Because Umuhire Ntabana was only seven years old when it happened, some details are hazy: how many nights she hid in the woods, how many times the men said they would kill her.
And then there are things she will never forget about those three months in 1994. Finding her home looted and burned. Watching a woman begging for her life be cut down with a machete. Learning that her parents, aunts, uncles, and three of her sisters were among the 800,000 killed in the hundred-day Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis.
When she tells the story now, tears come to her eyes, but not just because of the people she lost. She cries when she thinks about all the people who have helped her. People like her godmother, who took her in when she had nowhere else to go. The Holocaust scholar who talked a university president into giving her a scholarship. The dentist who guided her through the dental school application process. And the Tufts associate dean who has believed in her from their first meeting.
Now thirty-two, and in her third year of dental school, Ntabana, D20, focuses on the daily stresses of every dental student—getting a filling right, worrying about an extraction. She doesn’t know exactly how she lives with the trauma of the genocide. But she suspects it has something to do with love.
Ntabana—known as Umu—remembers her mother, Madeleine, as a caring and quiet nurse who loved to laugh. She enjoyed cooking and keeping everything neat in their household, which included Umu and her eight older siblings. Ntabana’s father, Trojan, was a physician and a dentist. Patients would come from surrounding provinces to see him in Gitarama, then the country’s third-largest city. He was funny, a master of distraction who could extract one of Ntabana’s stubborn baby teeth without her even noticing.
“I would never feel his injections,” Ntabana said. “My dad had a way of making the situation better.”
The genocide began in April 1994. The president’s plane was shot down, and political leaders from the ethnic majority—the Hutus—blamed the minority—the Tutsis—who had been targets of propaganda-fueled resentment for decades. On radio broadcasts, Hutu extremists called on Hutus to kill their Tutsi neighbors.
Ntabana’s parents, who were Tutsi, sent her and two of her sisters into hiding. They dressed the girls in layers of clothes—suitcases would signal that they were trying to escape. “I thought it was like a game,” Ntabana said. At first, the girls stayed at a convent, but the nuns had to leave for their own safety. So, they found shelter in a priest’s home, then in an orphanage, and then with sympathetic Hutu neighbors. At night, when militias came looking for Tutsis to kill, Ntabana and her sisters would sleep in the forest.
From the window of her hiding place, Ntabana saw people murdered with machetes. She was scared, but too young to fully understand. “The whole genocide was like a movie,” she said. “I was familiar with movies. I saw people killing other people, but in my mind, I always thought they were going to come back to life.”
Sometimes the siblings would sneak back to see their parents. Their father, stricken by grief and stress, stayed in bed. That was when Ntabana knew that everything had changed. “For me, that was the saddest part of the whole genocide,” she said. Their mom, however, tried to act normal for the children, cleaning and cooking even though the only available food was cornmeal.
Her skin turned yellow and peeled from a lack of sun and little food. She and her sisters spent their days praying, and Ntabana sometimes heard an inner voice that gave her comfort and hope. “Sometimes it would be a woman, sometimes a man—and it would say, ‘Today they are going to come kill you, but don’t worry, you are going to be OK.’”
On those days, she recalls, marauders inevitably came and threatened to kill her and the people who were hiding her. Sometimes someone would bribe them to go away. But one day, about three months into Ntabana’s ordeal, the soldiers would not take the money; they burned it instead. One stepped on Ntabana’s hand, pinning her to the ground. He would not kill her, he said, because she looked like his daughter. But he would kill the others.
Just then, the sound of rebel gunfire outside the neighborhood distracted the militants. They locked the girls into the house they had been hiding in and never came back. When Tutsi rebels found and freed the girls days later, they told them that the slaughter was over.
Like thousands of Rwandans, the sisters came out of hiding to find they had no home to return to. They joined others who were walking to a refugee camp in Ruhango, Rwanda, about sixteen miles away. At the camp, the sisters reunited with their brothers and learned their parents’ fate: They had been hiding in the home of a Hutu man when soldiers came. The man refused to say where Ntabana’s parents were, even when the soldiers threatened to kill him. Hearing this, her father gave himself up, hoping his host would be spared. But the soldiers killed them all. Her three oldest sisters, Ntabana learned, had been raped and killed in a separate raid.
For a time, Ntabana and her remaining siblings were taken in by a rebel military officer, but eventually the children wound up on their own, in an apartment in Kigali. Some weeks they would go days without eating. Finally, when Ntabana was very sick, she got in touch with Jeanine Uwera, a woman they had met in the refugee camp. Seeing their desperation, Uwera brought the three girls to live with her.
Ntabana stayed with her godmother, as she calls her, through high school. Uwera was wise, strong, and very strict, but Ntabana said that she put the children’s well-being above her own and took in as many people as she could, saving lives. “She kept bringing people,” Ntabana said. “We were like thirty in the house, eight people in one room.”
The genocide reverberated around Rwanda. People—including Ntabana—were forced to testify against their neighbors, and revenge killings were common. Knowing the danger, her godmother arranged for Ntabana and her siblings to leave the country. One of Ntabana’s brothers remained; he was kidnapped in 2013 and has not been heard from since.
Ntabana went to the United States, where she received asylum. After she landed in Boston in 2008, the culture shock was paralyzing. Store shelves were stocked, but she didn’t have money to buy anything. The winter was so very, very cold. And although she spoke both Kinyarwanda and French, she didn’t speak or read English. When she went to church, she couldn’t even make out the word “Jesus.”
