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“I Lived to Tell the World”

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

The guy on the MAX train shot an angry glare at a younger man sitting nearby.

Emmanuel Turaturanye was dressed in the plaid shirt and down jacket of the Pacific Northwest. He had an easy smile, and his tortoise shell glasses gave him a scholarly air. He was from Africa, and his skin was very dark.

“Go back to where you came from!” the man shouted at Turaturanye.

In Turaturanye, the man on the MAX had chosen the wrong adversary. Turaturanye stayed calm and poised. What he roused was not anger, but righteous indignation.

”Freedom of speech does not give you the right to engage in hate speech,” he rejoined, keeping his voice strong and even. “What you just said is a violation of my human rights.”

All eyes on the train turned on the man who had spoken to Turaturanye. Still keeping his voice calm, he challenged, “What do you think all these other passengers think of what you just said to me? What do they think of you?”

At the next stop, Turaturanye’s verbal assailant could not get off fast enough. Around him, Turaturanye said, other passengers began marveling at how skillfully he had defused a potentially explosive encounter. Several people wept in admiration.

“I do not respond to anger with anger,” the 41-year-old Amazon delivery driver explained later. “It is like trying to stop fire with fire.”

 More forcefully, he added as he described the incident, “I am a product of hate. I survived it. I respect human rights. But I will never tolerate hate.”

Civil War

Strife between Rwanda’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsis, had persisted for decades. As early as 1959, a revolt had sprung up to replace the Tutsi monarchy with a Hutu-led republic. The power struggle festered for decades, but it was the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, that sparked the mass killings of Tutsis, as well as leading moderate Hutu figures. Many historians now contend that the rocket-propelled grenade attack on the plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira had been planned for at least a year. The killing of Habyarimana left a power vacuum that allowed chaos to take over. 

Turaturanye was 16 years old, “just a young boy,” when the mass killings of 1994 began on April 7. For six unthinkable days, the Hutu used machetes, guns and their own bare hands to carry out a mass slaughter, the goal of which was to kill every member of the minority Tutsi tribe living in Rwanda. They nearly succeeded, eliminating 70 per cent of Rwanda’s Tutsi population and driving many into permanent exile outside the country.

 In the process, the Hutu forces also murdered thousands from the Twa tribe, the country’s earliest inhabitants. The Twa were aboriginal pygmy hunter-gatherers who had begun settling in the region that became Rwanda between 8000 B.C. and 3000 B.C. About one-third of the Twa population were slain in the rampage.

Sexual violence was rampant. No official tally exists, but it is believed that between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped. Thousands of widows, subjected to rape, became HIV-positive as a result.

Neighbors massacred neighbors in one of Africa’s most densely populated nations. Indeed, many Tutsis knew their assailants as former friends, colleagues and classmates. Many had worshipped alongside one another in the same churches. Some Hutu husbands even murdered their Tutsi wives, saying they would be killed if they refused.

While no systematic count of the casualties was made, the government says now that more than 1 million were slaughtered. Some experts say that the rate of killing in such a short period was several times that of the Nazi Holocaust. The scale and brutality of the killings shocked the world. But Western nations, including the United States, ignored what could only be described as genocide, the careful and calculated attempt to eliminate an entire population based solely on ethnic identity.


Turaturanye, a Tutsi whose surname means “neighbor,” was born and raised in the Ngoma district of Rwanda’s Eastern Province. His father was a pastor; his mother, a farmer. Beans, cassava, bananas and avocados provided the bulk of their income.

Pastor Isaac Turaturanye, Emmanuel’s father, officiates at a wedding at his church in the Ngoma district of Rwanda’s Eastern Province. Photo: Turaturanye family archives

“I never had to go buy food at the market,” he said. “It was just there.”

Turaturanye was one of six siblings. Three cousins, the children of his father’s brother, also lived with them.

“So we were 11 in the house,” he said. “It was fun.”

The boys and their neighbors played soccer in the village streets barefoot. No one thought anything about who came from which tribe. The family was active in the large church community. If there was tension, he said, it was more about economic disparity than tribal identity.

“I was a Tutsi, but it was a social class, not a tribe,” he said. “Sometimes when I talk about this, it is hard even for me to understand: How to call people who speak the same language different tribes?”

Genocide, Turaturanye observed, “does not happen instantly. It has to be planned.” The killings may have taken place in 1994, but “the seed of genocide ideology — the propaganda and the discrimination,” as he put it, was planted in 1959, long before Turaturanye was born. 

As a Tutsi, his father was not allowed to go to high school nor to serve in the military. As time went on, intending to deny Tutsi children the chance for higher education, the government maintained a steady count of Tutsis attending school. In first grade, Turaturanye remembered, an official called out, “Hutus, stand.”

