One man’s journey of survival, redemption and a shoebox gift
Kigali prison, he faced the moment of truth. Could he offer forgiveness to the man who had killed close members of his family during the 1994 Rwandan genocide? As Alex Nsengimana prepared to meet the man who had taken the life of those so precious to him, his thoughts returned to the nightmare he had faced 19 years before.
Even though he was just five years old on 6 April 1994, Alex will never forget the morning when the plane carrying Rwanda president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. The president’s death sparked a wave of violence that continued countrywide for three terrible months and claimed nearly a million lives.
Alex never knew his father, and his mother died of AIDS when he was four. He was left with his older sister and younger brother in the care of their grandmother and two uncles. When the genocide struck, Alex’s family were among the first Tutsi victims to be targeted. Hutu militia stormed the house one afternoon. Alex, Lillian, and their brother, Fils, watched through the window in horror while their grandmother was tortured and killed.
“Images from that terrible time continued to crash through my consciousness. Angry men ordering my grandmother outside, raising a nail-studded club as they began beating her to death,” explained Alex.
Several days later a group of men with guns came looking for his uncle, Karara. Alex remembers neighbours and friends among the group that demanded to see Karara’s identity card. After checking the card with its Tutsi ethnic listing, they shot him twice. Because the gunshots did not kill him, the men took a large stick and beat Karara until he died. Alex recalls seeing his uncle’s pleading eyes looking into the faces of his killers.
“What they did haunted me for many, many years,” Alex said.
Alex and his remaining family were forced to flee. They managed to make it to his aunt’s house, but could not escape the unrest. One day, a bomb exploded nearby while he was playing marbles with his brother. They quickly huddled together, and a chunk of burning debris flew through the small space between their heads.
“We always wondered how it made it through because the thing was big and hot, but it barely missed our heads,” he said.
Forced to flee again they ran for nearly two months, crossing the hills around Kigali. Explosions from bombs and grenades followed them everywhere. At one point, Alex was separated from the rest of his family. Someone opened fire as he frantically searched for them, and bullets whizzed just above his head.
“I always like to say that God has a sense of humour,” he said, laughing. “As I was running, I slipped in something and fell. I had slipped in a cow pat; that’s what God used to save my life. If he can use that cow pat, imagine what else he can use.”
Finally, after what seemed like years of living in terror, the Rwandan Patriotic Front forces drove the Hutu militia out of Kigali. The family returned home, but Alex wasn’t able to enjoy the security for long. His aunt and uncle fell ill, and in the spring of 1995 Alex and Fils were sent to a nearby orphanage.
It was here that Alex’s journey to forgive the man who killed his uncle began. It was sparked by a simple shoebox he had received as a boy through Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a campaign run by the charity Samaritan’s Purse.
The day the gifts arrived
One day, in 1995, all of the kids at Alex’s orphanage were asked to line up outside. Excitement buzzed like electricity in the air, as they were each handed a colourfully wrapped shoebox. Alex recalls the moment well. “We ripped open the boxes to find toys, school supplies, hygiene items – things we could hardly dream of owning were ours! These gift-filled shoeboxes reminded us that someone cared for us. With that tangible reminder, a small flame of hope was ignited in my heart.”
Alex can still picture his shoebox, along with many of its contents. Small, multicoloured sweets – he thought they were medicine – a comb, and his favourite: a red and white striped stick shaped like a ‘j’. He couldn’t figure out what that was, so he stuck it in his mouth. As he bit through the plastic wrapping, a sweet cooling sensation filled his mouth and Alex experienced his first candy cane.
While she was alive, Alex’s grandmother had shared her faith with him. At one point, he wanted to serve in the Church – possibly even become a priest. But after living through the genocide, Alex seriously doubted that God existed.
“Nights at the orphanage were filled with the cries of children – hundreds of them, all lost and alone. Children like me, who had witnessed terrible things happening to their family and friends. After the genocide, I almost began to believe that God did not exist. I wondered, ‘If there’s a God who cares for his people, why would he let this happen?’”
However, Alex held onto the hope that his shoebox gift provided for the next several years, until in 1997 he was chosen to tour the United States and Canada with the African Children’s Choir.
Along with his brother, Fils, and ten other children from his orphanage, he went to Uganda to learn English before the tour began. They also learned Bible stories, and Alex read Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’” (ESV)
“I started to see that God had to have a plan for my life too, that he had been there all the time,” Alex said. “I started to see all the things that he used to save my life not as a coincidence, but as part of his bigger plan.”
