It was the height of the genocide, and Mr. Ndagijimana, then 27, had persuaded his family to join a river of people fleeing the bloody fighting that was nearing their impoverished village. They’d left with only what they could carry, hoping to reach a safe zone controlled by French soldiers.
Mr. Ndagijimana got up alone to scout the area, hoping to find a safe way forward. As he tromped through brush and across rutted dirt roads, explosions and gunfire suddenly shattered the quiet back near the school. Within minutes, wounded and screaming victims ran past him in the opposite direction.
Unable to reach his family, and uncertain if they were even alive, Mr. Ndagijimana ran toward safety – plunging into a journey he could scarcely imagine, and would barely survive.
Two decades later, wearing a cap and gown, he listened as he was recognized at Bellarmine University’s December 2014 Commencement for his resilience in earning a master’s degree that stood as a powerful marker in a life torn apart by war and painstakingly rebuilt. Mr. Ndagijimana, President Joseph J. McGowan told the crowd of 268 graduates and their families, “traveled a long road to arrive here tonight.”
A distant life
Mr. Ndagijimana, now 48, was born in the former province of Gisenyi, in northwestern Rwanda. The oldest of 10, he grew up speaking Kinyarwanda in a home without electricity or running water. His village, an hour’s walk from a main road, was filled largely with subsistence farmers.
“I came from a poor family,” he said. “It was very remote. Most of the people…were just growing what they needed to eat.”
His family transcended Rwanda’s tense and sometimes violent ethnic fault lines. His father, Kadage, who sent money home from the capital of Kigali as a mechanical worker, was an ethnic Hutu, the majority group that gained sway after independence in 1962. His mother, Kankidini, who helped raise vegetables, goats and chickens and took care of the children, was a Tutsi, a minority ethnic group that had been favored under Belgian rule.
Fighting broke out in the early 1990s between the Hutu-led government and Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which had formed in neighboring Uganda following Hutu violence. Despite a 1993 cease-fire with a plan to share power, “it was a fragile peace,” Mr. Ndagijimana said.
But Mr. Ndagijimana ignored the building storm clouds, focusing instead on fulfilling his parents’ longstanding push for his education. After graduating from high school in 1989, he earned a scholarship to the National University of Rwanda in southern city of Butare.
“I was the first in the family to go to school. In such a country, to send a child to school is very expensive. My parents had to struggle,” he said. He continued, studying economics and management, and by the early 1990s he was working on a master’s degree.
“I saw the life my parents had. I was hoping to get a good job and help my family, have a decent life,” he said. “But things turned out different.”
Violence hits Rwanda
On April 6, 1994, Mr. Ndagijimana was inside a minibus, bumping along busy roads filled with diesel smoke and honking horns in the capital of Kigali. It was Easter break, and he was in town to visit a professor and his father.
As he pulled toward the bus station, stunning news suddenly crackled over the radio. The plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana, head of the Hutu-led government, had been shot down near Kigali. He knew it could be used as a pretext for violence by Hutu extremists.
“I was in panic mode,” he said. “Because of the tension, everybody was shocked and afraid. We didn’t know what may happen.” Unable to reach his father, he went to a friend’s place near the central bus station. They pulled the shades and hunkered down. It wasn’t long before explosions and gunfire began erupting outside. On a small radio, they listed to reports. People were asked to stay home.
As he would later learn, Tutsi leaders and moderate Hutus were executed, and militia and military checkpoints were set up to find Tutsis. Extremist groups urged Hutu residents to take up machetes and other weapons to slaughter Tutsi neighbors. Murder, rape and destruction spread.
“I was where people didn’t know me. I could be killed easily by Hutu militias, or the army, or the opposition, anybody,” he said, noting that while many had ID cards that listed an ethnicity, he had only his student ID. “They might think I was hiding something.”
Human Rights Watch has estimated that during the next three months, more than 500,000 Rwandans were killed, including as much as 75 percent of the Tutsi population.
Mr. Ndagijimana and his friend hid for more than 10 days, afraid to go out in the streets even when they ran out of food. But with no idea whether his parents were safe, and with his family facing dangers from both sides, including Tutsi-led rebel groups that were re-constituting in the north, he decided to try to make it home.
“We found ourselves in the middle of a war,” he said. “But we came to the conclusion that if we stayed there, we’d die.”
He and his friend hitched rides from the city’s outskirts, using student paperwork to get past dangerous roadblocks. He also walked partway through palm-dotted villages and lush, hilly countryside.