“So I stood,” he said. “I didn’t know the difference.”

When the same thing happened the following year, in second grade, his teacher slapped him for what she presumed was his impudence. Confused, young Emmanuel went home and asked, “Dad, what is a Hutu, and what is aTutsi?”

By the next  year, when he was 8, Turaturanye began to feel the discrimination himself.

“What I experienced in school was dehumanization,” he said. “I was called a cockroach and a snake. I was bullied, physically, every day.”

He has since studied the philosophy, such as it is, of tyranny.

“This is how they did it, with propaganda,” he said. “It was the same as the Nazis against the Jews.”

Because even many Rwandans could not distinguish one group from another, the government began issuing national identification cards. Children, however, were not required to carry ID cards. That oversight by a government bent on destruction helped many young people to survive.

The genocide came as no surprise to Turaturanye.

“Growing up, Tutsi, I was told we were going to be killed,” he said. “They were always telling us we were foreigners — Ethiopians.”

The relentless erosion of his humanity took its toll.

“I don’t know if I can explain it,” he began. “It was as if I was already dead. I was not a human being.”

The unremitting cruelty was itself unfathomable. Members of the clergy — the same men who on Sundays preached love — issued frightening threats in an almost casual fashion.

“You would see people wearing priests’ robes,” Turaturanye said. “They would tell you they were going to kill you.”


The mass killings began on April 7. The following day, machete-armed guerrillas arrived in Turaturanye’s region. The Tutsi population was in shock, wondering what to do. No one was expecting such brutality so quickly.

“There was not enough time to flee,” he said. In any case, “wherever you would go, someone would find you.”

Many of the people in his father’s congregation were Hutus. Until that day, nothing about that fact seemed problematic. And then, said Turaturanye, “The people he had preached to, they turned against him.” A crowd of maybe 10 people surrounded the family’s home. They carried guns and machetes. 

“Machetes were for the poor. You had to pay to be shot,” he said. “Can you imagine, paying someone to shoot you?” 

By sheer happenstance, Emmanuel Turaturanye was outside when the attack began because it was his day to cook for the family. His 5-year-old sister, Amina, was with him. Amina loved her big brother, and she loved to sit next to him while he cooked.

Turaturanye recognized the people who had come to murder his family. They were his neighbors, his father’s parishioners, people he trusted, people he numbered as friends.

In the Muhanga District in southwest Rwanda, a survivor bore the scars and wounds of the 1994 atrocities. © Gilles Peress / Magnum Photos

“I saw them and my heart started to race, the way you feel when something bad is about to happen,” Turaturanye said. His body began to spasm with chills of fear. “And then my gut told me: Run!”

He scooped up his sister and took off as fast as his long, lanky legs could carry him. The guerrillas chased them, but Emmanuel and Amina outran them.

All these years later, a sense of amazement remained in his voice as he remembered, “My little sister, my God, she was so fast.”

Inside the family home, the Hutu warriors killed his 95-year-old grandmother, his mother and his brother Steven. His cousins — Asman, Amina and Ayat — all were killed the same day. His father, who had been at a neighbor’s house when the attack occurred, also perished in the carnage. An older brother, Samuel, had somehow managed to run to another village.

The loss of his family, the callous nature of the violence, seemed impossible to absorb. There was no time to grieve.

“All I felt was numbness,” he said. “I was in desperation mode. You don’t think of anything else, just how to survive.”


Emmanuel and Amina first sought refuge in the district’s administrative offices. Far from safe, “it was like walking into fire,” he soon realized. “We were 6,000 Tutsis in the district office that day, a kind of ad hoc refugee camp. We thought we were safe, but they were planning to kill us all.”

Three days later, the Hutu soldiers tried to lull their captives into a further sense of safety by bringing them food, rice and beans. They also brought 1,000 grenades with the intention of finishing off the entire lot in one massive hit.

Turaturanye is still unsure just how he managed to escape. But in his heart, “I thought, ‘I do not want to die.’”

One small advantage was that he did not have a national ID card naming him as a Tutsi. But Hutus from his own village knew him and would happily have identified him as their enemy. Roadblocks were everywhere.

Desperate to reach the Tanzanian border, Tutsi children and their families fled en masse in hopes of escaping the massacres conducted by Hutus during the genocide of 1994. © David Blumenkrantz

With nowhere to turn, and at that point, little to lose, he knocked on the door of a Hutu woman who had been a close friend of his family. She told him she knew what was happening. Then, rather than turning him out to face certain death, she said, “Son, just come in.”

Her name was Kamondo, the same as a kind of exotic bird.