While touring with the choir, he made the decision to follow Jesus.
The tour ended and Alex returned to the orphanage in Kigali. One afternoon three years later, he was flipping through photos from his time in America. One had an address written on the back. It was for a family in Winona, Minnesota. He sent the family an email. A woman named Ellen replied: “We’ve been wondering how you are doing?” The pair kept in touch until Ellen offered to help sponsor Alex, Fils, and two other boys to go to high school in Minnesota. In September 2003, Alex joined the Hongerholt family, gaining a new mother, another brother, and two more sisters.
Alex’s healing process came full circle when he returned to Rwanda to deliver shoebox gifts through Operation Christmas Child at the orphanage where he used to live. As he prepared to hand out the gifts Alex said, “I was standing right there on that low wall … Receiving that shoebox was just the beginning of my faith … standing here and getting ready to hand out other boxes, [it was] just amazing.”
As he explored the shoeboxes with his new young friends, oohing and aahing over each item, he reflected over what his own shoebox had meant to him.
Love in a shoebox
“When I received my shoebox, I was reminded of God’s love for me and the hope that I had in him,” Alex said. “So I hoped and I prayed that will be the case for these kids, that whatever they’re going through in their lives, they can be reminded that someone out there loves them. But the most important thing of all is that Jesus Christ loves them and cares about them.”
Years before, Alex realised that to be truly free he had to forgive the men who killed his family. After several days spent distributing shoeboxes at schools, he received permission to enter Kigali’s largest prison and visit the man who had killed his uncle and caused such pain to him and his family.
“For years, I had prayed and dreamt that God would allow me to offer forgiveness, in person, to the men who killed my uncle and grandmother,” said Alex.
As the prisoner sat before him he said, “I am Alex Nsengimana. My uncle was Karara. Would you please tell me why my uncle was killed?”
The prisoner replied, “It was around 9.00am. A group of militia came. I was nearby. The group was looking for Karara. I went with them. We went to his house, and found him. We killed him and looted the house. After, we didn’t bother to bury him; we left him outside his house. We went to look for two others, who we also killed.”
Alex took a deep breath and began again.
“I’m not here to accuse you, though you wronged me, but I’m here to do something else,” Alex said, the next words catching in his throat as he began to cry. “I am here because I saw how God’s power works in forgiveness. I received that power. I really want to forgive you so you have peace and you also repent of everything. I want you to know that even after all the things you did, all the people you killed and hurt, God wants you to come back to him.”
Alex placed a hand on his back and stuttered out a prayer, overcome by a storm of emotion.
“Father, I pray you’ll bless him. I pray your Spirit will be with him and protect him, and he’ll have the peace that comes through you.”
Full of remorse the prisoner said, “I don’t know what came over us. We killed everybody. Please forgive us. When I think of what I did, I always get sick.”
Alex spoke again: “What brought me here was to tell you I have forgiven you because of the grace of God. I don’t have any hate in my heart towards you. You should also ask God’s forgiveness.”
A burden lifted
After more prayers, Alex left the prison with a spring in his step.
“I felt like a great burden has been lifted off of my chest,” he said. “The moment I gave my life to Christ, it became my dream to meet him face-to-face and forgive him.”
“I have come to believe that if God is able to forgive me of my sins, I can forgive someone who has wronged me. As painful as it was, I am now left with the peace that only Christ can provide, and I will spend my life sharing with others how they can receive his peace and forgiveness.”
Alex graduated from college and hopes to return to Rwanda one day to plant a church on the land where his grandmother’s house stood. In the meantime he travels with Operation Christmas Child, sharing his testimony and how God used a simple shoebox gift to restore his hope and start his remarkable journey to forgiveness.
Over the past 25 years, through the global efforts of Operation Christmas Child, 130 million gift-filled shoeboxes have been delivered to needy children like Alex in over 150 countries around the world. In 2015, 900,008 of these were lovingly packed by groups and individuals all over the UK. This year Samaritan’s Purse is calling on churches, schools, businesses and individuals across the UK to help bring joy to another 1 million children by demonstrating God’s love through Operation Christmas Child and the power of a simple gift.
To see a video of Alex’s powerful story, and to find out how you can be part of this year’s Operation Christmas Child campaign, go to www.samaritans-purse.org.uk/sorted