Ntabana cleaned hotel rooms and airplane cabins and worked odd jobs to send money back to her relatives in Rwanda. She also took ESL and other classes at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
Around the same time, Racelle Weiman, a Holocaust scholar based in Charlotte, North Carolina, began working with the Genocide Survivors Support Network (GSSN), a group that helps Rwandans like Ntabana rebuild their lives. Weiman asked the president of historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte if he would provide a full scholarship, including room and board, for a Rwandan student who passed the admission requirements, and he agreed. Through the GSSN, Weiman heard about Ntabana, who had worked hard to learn English and earned good grades in community college. Soon Ntabana relocated to Charlotte to study biology.
Weiman and Ntabana have become very close. “As serious as she is, there is so much joy in her,” Weiman said, describing the fun they had at a Nicki Minaj concert and how her husband and Ntabana bonded over their affinity for sappy French love songs. And Weiman wasn’t the only kind soul to extend a helping hand in Charlotte: Over school break, a friend arranged for Ntabana to stay with Shelly and Dan Crawford, local parents of three young children. Her relationship with the Crawfords blossomed, and they still visit each other often. “They are my family now,” Ntabana said.|
As her 2014 graduation neared, Ntabana thought about her future. She knew she wanted to work in health care, helping people who could not afford it. Yet she didn’t think she could be a physician, in part because of the time she spent in an overcrowded Rwandan hospital visiting her aunt, who had developed HIV after she was raped during the genocide. The suffering she saw traumatized Ntabana.
She prayed for guidance. One morning, the idea of dentistry came to her. “It felt right,” she said. Becoming a dentist would honor her parents. “I think by doing what they did, in a way, I will get to know them.”
Now Ntabana had a goal, but she wasn’t sure how to make it happen. Although she had a 3.7 GPA as an undergraduate, she scored low on the Dental Admission Test in 2014. Rejected by the first dental schools she applied to, Ntabana needed guidance. A mentor put her in touch with Jeanette Sabir-Holloway, a dentist and founder of the Increasing Diversity in Dentistry (IDID) Pipeline program for underrepresented students. Sabir-Holloway encouraged Ntabana to retake her exam and reapply.
Sabir-Holloway (now director of outreach, recruitment, and admissions at the School of Dental Medicine) also insisted that Ntabana travel to Atlanta to meet with recruiters at an event that IDID and Morehouse College organized for students underrepresented in dentistry. There Ntabana talked with Robert Kasberg, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Tufts School of Dental Medicine.
Kasberg was struck not just by Ntabana’s past, but by the positive, vibrant person she had become. “Sometimes, when you are fortunate enough, you can peer into someone’s heart and see a couple things that to me are very important,” he recalled. “One is a persistence and a tenacity—that if this person has overcome these obstacles in life, she can make it through dental school. I could also see that Umu will be a caring, compassionate dentist. She will take care of people.”
Kasberg told Ntabana he wanted to help her get into dental school—at Tufts or elsewhere. Ntabana hadn’t thought about returning to the cold of Boston, but she was overwhelmed by Kasberg’s faith in her and thrilled when Tufts put together funds to help with education costs.
Meanwhile, Weiman, the Holocaust scholar, called on her Boston connections to find a place for Ntabana to live. Clinical psychiatrist Susan Schnur offered a free room in her house in Brookline, Massachusetts. That’s where Ntabana has stayed for nearly three years.
“Umu is the most disciplined person I’ve ever seen in my life,” Schnur said. “She studies all the time. She switches into these hours and hours of hyperfocus.” Schnur suspects part of that may be a coping mechanism. “For most people with a horrible trauma like a genocide, they have to narrow their focus in order to survive,” she said. “It’s looking at your feet and putting one foot in front of the other.”
At the same time, Ntabana finds joy in the small things. She loves to go dancing, drink French-press coffee, listen to R&B and reggaetón, and watch her crush, Trevor Noah, host The Daily Show on television. Whenever possible, she talks to or visits with her siblings, who are now living in Sweden, England, Canada, and Rwanda.
As a recipient of a National Health Service Corps scholarship, Ntabana will work in underserved communities after she graduates, which is exactly where she wants to be. For now, like every new clinician, she worries that she’ll get something wrong or let someone down. But then her teachers show their confidence in her. “Sometimes it keeps you going when you see people believe in you,” she said.
In the years since the genocide, many news stories have focused on Tutsis who forgave their Hutu neighbors, so that the nation can heal. People who can let go like that are lucky to be at peace, Ntabana said, but they are no more heroes than those who cannot.
“The government encourages forgiveness, and it’s really not fair to people,” she said. “I don’t know if I have forgiven the people who did this, or if I’ve moved on. I might cry, because it’s sad, but I don’t feel angry toward anybody. At the same time, I wouldn’t expect everyone to feel the same way.”
Eugenie Mukeshimana, founder of the GSSN, said Ntabana was reluctant to talk about her tragedy at first. “She didn’t want the genocide to define her,” she said. “She wants to get to places not because she is a survivor but because people see her other qualities and abilities.”
But Mukeshimana has seen the younger woman slowly begin to share her story, to use it as a teaching tool. “When the conditions are right, genocide can happen to any community, to any society at any time,” said Mukeshimana, who lost many loved ones in the Rwandan bloodshed. “We need to understand the ugliness of genocide so that next time we strive to make sure no one has the same experiences we had.”
What people take away from her story is up to them, Ntabana said recently as she headed into the clinic at the dental school. For her, it all comes back to love: how a lack of it leads to genocide, but also how love—from her parents, the people who hid her, the godmother who raised her, and her many champions—has sustained her.
Ntabana pulled up the sleeve of her scrubs to show off the tattoo she got two years ago, when she turned thirty: L’amour triomphera.
Love will triumph.