He finally arrived in his village, where his family was safe. “We rejoiced. I hugged my mom and family members,” he said. Things were calm in the remote area, and his father, who had also been stuck in Kigali, made his way home within six more weeks.
Mr. Ndagijimana was angry that Western nations hadn’t stopped the slaughter. “When they were massacring all these people, no country would come and say ‘Stop.’ It was terrible. People were dying. Literally, all nations were watching,” he said.
As the RPF was fighting its way toward Kigali, refugees were increasingly heading north or west to escape. Mr. Ndagijimana finally persuaded his family to leave home and flee to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, then still called Zaire.
“All the people were coming our way. The war was covering the whole country. And there were so many people fleeing from the war,” he said. “It was a tough decision. Imagine you have to leave your house. What do you take with you? What do you leave?”
Instead of heading north toward Goma, they walked southwest toward Kibuye, located near Lake Kivu, trying to reach a safe zone controlled by the French military unit. After 12 hours of walking with other refugees, they stopped at a small village to sleep in the old school.
And then, the next morning, the bombing started. “I tried to go back,” he said. “I was meeting people running, some of them with no arms, bleeding. I asked, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘My family was there. I need to see if they’re alive.’ They said, ‘No one is safe there. You better go back and run.’”
In anguish and uncertainty, he finally turned and fled, reaching the safe zone after hours of walking. But he was heartbroken. “My family didn’t show up. I had no idea what happened. I kept asking and looking around, no idea,” he recalled.
By late July 1994, he had crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo near Bukavu, where he slept on the ground amid other battered, traumatized and wounded refugees. The conditions were squalid, marked by mud, hunger and disease.
“It was horrible,” he said. “Thousands and thousands of people. People sleeping on the ground. No presence of any humanitarian organization. People were ready to die anytime,” he said, recalling the lack of food and medicine.
After the RPF had captured Kigali, it had pushed more than 2 million refugees, including many Hutus, into neighboring countries. In some camps, cholera and dysentery were common. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next,” he said.
“I saw people passing out and dying,” he said. “I was ready too, prepared to die too.”
But he was saved by a Catholic aid organization that brought him medicine. His condition quickly improved. Finally, in an official United Nations camp, Adi Kivu, a nun with a Catholic relief group secured him a plane ticket to Senegal. It was February 1995.
In Senegal, he struggled to get by, waiting in hopes of being resettled to the U.S. Meanwhile, he was joined by his girlfriend, Immaculee, who would become his wife.
And then, good news finally came. The Red Cross relayed the news that his family had survived, though some of them had been injured. They had returned home, he recalled, but life was even more of a struggle. The destruction and death had ground the Rwandan economy to a halt. Many children were orphaned, and widespread war rape had caused a spike in HIV.
Mr. Ndagijimana didn’t want to go back. “I could not see the future. No hope, no future.” In 1997, he got a refugee resettlement visa and learned he’d be heading to Louisville, a place he’d never heard of. He recalls arriving at Louisville International Airport in May of that year with little more than the clothes on his back. “I had no choice but to rebuild life, once again,” he said.
‘Education was a tool’
In Louisville, Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program put him up in an apartment. He got food, clothing, furniture and medical care. But a new phase of his difficult journey was now beginning.
“When I came, I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody.” While working his first job, in a factory, he suffered an accident, injuring his hand in a machine.
Despite his years of schooling, Mr. Ndagijimana enrolled in community college to learn English. He then studied business, having to retake many courses, and eventually earned a degree from the University of Louisville in 2002. “I was working in the day time and going to school at night. It wasn’t easy,” he said. As the years passed, both his parents passed away from age and illness, which he blames at least in part on all the stresses and strains of the war, including some that he declined to share.
He has been back twice to Rwanda. His siblings are struggling, but “they are alive.” In the intervening years, Rwanda has worked to heal the wounds of war, including the creation of a reconciliation process.
In Louisville, Mr. Ndagijimana has continued his parents’ tradition of emphasizing education. His eldest son attends the University of Virginia. His second-oldest is studying at a Catholic high school in Louisville. Two younger children are in elementary school, he said. His wife is studying to be a nurse.
Despite occasional nightmares, his faith has helped him move forward, he said. By the end of last year, he had earned a Master of Science in Taxation degree from Bellarmine. The Commencement ceremony brought him to tears.
“It was emotional because it came with a price, and with sacrifice. It’s hard to go someplace and start your life from scratch,” he said. “But I believe education was a tool for me to build my life. I’m thankful, because I’m all right. There are people who didn’t make it.”
By Chris Kenning
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar