Austin running coach returns to homeland, visits site of massacre where he almost died
The sights and smells of the burning gas station where drum-thumping Austin running coach Gilbert Tuhabonye nearly burned to death in a massacre 18 years ago are ingrained forever into his mind.
But until about a month ago, Tuhabonye had not returned to the building where 100 students and teachers died during the civil war that engulfed his homeland from 1993 to 2005.
Tuhabonye, who is still scarred from the burns he suffered that day, moved to Texas, became an All-America runner at Abilene Christian University and then started the hugely popular Gilbert's Gazelles running group in Austin. He also coaches track and cross country at St. Andrew's Episcopal School.
When he flew to Central Africa over the holidays, he planned to show his two daughters the place he and his wife once lived, where he'd spent so much time running — to school, to get the family's water and even after the cows and gazelles.
He would visit his mother, who had never met his younger daughter, and check on the network of pipes, spigots and collecting tanks that his Austin-based Gazelle Foundation has installed to bring clean water to villagers.
But he doubted he'd go back to the site of the massacre. All he'd find there, he knew, were memories of flames and gasoline and horror.
Only recently has Tuhabonye, 37, the jovial, "run with joy"-shouting coach, even felt safe enough to travel to Burundi. (He visited once before, in 1999 , but soldiers escorted him everywhere he traveled, and he feared for his life.)
"Even this time, I spend my days looking over my shoulder, wondering if somebody is going to slit my throat," Tuhabonye said.
About 8.5 million people live in Burundi, a country the size of Maine sandwiched between Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A half-million residents died there during the civil war. Even now, tensions remain high. Soldiers are posted along main highways, and poverty and inflation are rampant.
"It's still dangerous. In my heart, I'm worried anything could happen," he said.
At the airport in Bujumbura, Burundi's biggest city, more than 50 friends and relatives greeted Tuhabonye; his wife, Triphine; and his daughters, Emma, 10, and Grace, 5, then bustled them away to a welcome party.
Tuhabonye slipped back into his country's warm embrace, despite the sadness the place still holds for him.
After a few days' rest, the family traveled to the village where Tuhabonye had grown up to see his mother. The skies poured rain as they rumbled over the last 15 miles of rutted, muddy road.
Villagers swarmed the streets along the way, playing drums and dancing in celebration of a visit by the person who helped bring water to their villages.
"When it comes to describing that moment, I go speechless," he said. "I'm lucky to give back to the community. I know the suffering."
Close to his mother's home, people came out of nearby homes and lifted the car Tuhabonye was riding in to get it off the mucky, eroded road.
Tuhabonye's mother, Martha, 70, embraced her son, repeating over and over "amahoro," the native Kirundi word for peace. She thanked him for bringing the family; she told him how desperately she'd missed him. Tears spilled.
That day, family gathered close. One man walked 40 miles to see him.
The next day, Tuhabonye visited the water projects that the Gazelle Foundation has installed to bring fresh, clean water to people who once shared watering holes with cattle. He pitched in, shoveling dirt along one seven-mile, hand-dug line.
Representatives of the nonprofit organization traveled to Burundi last year to check on the projects, but Tuhabonye had never seen them in person.
According to a report by the U.S. Agency for International Development, nearly 1 in 5 children in Burundi dies before age 5. Nearly 20 percent of those deaths are due to diarrheal disease, and nearly three-quarters of all reported illnesses are due to a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation.
Since 2009, the Gazelle Foundation has raised about $530,000 in donations and grants, plus another $175,000 through fundraising events. About $250,000 of that has gone to build four systems that carry water to more than 8,500 people, a combined population of Hutus and Tutsis. The projects tap natural springs on hilltops and use gravity to move water to storage chambers closer to where villagers live.
A fifth project, now under way, will serve another 3,300 residents, schools and health care facilities. Three more planned projects will reach an additional 8,000 people in 2012.
But the most dramatic moments of Tuhabonye's trip came just days before he returned to Texas.
The day after Christmas, six armed soldiers, a few relatives and a representative of the United Nations accompanied Tuhabonye on a brief visit to the old gas station where, on Oct. 21, 1993, a Hutu mob attacked the school Tuhabonye attended.
He and other Tutsi children and teachers were roped together and marched a mile and a half to an abandoned gas station, forced into a room, tortured and burned. He lay for hours under a pile of bodies, finally breaking a window and dashing into the night. (A book about his experience, "This Voice In My Heart: A Genocide Survivor's Story of Escape, Faith and Forgiveness," was published in 2006.)
Today, a nearby memorial honors the people who died there.
"I was told if I went I would get killed," Tuhabonye said. "I wanted to see it, how I survived. But it was not easy."
The scarred walls of the gas station still stand. Tuhabonye shook with emotion as he walked inside. The skin on Tuhabonye's legs, back and arms still bears scars from the fire.
His wife and children did not join him at the site.
He saw the spot where he spent eight hours, the bodies of friends piled on top of him. He saw the window he broke to escape.
"I thought I was strong. I thought I was tough. But I lost my voice," Tuhabonye said. "The image, the odor of the event. ... Those days, those hours — all of it started coming back. I couldn't put sentences together. I started choking. I felt unsafe."
He spent just 10 or 15 minutes there, snapping a few photos on his iPhone.
"I lost complete control of everything. Just to walk in through the place — I feel like something is stabbing me with every step. I didn't feel safe. Driving back, I didn't say a word."
The emotion flowed later, when Tuhabonye met the woman who nursed him back to health at the hospital that treated him after the massacre. She hugged him tight, overwhelmed to reunite with a survivor of the genocide.
"I was supposed to be dead," Tuhabonye says now. "God spared me for a reason, and that's why I came back."
The running coach said he left with a sense of hope, and satisfaction that the Gazelle Foundation is helping make life better for the people he left behind.
And he left knowing he'll return for another visit.