,15,and Mbunuza,13,being raped and then “chopped up and thrown into a latrine.”
“What they did to all their neighbors is unforgettable and incomprehensible.” Piraino said.
Piraino had been planning to visit her family in 1994 and bring her mother to Baltimore to live with her.
“And then it happened. The remorse still haunts me to this day,” Piraino said. Her mother died in the slaughter.
It wasn't until the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front captured Kigali in July 1994 that the worst of the genocide ended. During that time,2 million Hutus fled into the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo,afraid of Tutsi retribution even though a multi-ethnic government had been formed.
Now an undergraduate student at Towson University near Baltimore, Piraino is majoring in community health. She wants to earn a master's degree in public health.
Piraino said she takes comfort by understanding that some of the killers were taught to hate,kill and torture Tutsis.
“They are also human beings like me,who in the midst of everything,fear,are confused and do what they are told to do,so they will not be killed,” she said.
“We need more therapists,from my point of view,to go and try to heal the psyche of the survivors,” Piraino said.
She visited Rwanda,where virtually none of her family remains,just once,in 1995. People there do not open up and talk about their suffering,she said. One of her sisters is a refugee in Belgium. Piraino is still trying to get her to speak.
“She told me she forgot … she can't talk about these issues,” Piraino said.
She won't name her relatives who survived because there is still tension among Hutu and Tutsi refugees. She said some continue to fear reprisals,even outside Rwanda.
She talks about the genocide with the few Hutu friends she has. She is not willing to make new friends,yet,“because I'm still hurting.”
“The only way to defeat the horror is to work hard in order to preserve my roots,by helping the new generations to heal. And that includes the children of Hutus and Tutsis,because not all the Hutus were extreme killers,” Piraino said.
Although Rwanda has a stable government and there have been war crimes tribunals,she fears not enough has been done.
“Peace and reconciliation will not be reached if a part of humanity remains in the shadow of ignorance,and the other part refuses to accept the responsibility to share the beauty and the resources around the world. We need to stop tearing each other apart,” Piraino said.