Everything changed with a shoebox
A shoebox brings hope and love to Alex in an orphanage in Rwanda.
Love Your Neighbor: Finding Forgiveness in Rwanda
One man’s journey of survival and redemption
“Mommy, where can we run to?”
These heart-wrenching words greet visitors to the children’s exhibit at Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. The child who uttered them before falling victim to one of the bloodiest three months in history is now just a memory enshrined in a black and white photograph, her innocent 7-year-old eyes forever staring out at passersby.
The attempted extermination of an entire people group at the hands of another is an unimaginable history.
“It looked like the devil had taken control of hearts,” said Bishop Rose Karasanyi, an Operation Christmas Child volunteer in Rwanda. “The spirit of death was hovering over the whole land, even where a husband could kill a wife, where parents would kill children. There was no life.”
But the story of Rwanda does not end with the nearly one million horrific murders that occurred during the genocide of 1994. God is transforming it into a powerful tale of forgiveness, with a young Rwandan named Alex Nsengimana setting an inspirational example for his country and people.
“Nsengimana” means “I pray to God” in Kinyarwanda, and Alex has certainly lived up to the name. In his 25 years, God has guided his steps along a remarkable journey that included miraculous escapes from death during the genocide. It also includes receiving a shoebox gift through Operation Christmas Child—a gift that helped bring him to a strong faith in Jesus and led to the desire to return to Rwanda to plant a church and minister to the people who killed his family.
“I want to be back in Rwanda so I can share the ministry of forgiveness, because that’s the only thing that has continued to heal me,” said Alex, who left his homeland in 2003 to attend school in the United States.
In March, he visited the village where he grew up. Alex delivered shoebox gifts to children unaware of past distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, and who do not feel the same hatred toward their neighbors as the generations who came before them.
“We are all Rwandans,” said Alex, when asked how Tutsi victims are able to live side-by-side with Hutus who slaughtered their families and friends. “We speak one language.”
Nearly 20 years after the genocide, many Rwandans are able to overlook old tribal, political, and economic divisions that played a large part in the war. But others still face a daily struggle to see murderers walking free. Those who killed husbands, wives, children, and parents may pass victims’ family members at the market, school, even church.
With God’s grace and Christ’s example of forgiveness, Alex believes that his nation can be reconciled. During his visit, Alex reinforced his words with actions by offering forgiveness, in person, to the man who killed his uncle.
When he faced the man who was a neighbor and friend of the one he murdered and uttered words of forgiveness and redemption through Jesus, a burden he had carried for many years lifted from his chest.
But his journey toward peace has not been easy.
Even though he was just 5 years old on April 6, 1994, Alex will never forget the morning when the plane carrying Rwanda president Juvenal 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. Among them were Alex’s grandmother and uncle.
Alex never knew his father, and his mother died of AIDS when he was 4. He was left with his older sister and younger brother in the care of their grandmother and two uncles. They lived on a hill in the outskirts of Kigali, in a mud-and-stick house nestled among the coffee trees the family owned and cultivated.
As a young boy, Alex’s job was to fetch water. Like many children, he was easily distracted and often found himself sidetracked, playing soccer with his friends and running through Kigali’s hillside neighborhoods instead of doing his chores. His face broke into a wide grin as he recalled his grandmother spitting on the ground, saying: “If you’re not back by the time this dries, boy you’re going to get it!”
Those carefree days ended the moment the genocide started. Nyirabarera, his grandmother, was 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.
Several days later a group of men with guns came looking for his uncle, Karara. Alex remembers neighbors 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.
“What they did haunted me for many, many years,” Alex said.
Another uncle bribed additional militia groups with beer and food in exchange for the remaining family’s safety, but eventually the resources ran out and Lillian, Alex, and Fils were forced to flee.
“We packed up everything and started walking toward the capital city where my aunt and her family lived,” Alex said.
The three young children often had to hide in the forest or ditches when large buses of Hutu militia rumbled past on the red dirt roads. Eventually, they reached their aunt’s house in Kigali and settled in.