Inside her home, she hid Emmanuel and Amina. The gesture carried great personal risk. Her own son, Turaturanye said, “was among the criminals. He knew we were there.”

But the woman warned her son: “If one of these kids is ever killed, I will kill myself.” For emphasis, she told him: “If you ever, ever even think about it, I will die first. They will not be harmed. Not in my life.”

When Hutus from his own village came looking for him, she hid the brother and sister under a bed. Even her own son went along with the scheme. “There’s no one here,” he told the rebels.

“And since he was one of them,” Turaturanye said, “they believed him.”

Who can comprehend the incomprehensible? When the killings stopped, Turaturanye could scarcely understand that he was alive, never mind why or how. Many people his own age, after all, had been bludgeoned, butchered, burned alive.

“Being alive, it is not that I deserved it,” he said. “I think I lived in order to tell the world.”

For years, even the United Nations balked at applying the label “genocide” to the terrible events in Rwanda. Instead the bloodshed was called the Rwandan Civil War.

“They were ashamed,” Turaturanye theorizes. “‘Never again,’ they had said when this had happened before in other places.”

The lack of support from the United States, a traditional ally at times of despotism, did not surprise Turaturanye. Only a year before, U.S. troops had been killed in Somalia, and the government was not in a hurry to become involved in another African dispute. Besides, Rwanda is a country of few natural resources, and as Turaturanye pointed out, “For Clinton, there was to be no return on his investments. What was he going to get in Rwanda?”

In a live performance in Portland, Ore., Emmanuel Turaturanye describes his dramatic escape from Hutu assassins.


Soldiers from the Tutsi-majority Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had already captured his region when Turaturanye himself joined their forces. He had seen so much already — houses burned with families inside them, people thrown into toilet pits that served as mass graves — and now maybe it was his turn to fight back.

“I felt I had to do something,” he said. “But I also felt protected. No one was going to chase me with a machete.”

Three of his cousins, sons of a sister-in-law who somehow managed to survive, although her husband did not, joined with him. Their mother agreed to take care of Emmanuel’s sister Amina.

But he never killed anyone. He could not. He fell back on the foundation his father had given him: “Love your neighbor as yourself. If you want to be treated well, why would you mistreat others?”

“And God was my witness,” he says.

The trauma he had endured never left him. His emotional wounds were too deep and too fresh. He had terrible nightmares.

“Oh my God, the nightmares,” he says now.

In flashbacks, people chased him constantly, brandishing machetes.

Bodies of Rwandan genocide victims were fished out of Lake Victoria by Ugandan fishermen. © David Blumenkrantz


His inner turmoil mirrored that of Rwanda as a whole. The country, its very soul ripped to shreds, had to rebuild from the ground up. A new constitution was created. Two public holidays were set aside to recognize and mourn the genocide. Identifying anyone by tribe became a crime, as did denial of the killings or historical revisionism. High school and college students alike are required to take a course that outlines the genocide.

The new government focused on helping its people to heal. Trauma therapy became widely available. Turaturanye did not hesitate to take advantage of these services.

“The therapy really helped me to understand what I was going through,” he said.

In turn he trained as a counselor so he could help others.

He also went to college in Rwanda, paying for his courses by skipping meals and ignoring the constant rumbling in his stomach. He earned one advanced degree in agricultural engineering, and another in economics and management. He took a job as an agronomist agent for the government, helping people learn to grow healthy food.

But no amount of therapy or work as diversion could help him to reconcile the evil he had endured. The pastor’s son gave up on God. He had no hope. He was angry.

“I questioned God,” he said. “If God existed, why did he not stop the murders?”

He has no idea where he found the money for alcohol and drugs, but somehow he did. Smoking marijuana was illegal, but he did not care.

“I was an angry young man,” he said. “Life was worthless. I wanted to die.”

One day — he swears this happened — he was standing around, smoking, when he heard a voice.

“Emmanuel,” said the voice, “what are you doing?”

He looked around, but saw no one. Obviously, he concluded, he was losing his mind.

“Emmanuel, what are you doing?” the voice asked for a second time.

The third time the voice spoke, it said: “Your dad Isaac is in heaven. You know how he did everything to make your life good. If he looked at you now, would he be proud?”

At that exact moment, he said, his life took a U-turn. He contacted his cousin, Jane, the only person he thought he could trust at that point. Jane had watched his downward spiral but had not passed judgment. When he told her about the voice he had heard, Jane looked up at the sky and asked Emmanuel to come to church with her the following day.

“The speaker that day was from Congo,” he remembers. “He started preaching about the prodigal son.” 

The message hit home. Emmanuel began to weep.

“That very day, I quit smoking. I quit drinking,” he said. “One week after giving my life to Christ, I changed the group I was hanging out with. I started singing. I joined the choir. After two years I was playing music. Now I write music.”

