Finding Peace in Portage

Marie Chantal Nyirahategekimana’s Incredible Journey


Lily Antor, Staff Writer


Pretty much everyone at Portage Northern High School can recognize Marie Chantal Nyirahategekimana by her purple braids and bright, friendly demeanor.  However, most people are unable recognize the girl that narrowly escaped a genocide in Rwanda with her family. “I usually don’t talk much about it.  It’s too depressing; and the thing is, I don’t want pity because I don’t want it to change the way people treat me. But I think it’s important that people learn it so it doesn’t happen again.”

The Rwandan Civil War was a major conflict in the African country of Rwanda between the government under President Juvenal Habyarimana and the rebels led by RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front).  It started in 1990, and the President’s army and the RPF signed a cease-fire in 1993. However, this did not last because RPF soldiers shot down the president’s plane in April 1994, which sparked the Rwandan Genocide. The death toll is roughly around 800,000, most of which were Tutsi. The Hutu were the ones behind all the death, and had led the government until that point. The United Nation formed refugee camps in neighboring countries to assist exiles, but as Nyirahategekimana adds, “Wherever we went, the rebels seemed to follow.” Even after the Civil War ended, there was and still is violent feuding between the Hutu and Tutsi.

Nyirahategekimana’s mother was 16 when the genocide broke out in Rwanda. She fled with Nyirahategekimana’s grandmother and her siblings, but in the confusion of war, she became separated from her family. For two years she remained alone in a chaotic war zone. “I’m scared to ask her what happened during those two years because she was a sixteen year-old by herself, with her only possessions being the clothes on her back. Some things you just don’t want to know.”

When the genocide began, Nyirahategekimana’s father was a victim to horrific sights. The rebels attacked his family, and he watched as his grandmother was chopped to pieces with machetes. Soon he became a soldier in the military, until one day during the war he recognized a woman from his village and saved her – they soon got married and had their first of their three children, Nyirahategekimana, in a refugee camp located in the Central Republic of Africa.

As a young child Nyirahategekimana, her brother, and their parents moved from place to place, always ready to leave at any given moment to escape the rebels. They fled to many different countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Cattiva, and “basically everywhere in Africa,” added Nyirahategekimana. “Everywhere we moved, the war would follow us. Whenever they came, you would just leave immediately. You only took what you could carry.”

When talking about her earlier years, Nyirahategekimana had extreme difficulty recalling her childhood. “I hardly remember anything. I remember little bits of stuff, like I remember crossing into a country at night in a car full of people that I didn’t know. My father was always holding me. It’s just a blur. It’s like my brain just decided to forget that part of my life.”

Eventually, Nyirahategekimana’s mother began to search for her family. She eventually discovered they were in Cameroon, so the family moved and resided there for about five years. After living there for a few years, her father was able to travel to the U.S. and managed to find work.  He began to send money back to help his family afford to immigrate to America. “One Thursday my mom told me we were going to America on Saturday, and that I couldn’t go to school or tell anyone. But all my friends were in Cameroon, I had to leave them without saying goodbye, and that was so hard. But I couldn’t be upset at my mother because safety was finally in reach, I guess for the first time in my life.” That Saturday, Nyirahategekimana and her family met her father in Portage, Michigan. “My mom had family here, and my dad was here.”

Nyirahategekimana described that, although the war was technically over, Africa was far from peaceful and good. “On the news here, they say everything is fine. Actually, they really don’t say anything at all – because they’re third-world countries. But my Aunt’s son recently died because she didn’t have enough money to feed him, and our relatives have to be careful about what they say on the phone – they just always have to be careful.”

When remembering all she had gone through, Nyirahategekimana said, “Sometimes I get angry at God that this happened to me and my family. It just doesn’t seem fair. But then it’s like, I’m so lucky…I have so much here, and so many people have nothing all over the world.”