Sleeping through the night was difficult. Alex struggled with nightmares of seeing his family murdered. Bombs rattled the house, often sending shrapnel through the windows, walls, and ceiling.
Still, Alex’s life continued to be spared. 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.
Alex began to wonder why he kept escaping death when so many others had not.
“Wherever the Night Would Find Us”
Eventually, the situation became too volatile and the family had to flee.
“Wherever the night would find us, that’s where we would sleep,” Alex said.
For nearly two months they ran, crossing the hills around Kigali. Explosions from bombs and grenades followed them everywhere. At one point, Alex got separated from the rest of his family. Someone opened fire as he frantically searched for them, and bullets whizzed just above his head. One even grazed his hair.
“I always like to say that God has a sense of humor,” he said, laughing. “As I was running, I slipped in something and fell. I had slipped in a cow pie; that’s what God used to save my life. If He can use that cow pie, 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.
From Hatred to Hope
At the Gisimba orphanage, Alex dealt with a lot of anger. He lay awake at night, his sleep interrupted by the cries and screams of 250 other children whose lives were turned into nightmares by the war.
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.
“If there’s a God who cares for His people,why would He let this happen?” he wondered. “Why, out of a million people who lost their lives, am I alive today?”
Most days passed with little to no joy. Until one day, the children were told they were receiving gifts from people in America. America seemed like it was “billions of miles away.” Alex couldn’t imagine someone there caring about him.
Everyone had to wait until each child had a colorfully wrapped shoebox. At last, they were allowed to open them. Alex remembers being in awe that everything inside was for him.
“I remember the joy I had that day,” he said. “Answers to the question, ‘Why am I still alive?’ started to crystalize when I comprehended that someone did care.”
He can still picture the box, along with many of its contents. Small, multi-colored candies—Alex thought they were medicine—a comb, and his favorite: 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. Alex had eaten his first candy cane.
“Just having something that we could call our own, that could take our minds off of what happened during the war, reminded us that someone out there cared for us and we still had hope,” he said.
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 Fils and 10 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.”
“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.”
Soon, while touring with the choir, he trusted in Jesus Christ as his Savior.
A Family Restored
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.
On April 28, 2003, 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.
Looking back, Alex recognizes the hand of God on that new opportunity. His visa was approved in just a week. The day that he received paperwork from the high school in Minnesota, an American man was visiting the orphanage and helped Alex fill it out.
In September 2003, Alex joined the Hongerholt family, gaining a new mother, another brother, and two more sisters.
Ellen brushed away tears as she recalled the first time she saw Alex since the two nights he spent in her home several years before.
“Alex clung to me so intensely,” she said. “He had prayed that the Lord would just give him one shot, and there was this one opportunity for him to get out of Rwanda. That was so intense and wonderful, and that day has turned into nine years of joy being his mother.”
She believes that as Alex worshipped, prayed, and sang praises to God with the African Children’s Choir, his heart was healed in such a way that he now spreads Christ’s joy and love to everyone he encounters.
“Being his mom means being a part of the harvest of souls to win for Christ, because Alex’s story and just meeting him plants a seed for many people, whether they know it or not,” she said.
Return to Rwanda
Alex’s excitement began to build as he stepped off the plane at Kigali International Airport in March.
“I’m feeling a little bouncy,” he said, trying to explain the feeling in his chest. He had returned to Rwanda before, leading Bible camps for children in the village where he grew up in 2008 and 2010. But this trip was different.
This time, he was delivering Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes at the orphanage where he received his 18 years ago. Some of the shoeboxes he packed himself, and others were processed in the Minneapolis warehouse where he volunteered in 2012.
He was excited not only to share the gifts at his former home, but for the possibility of facing the men who killed his family and to utter the words “I forgive you” and tell them about the love of Jesus Christ.
Alex reminisced as he walked through the schoolyard at Gisimba, over grass worn away in parts to expose the dark red soil marked with tiny footprints.
