Home' The Southern Cross : December 2016 Contents December 2016 Page 15
Yolanda Manirakiza will never forget the
days after the Hutu president of Burundi,
Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated in
The students at her school were rounded
up into two groups – the Tutsi were to go
south and the Hutu north – or so they were
One of the Hutu students found a piece
of paper on the ground which proved the
Tutsi soldiers’ real intent was to kill them.
They were tempted to run away but had
nowhere to go and spent a frightening
night waiting to die.
“All that night they didn’t come,” Yolanda
recalls. “We made plans to leave but we
didn’t know what we would do; we went
outside and then came back in...oh my, we
were scared, but the person who picked up
the paper went and found another group,
and they said ‘go quickly, quickly’ before
the soldiers come.”
Yolanda and her classmates left just
minutes before the government soldiers
“Lucky that paper dropped, I don’t know
how God made it happen,” she says,
holding her head in her hands as she
relives the traumatic experience. The
normally smiling 40-year-old mother of
four and aged care worker questions why
anyone would want to know her story. “It’s
too horrible,” she says.
Yolanda’s parents were forced to flee
Burundi to Rwanda in 1972 at the height of
the genocide in the former Belgian colony.
They had nine children, two of whom died
as babies, and they raised their children
in the Catholic faith. Yolanda remembers
religion being “very important” to the
family, especially her father who made sure
they prayed together every night before
eating. She went to a government school
where children learnt in French and recited
the Hail Mary every day.
After elections were held in Burundi in
1993 and Melchior Ndadaye came to
power, Yolanda and her younger brother
were repatriated to Burundi to register
for secondary schooling, with her family
planning to move back the following year.
After her narrow escape from the Tutsi
soldiers at boarding school, Yolanda
stayed with friends from the Church and
then an uncle but he couldn’t afford to
send her to school. A priest asked her
why she wasn’t at school, and when
she explained what had happened he
approached the principal of a nearby
college. “He presented me to the director
of the school, I didn’t have to pay anything,
he (the priest) even bought the bed and
the linen – he was my sponsor, it was
amazing,” she says.
But after one year the killing resumed
and a Hutu boy was accused of having a
grenade in his bed. The next day the Tutsi
soldiers came: “They were in front of us,
they faced us,” she says, pointing to the
distance between us. “They were saying
Tutsi there, Hutu there, then they started
shooting so we started running. Somehow,
the grace of the Lord protected me.”
Yolanda followed her friends who were
more familiar with the area and eventually
ended up at her uncle’s place. Asked what
followed, she covers her face again and
struggles to get the words out. It isn’t until
I ask her about her family that I realise why
she is struggling to explain this period of
With a deep sigh she continues: “So
what happened, peace was coming so
everyone was repatriating again and my
parents came to Burundi but then...okay
so the peace came back and I went back
to school, but they were dividing groups
and killing each other again and in that bad
one it happened...” I ask what she means.
“They were killed,” she replies.
Somehow she located her brother and they
“just kept going around somewhere where
they were not killing”. They followed the
hordes of people fleeing the country and
after about a month found themselves in a
refugee camp in Tanzania – their home for
the next 12 or so years.
“I don’t know how I got through that
situation, I didn’t suffer through the
traumatism, I don’t know how but God just
supported me,” she says.
Initially the Catholic refugees worshipped
in a tent but then they made bricks and
built their own church.
She went back to school for 18 months
and in 1997 she married a Burundian
refugee and they had a daughter, Joyeuse.
Three months after Joyeuse was born
Yolanda’s husband went back to his home
town in Burundi, a trip he had made before
because of its proximity to the camp,
but this time he never returned and was
Yolanda trained as a social worker for two
years, then started a nursing course and
worked at the local hospital for the next
During this time, she adopted a 13-year-
old girl who was orphaned and sexually
abused by the person taking care of her.
In 2004 immigration officials came to the
camp and after an interview and medical
check Yolanda was granted a visa and
migrated to Adelaide in 2005. She was
accompanied by Joyeuse, her brother, and
her adopted child.
When they first arrived they attended a
church that wasn’t Catholic. “We didn’t
know what to do,” says Yolanda. “My
brother said we have to find a Catholic
Church, we were in King William St and
he was asking people where the Catholic
Church was and no-one knew.”
Eventually they went to Victoria Square
and found St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral.
They started attending Mass there and
Yolanda remembers thinking “this is where
“We didn’t understand what they were
talking about but we knew it was our
church,” she adds.
What should have been a time of peace
and security for Yolanda turned out to be
the opposite. While learning English she
met a man from Burundi and they were
married. “As soon as he put the ring on in
the ceremony, everything was bad. Oh my
goodness, I cried on my wedding day and I
didn’t fail to stop,” she recalls.
After several years of psychological abuse,
and at least one case of physical abuse,
the man abandoned Yolanda. They had
two children together, Bridget, who is now
10, and Charlotte, 7.
Her friend Cathy, who worked for the
Adelaide Archdiocese, helped her through
these bad times. “She is my mum, she
knew everything and helped me after he
took everything,” she says.
Now perhaps the strangest chapter of
Yolanda’s life has begun after another
Burundian man, Isaac, who fell in love with
her in the refugee camp, made contact a
few years ago.
The couple might have got together
back then but the possibility that her
first husband might still be alive kept
Yolanda from marrying Isaac, whom she
met when training as a church reader in
the camp. He had assisted her when she
had appendicitis and he continued to
unsuccessfully court her until she came to
After leaving the camp, Isaac ended up in
South Africa and started to communicate
with her by email. In 2012 he was in a
serious car accident and a friend contacted
Yolanda by phone and relayed Isaac’s
message that he still loved her.
During his recovery, Isaac told Yolanda
that God had saved him so they could
be together. For a year they emailed and
called each other until finally Yolanda
visited South Africa and they were married.
They have an 18-month-old daughter
Amora (which means love) and although
Isaac is still in South Africa, he is trying to
get a visa to Australia.
“I am praying for him to come here,”
she says. “I can’t believe we are nearly
back together,” adding they plan to
have a church wedding one day, after
finally receiving confirmation that her first
husband did die in Burundi.
She and her daughters are active
participants in the African Catholic
community, including the choir and the
Legion of Mary.
She says she has never lost faith in God,
although at times she questioned what was
happening to her.
“But you have to go through sadness and
hard times to find comfort in God.”
Tale of terror and the grace of God
The mass slaughtering of the Tutsi and the Hutu in Burundi and Rwanda in the 1990s made headlines when the scale of the atrocities was
revealed to the world. But beneath the shocking death toll lies the stories of individuals caught up in this long and bloody conflict – stories like
that of Yolanda Manirakiza whose journey of courage and faith is almost beyond belief. Jenny Brinkworth reports.
Photo: Ben Macmahon
Links Archive November 2016 February 2017 Navigation Previous Page Next Page