Here’s an unfinished story.
Bloodstains ruin t-shirts. It was a strange realization to have at that moment but Pascal Nzabonimpa couldn’t help thinking about the effect his death would have on his blue t-shirt.
The 16-year-old was confined to a wooden bench at the bottom of a mountain road in Rwanda. Surrounding him was death in five dimensions.
Directly to his side were piles of bodies, their clothes shredded from the machetes. Pascal was too afraid to look at their faces. In front of him he could see the Interhamwe. The thugs were pulling children out of the impromptu line that had formed at the roadblock. Members of the gang would check the identification cards of everyone in line. If they didn’t say Hutu the men, women and their children were dragged out of line. The children were screaming, kicking viciously at their yellow-and red-clad captors. As young as they were they knew what would happen to them at the top of the road. But the men were much stronger, dragging them along the dirt path, past Pascal on the wooden bench and up the mountain road – up to the killing fields.
Flies, the only creatures comfortable with this death, surrounded the teen and landed on his eyes and nose. Even they carried the stench of souls departed. Pascal sat immobilized his head bowed staring at his shirt. Bloodstains don’t disappear from cotton and Pascal knew that when the Interhamwe returned they would drag him to the killing fields and their machetes would make his shirt as red as their eyes.
Nearly two months earlier Pascal had slipped on that blue t-shirt, packed up what little he owned and with his two brothers, five sisters and stepmother began walking to escape death. The Interhamwe, which means attacking your own, lived up to its name beginning on April 6, 1994 to kill their neighbors. Like a combine slicing through corn stalks, the members of the Hutu ethic group in Rwanda known as the Interhamwe spread through their country killing an estimated 8,000 people a day, most of them Tutsi, another ethic group in the country. Machetes were their murder tools of choice.
By May the killing had reached Pascal’s small village of Kamaale. So on May 14 Pascal and the 15,000 residents of his small town began to walk away from their homes. It didn’t take long for Pascal to pack. The teen-ager had never had much.
When Pascal was younger he and his siblings would fight over who got to lick the plate after the dinner. Meals, if they had any at all, were boiled water with a tinge of salt to add flavor. Meat, well, that was a rarity reserved for Christmas and Easter. But when he turned six years old in 1984 Pascal’s life began to change.
[NGO] opened a project in his tiny village. And for ten years Pascal didn’t have to worry about food. He and his family were blessed with regular meals, clothes and most importantly to Pascal information about Jesus Christ.
While in the program Pascal joined a church choir. He began going to church regularly, writing his sponsors and hearing about the love of Christ. He began to feel human.
The NGO didn’t wipe out poverty but it did introduce Christ as the great provider. And that realization allowed Pascal to live with hope.
So when the prettiest girl in school, Marie Louise Chantal, agreed to go with him to a soccer game Pascal just couldn’t wear any old thing. He had to wear something special. He had to wear something stylish. Some time earlier he had received a gift from his sponsor the Sutton Elm Baptist Church in the United Kingdom. Like the dutiful child he was he used the gift to buy eight chickens for his family. But in an aberration of teen rebellion Pascal took one of his chickens and sold it for a blue t-shirt.
He paid dearly for his one act of disobedience. The welts from his stepmother’s beating scar for life. The burn from her boiling thermometer still resonates. But Pascal didn’t care. Marie Chantal was worth the abuse. She was the girl who stuck rolled-up love notes in the crooked fence at his house. She was the quiet girl, beautiful mocha-colored with a regal profile, who looked beyond his poverty and said yes. Chantal, yes she was worth the trouble for that t-shirt. She was worth so much more. Which is why he got out of line at the roadblock in the first place.
Pascal had been on the road with his family for nearly two months. Dirt was his second skin. Mud was his permanent shampoo. His feet were swollen cracked like neglected cement. The family was just approaching the top of Gitarama Mountain, thick forest buffeting the dirt road, when they saw the roadblock.
Roadblocks became the courtroom during the Rwanda genocide with the penalty being death for any Tutsi. The Interhamwe would stop families along the road checking their identification cards trying to ferret out any Tutsis. Hutu meant life. Tusti meant death. It was that simple but discerning death is complicated. Each roadblock Pascal encountered put him on death row. His father was Hutu, but his mother, who died when he was young, was true Tutsi.
At 16 Pascal didn’t have an ID-card and so his family would spend as much as 30-minutes explaining to thugs that he wasn’t Tutsi.
He would claim he was Hutu but every single feature on his body gave him away. He felt like a black man claiming to be white. His thin nose, his height, his thin frame were all genetics from his mother. Miraculously, God-ordained Pascal believes, the teen was able to pass through each roadblock without incident. Until he came to Gitarama miles from Kigali.
Pascal and his family were waiting in line at the roadblock at Gitarama when he heard a scream. The Interhamwe had a beautiful, mocha-colored girl on the ground. They were pushing her down and pushing her up the road toward the pathway. Her family had already been up that pathway from which there was no return.
She screamed begging for her life. Repeatedly she told them she wasn’t Tutsi. “I’m Hutu,” she yelled. “I’m Hutu.”
Survival pushed Pascal to keep walking. Like he did when his family was crossing the river and his uncle and his two daughters fell and drowned. Pascal wanted to help but survival told him he’d die too. So he grabbed the rope and was pulled out of the water. Now looking at this girl, crying, screaming he knew only death waited for him if he left the line. He wanted to walk away.
“God’s been with you this far,” he thought. “There is really nothing that the Interhamwe can do to you that they haven’t already done.”
“I’m Hutu,” she screamed. Then. “Pascal leave!” her screams were more urgent now. Pascal knew that she wanted him to leave but he couldn’t leave the prettiest girl in school. He couldn’t leave the quiet, sweet girl who gave him rolled up love notes. He couldn’t leave the girl he wanted to marry. He couldn’t leave Marie Louise.
He had to save her even if it meant he had to die doing it. Pascal walked on a cloud of invincibility as he walked out of the checkpoint line and yelled.
“Let her go!”
Immediately the three thugs dropped Marie and turned toward Pascal. He looked down quickly and saw Marie crawl silently away. She looked up at him. “I love you,” he said moving his lips. She got up, hugged her friend and began running away.
“This one looks like a cockroach.” Pascal was jolted into focus by the familiar nominal slur for Tutisis. The thug grabbed Pascal’s arm, stretching out the young boy’s palm.
“Look at his palm,” he said, chomping on a cigar. “That’s the palm of a cockroach. Look at his nose. That’s a Tutsi nose.” He turned Pascal around to face him fully.
“How did you get so far,” he asked incredulously. “ How did you escape?” He threw Pascal down on the grass. “I want to take him first, he looks like a fighter.”
The killing probably would have happened then if another thug hadn’t came behind Pascal’s captor pushing him ahead on the road. He directed Pascal to sit down on a wooden bench.
There, Pascal sat waiting for death as death floated all around him. All he could think of was he was glad he was going to die in his blue t-shirt. It’s ironic but at his moment of death he thought of the t-shirt as miraculous. He was wearing the shirt when Marie agreed to be his girlfriend. He was wearing that shirt throughout his family’s journey fleeing from the Interhamwe. At roadblock after roadblock he escaped with an innocent verdict. It was a miracle and only God could orchestrate it. The shirt was the only thing he brought for himself. It was the only shirt that didn’t have holes. When he slipped it on he felt dressed up, fully human. The short had protected him along this journey hiding his Tutsi heritage and allowing him to escape just long enough so that Marie would live. And now he was wearing the shirt when he would finally meet Jesus Christ.