Indeed, as part of an oral history project to observe the genocide, he composed a song and sang it. His tune, called “Just Having a Good Time With the Spirit” can be seen on YouTube at


Turaturanye was to hear from the voice — he likes to think of it as the Spirit — yet again.

It was 2008 and he was serving as a choirmaster. Within his choir were people whose families had committed genocide and people whose families had been killed in the genocide. 

This is when the Spirit told him he was a hypocrite, for through his music he was teaching forgiveness, the very notion he was unable to embrace himself.

The Spirit reminded him that the Lord’s Prayer calls for forgiveness, then admonished: “I want you to do it.”

Turaturanye was angry. He started to cry.

The voice repeated: “Do it!”

The voice told Turaturanye he must return to the village where he was born and proclaim forgiveness.

“And that is when I started feeling inner peace,” he said, because he did follow those instructions. “I felt alive, lighter. That is why I don’t cry anymore. I found this grace, and it really transformed me.”

This epiphany, this moment of true healing taught him another important lesson.

“Forgiveness is different from reconciliation,” he said. “Reconciliation is between you and someone else. Forgiveness is within you. I started forgiving myself so I could find peace within myself.”

Turaturanye likes to say that he was saved twice, once when he escaped the Hutu atrocities, and again when he found Christ. But there was a third moment of redemption, and that was when he met Danielle, the beautiful American woman who would become his wife.

It was 2008. Friends of his, Nathan and Pam, had opened an English-speaking school for the children of missionaries and NGO (nongovernmental organization) workers living in Rwanda. Turaturanye was hanging out at the school, in part to help with the music program but also to encourage these newcomers to Rwanda to attend the English-speaking services at the Anglican church where he was both the organist and an unordained pastor.

Danielle, a traveling missionary, had arrived to serve as a teacher at the school.

“I just saw her smile, and her beautiful golden eyes,” Turaturanye said. “And, oh man, I just felt something.”

Evidently it was mutual. Danielle came to his church and began attending evening worship services. She didn’t have a car, so he would walk her home at night. Sometimes he would take her hand.

The relationship remained warm, but chaste, until Danielle moved back to the United States in 2010 to take a job with a nonprofit organization. Almost immediately she got the chance to return to Rwanda and jumped at it.

Finally, Turaturanye felt it was time to tell her how he felt.

“It was a really long conversation,” he remembered.

When he at last told her he loved her, she replied, “Are you sure?”

They began dating.

As she prepared once again to return to the U.S. in 2011, Turaturanye had a friend make a golden ring adorned with shiny rubies. He presented it to her in a Rwandan peace basket and asked her to be his wife. It was an intercultural, interracial partnership, and there were some hurdles to overcome, but on May 18, 2013, they became husband and wife.

They were married at St. Etienne’s Cathedral in Kigali. In the spirit of forgiveness, he made sure that even the neighbors who had killed his own family were invited to the celebration.

When Danielle and Emmanuel were married in 2013 in St. Etienne’s Cathedral in Kigali, they summoned the spirit of forgiveness and invited even those neighbors who had murdered Emmanuel’s family during the 1994 genocide. Photo: Turaturanye family archives

A New Life in Portland

At first they lived in Rwanda. Then three and a half years ago, they moved to her native Portland.

Turaturanye considers himself lucky because “her family is really cool.” Having lost nearly everyone in his own large family — upwards of 100 people, he estimates — he treasures the moments when his American nieces crawl into his lap and tell him how much they love their Uncle Manny.

Danielle and Emmanuel hope for children of their own one day. When the time is right, he will take them back to Rwanda and share with them the terrible history that he and his country endured. He will tell them the truth and hope that they learn from it.

But also, he vows, “I will tell them to love and respect every human being, no matter what their race or where they come from, no matter what their religion might be. Just love them, as a human being.”

There are things, important things, that Turaturanye would like to tell the rest of the world. He would like people to understand, for instance, that “ignorance is preventable, but it is also contagious.” He would like to make it known that as the country reorganized, “one of the smartest things Rwanda did was to invest in education. Not just math and physics, but also teaching how to prevent hate crimes from happening.”

Perhaps most important, he would like to talk about the toxic nature of anger.

“Anger, let me tell you, anger does not exist on its own,” he says. “It is like the second emotion, the thing that comes next. It is an iceberg. You only see just the top. But there are a lot of layers underneath. It just kills, and it destroys the soul.”

That is what he would like people to know, “if anyone can hear.”


Special thanks to Gilles Peress and David Blumenkrantz, for permission to use their photographs. Copyright by Gilles Peress 1994 and David Blumenkrantz 1994.

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