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Jason Nshimye was just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, when he realized that even a church could be a killing field.
"We thought no one would kill anyone in a church," he said. "We started hearing rumors that people were dying around the country, so my family and I decided to run away."
Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, in which nearly a million people lost their lives in a majority-Hutu-sponsored violence against Tutsis.
Nshimye's family was Tutsi and sought refuge in the Mugonero Church. After almost a week, Nshimye overheard people saying that they were next, that the next day, they would all be killed. A group of Tutsi leaders wrote to the president of the church, pleading for his help.
"Our dear leader, Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana," their letter began. It then urged the pastor to speak with the mayor to appeal for his guests' lives. "We believe that, with the help of God, who entrusted you the leadership of this flock, which is going to be destroyed, your intervention will be highly appreciated, the same way as the Jews were saved by Ester. We give honor to you."
That appeal fell on deaf ears. "He was Hutu. He was one of the criminals," explained Nshimye. "He told us, no matter what we tried to do, we would be killed anyway."
Death arrived the next morning.
"The Hutu killers came from every direction. They surrounded the church. They had hand grenades, guns and machetes," said Nshimye, "People were dying in every corner, everywhere I looked, hundreds, every minute. I witnessed many of my family members and closest friends die that day."
Nshimye managed to escape, running into the bushes. "I hid there for weeks," he said. "But every day the Hutus came to hunt and kill."
In the rough, Nshimye met 8-year-old Françoise, the girl who would later become his wife. "When I met her, she'd lost her whole family too."
For three months, they hid together, constantly on the run, unable to go to a grocery store or hospital. Nowhere was safe. "Even the wounded victims who survived their attempted killers," explained Nshimye, "were betrayed and finished off by the doctors and nurses meant to save them."
In less than 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed. The world stood by as Rwanda tore itself apart. "There was nowhere to run to," remembers Nshimye. "There were military roadblocks and trained Hutu civilian checkpoints everywhere." The Tutsis were being systematically eliminated.
"One day they almost caught me," he remembers. He was walking with a group of children when a member of the military stopped them. "The guy had a gun. But I thought we would be OK. I had small kids with me." Then Nshimye heard these words: "Lie down and I'll kill you," the soldier said. He fired, shooting each of the children dead before Nshimye's eyes. Nshimye knew he was next. "He pointed the gun at my head. He shot. But, there were no bullets left. It was a miracle. I survived."
Not only did he survive, but he stayed in Rwanda to help others. After the killings stopped, he went on to graduate from nursing school and quickly returned to his home village to help both survivors and those suspected in the murders. "This reconciliation," says Nshimye, "helped me to heal my psychological and spiritual wounds."
Two decades have passed since the Rwandan genocide. But Nshimye's memories haven’t faded. He doesn't want them to. "Even speaking about it today," he says, "it's hard to explain the tragedy. It was horrible." Rather than forget, he chooses to forgive. He credits his unwavering faith. "During this time," he says, "I was terrified and horrified, but I kept my hope in the everlasting God. He looked down upon me."
Today Nshimye lives in Richmond, Va., with Françoise and their three children. "Now I have a happy life," he says simply.
And as he sees it, Rwanda has a bright future. A few years ago, he returned home and to the church that became a grave site for so many of his loved ones.
"Everything was different," he said. "We don't have people asking, 'Are you Hutu or Tutsi?' People are living together as one. The economy of Rwanda is growing. People are working harder now. People are going to school. The country is building a foundation for a peaceful future and a peaceful population."
"Rwandans can go outside at midnight. They can open their doors without being scared. That is very different."
Jason Nshimye joined “Inside Story” as a special guest on a Rwandan genocide anniversary show, airing April 8, 2014.