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My Night of Terror in a Refugee Camp

May 16, 2017

In a new memoir, Sandra Uwiringiyimana recalls fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo [Editor’s note: This article depicts graphic violence]

She never thought she would live through the night. When Sandra Uwiringiyimana was 10 years old, she found herself in the middle of a massacre. Her people had been forced out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo because they belonged to a minority tribe, the Banyamulenge. They had made it to a refugee camp in Burundi, but they were not safe. One night, rebels stormed the camp with machetes, torches and guns. She managed to escape, but many of her friends and relatives did not. Three years later, in 2007, she came to America with her surviving family members as refugees, and faced a new world, starting with middle school in New York. Now a 22-year-old college student, Uwiringiyimana describes her journey in a new memoir, How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, written with journalist Abigail Pesta. In an excerpt from the book, she recalls the night of the massacre.

Mom came to a stop at the door of the tent. She stood there, waiting to be saved, as promised. I was finally close enough to see the faces of the men who said they would deliver us from this hell. Their eyes glowed in the fiery light, their backs to the flames. They looked young, perhaps in their twenties. I began to feel a sense of relief: Maybe they really would help us, after all. They wore camouflage pants and hats, military-style clothes. I could see their shoulders bulging from their tank tops, shining with sweat. One of the men carried a giant roll of bullets, like you’d see in action movies. The other carried a machine gun. They looked at us.

“Bashiriremo!” one of them barked. “Shoot them!”

Suddenly, I saw sparks—bright blasts of gunfire—hitting my mother. They looked like fireworks. The bullets went into her belly, and she crumpled. She was still carrying my sister on her back. I turned around and ran inside the tent. I didn’t want to leave my mom—children are supposed to run toward their mothers for protection, not away from them. But I had seen the sparks. I knew that I had to hide. With my arms stretched wide to feel my way through the hallway, careful not to run into the logs, I stumbled back to my mattress refuge. I kept seeing sparks fly in front of me. A future as an orphan flashed before my eyes.

I prayed to God. “If you keep my parents alive, I will be good,” I promised. At the same time, I knew my mother had just been gunned down. She must be dead. Deborah must be dead too. My little six-year-old sister, gone. That beautiful girl who brushed the sand from my skin after my secret swims in the lake. Gone. I couldn’t accept the thought of it. She and my mother could not leave me. They simply couldn’t. I kept praying. I begged God to please let us all survive.

“I’ll never tell a lie,” I said. “I’ll always do what my mom tells me.”

Then I blacked out.

I awoke when something hot hit my leg. A fiery piece of tent had fallen from above and burned through the mattress, scorching my skin. The tent was in flames. Everything was melting around me. I saw men stealing things from our suitcases, grabbing whatever they could. They didn’t notice me. I felt like I was in a movie scene—a ten-year-old girl sitting in the center of the frame, while war raged around her.

The men left, and I called for my mother. I called and called in the dark.

“Mom! Mom!”

I knew my mom would never abandon me. But I knew what I had seen, the sparks that sent her to the ground. The smoke began to choke me, and I needed to run. I managed to crash my way through the burning debris of the tent. I emerged in the decimated camp, standing for a moment, frozen. Limbs, bones, and bloody bodies lay everywhere. I smelled burning flesh. I saw men with guns, machetes, torches. They were marching around the camp, looking for survivors to kill. They slashed my people with their machetes. They set my people on fire. They shot my people in the head. Tents were ablaze. A man was being burned alive across the camp, screaming in agony on his knees. I learned later that he was a beloved pastor who had led the prayers in the camp every morning before the sun rose. I had listened to him preach while sitting on the damp, dewy grass with my mom and little sister. On chilly mornings, I would curl up close to Mom, snuggling beneath her cotton wrap while the pastor led us in prayer, and Deborah would sleep in Mom’s lap. Now this man was on fire.

People fled for a nearby farm. But before I could run, a man grabbed me by the shirt. He looked at me and I looked at him.

“Mbabarira,” I said. “Forgive me.”

I don’t know why I said it. I suppose at ten years old, I thought I must have done something terribly wrong to bring on such wrath. My parents had always taught me to be polite and to apologize when I did something wrong. The man pointed a gun to my head.

I felt the metal barrel on my temple. I waited for the blast. In that moment, I thought it was all over.

Excerpted from How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta, to be published May 16 by Katherine Tegen Books.