“I was standing right there on that low wall,” he recalled of the day he got his shoebox. He pointed to the railing several feet above the yard where he stood. “Receiving that shoebox was just the beginning of my faith … standing here and getting ready to hand out other boxes, it’s just amazing.”
A dark cloud passed overhead, and the children retreated inside a classroom as large raindrops began to fall from the heavy gray sky. Excitement in the room was palpable, as 200 kindergarteners eagerly waited to open their gifts.
“Three! Two! One! Open!” shouted Alex, and joyous shrieks erupted from many tiny sets of lungs. Kids quickly piled onto his lap as he looked through their shoeboxes. He exclaimed over each item, chatting in Kinyarwanda,
“What do you have in there? Let’s see. What is this? Yeah, it’s a pencil.”
He explored the shoeboxes with his new friends, oohing and aahing over each item, especially his personal favorite, the candy canes. He helped each child discover newfound treasures as he reflected over what his own shoebox meant to him.
“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 hope and I pray 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.”
Alex believes that the message of Christ’s love is exemplified in each shoebox gift delivered to a child, and that Operation Christmas Child can play a part in reconciling people in Rwanda and around the world.
“Operation Christmas Child has continued to spread the Gospel around the world,” he said. “I believe without a doubt that it can have a big part in bringing hope and love tothe people of Rwanda, using one simple box that carries a powerful message of Jesus Christ.”
Years ago, Alex realized 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 killed his uncle.
As he waited, a late afternoon storm brought torrents of rain and wind that blew water droplets through the glass slats of the barred prison windows. It passed quickly, leaving Alex to watch the sun sink below one of Rwanda’s thousand hills.
Moments later, a short, slight man entered the room. His electric orange shorts trailed far below his knees, drowning his legs among their pleats. Alex’s uncle would have, at one time, called the prisoner his friend. Alex sat down beside Niyoneza Anastase and began to speak.
“I am Alex Nsengimana,” he explained in Kinyarwanda. “My uncle was Karara. Would you please tell me how my uncle was killed?”
The prisoner reached up, his scrawny arm swimming in short-sleeves that extended far past his elbows. He grabbed a red-and-white-checkered satin cap off his head and spoke, acknowledging that he remembered that fateful spring morning.
“It was around 9:00 a.m. 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.”
The grace of God was tangible as Alex knelt side-by-side with the man who brutally beat and murdered his uncle and placed his hand on the prisoner’s back.
“Father, I pray you’ll bless him.” Alex stuttered out a prayer, overcome by a storm of emotion. “I pray your Spirit will be with him and protect him, and he’ll have the peace that comes through You.”
They stood, and a circle of Alex’s friends surrounded them.
The prisoner mentioned neighboring families, asking Alex to bring them to the prison so he could ask forgiveness. Finally he began to cry as he confessed that in one family he killed all except one person.
“I don’t know what came over us,” he said. “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 toward you. You should also ask God’s forgiveness.”
After more prayers, Alex left the prison with a spring in his step.
“I feel 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.”
Forgiveness is not forgetting the wrong done against you, Alex said, but remembering—and in remembering, finding healing and peace by looking back and recognizing what God has done.
“You will have to go back to those unpleasant memories, but in the end you will have peace that only Christ can provide,” Alex said.
A Future and a Hope
In May, Alex graduated from Crossroads College, a Christian school in Rochester, Minnesota, with a degree in Pastoral Leadership. He hopes to plant a church in Rwanda, ideally on the land where his grandmother’s house stood.
He doesn’t know when he will be able to return to Rwanda, but in the meantime he travels with Operation Christmas Child, sharing his testimony of how the Lord redeemed his loss.
“Alex has a call on his life,” Ellen said. “I don’t know what it will be, I just know it will be extraordinary. There’s no way that he is not going to impact our world significantly, somehow.
“He hasn’t really even started to unfold all of what the Lord has for him yet, so it’s a very beautiful, beautiful story to watch.”
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Ways you can help
Pray that each child who receives an Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift will know how much God loves them.
Help Samaritan’s Purse go beyond the shoebox and expand assistance to children, their families, and their communities. Donate Here