Life After Death: Teen Survivor of a Massacre Turns Tragedy into Art
She remembers seeing sparks—bright blasts of gunfire that hit her mother and her 6-year-old sister. The night was Aug. 13, 2004, and a young girl named Sandra Uwiringiy’imana was in the middle of a massacre in Africa. There were men with machetes and guns, slashing throats and burning bodies. Ten-year-old Sandra first fainted, then ran, only to find herself with a gun pointed at her own head. In that moment, she remembers thinking, “Goodbye, life.”
Today Sandra is a high-school junior in Rochester, N.Y. She hangs out at the mall and goes to the movies with her friends. She moved to the U.S. with her family in 2007, with the help of a United Nations refugee program. When she first told her friends her story, they didn’t believe her. “They were like, 'No way,'” she says. “But I can understand this. It’s hard to picture that people can be so cruel.”
Sandra grew up in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of seven siblings, she remembers living in a modest home and studying hard at school but facing discrimination against her ethnic group, the Banyamulenge, which had deep roots in the area—but across the border in nearby Rwanda. “Some people didn’t view us as truly Congolese,” she says. “Our noses were thinner.” Her father advised her to ignore slurs from other students.
Ancient tensions and turf battles between tribes and communities in Africa are the root of some of the most horrific violence in modern times. Millions have died in civil war in the Congo; despite the signing of peace accords in 2003, conflicts continue in some areas. Sandra’s family was caught in one of those clashes.
In her area of Kivu, which had long been embroiled in ethnic disputes, the fighting escalated in 2004. Sandra and her family fled for a refugee camp across the border in Burundi, along with fellow members of her tribe.
They barely made it there alive. Along the way, Sandra says, a group of armed men and boys stopped the car. “I was sitting next to my little sister. She was 6 years old. This guy broke the window and punched my sister in the face,” she says. “They threatened to burn us and shoot us. They took everything we owned—our watches, our necklaces. There were little kids with guns, trained to kill.”
She and her family were saved, she says, by one of the armed men, who apparently took pity on them: “A guy came out of nowhere and said, ‘You need to get out of here before you die.’” He paid the driver, and the family sped away to the sound of gunfire.
At the refugee camp, near the city of Gatumba, the family packed into tents. Days were spent waiting in line to obtain fresh water from a tank. Meals consisted primarily of rice and beans. Sandra kept thinking she would go home soon.
The massacre came after three months, when a rival group known as the Forces Nationales de Libération attacked the camp. “It was around 10:30 at night,” Sandra says. “We were inside the tent, falling asleep. I could hear my mom out in front, talking with my aunt. Suddenly I hear my mom screaming, ‘Get up! Get up!’ I see my aunt’s arm barely hanging by the skin. Blood is shooting out.”
People began fleeing through a hole in the side of the tent, only to face bullets. “Everyone who ran out of there got killed, including my cousin,” Sandra says. “Then two men came in and said they would help us. I was with my mom, my little sister, and my aunt. We went with them, but somehow I thought, these guys are dangerous. I ran back to the tent to hide under my mattress. I heard one of the men say, ‘Shoot them.’ I saw sparks going through my mother.”
Sandra believes that she blacked out from fear underneath the mattress, which may have saved her. She next remembers waking up with the tent burning around her. When she made her way outside, a man pointed a gun to her head. And then, in a strange twist of fate, another man violently kicked her to the ground—before the gunman could pull the trigger. That, too, she thinks, saved her life. “I got up and ran,” she says. “I saw my great-uncle—he had been set on fire. He was screaming. My best friend’s brother was dead. I thought, this only happens in movies.”
She fled to a nearby farm, joining other tribe members. There, a man told her he had seen her mother, and Sandra said that was impossible. She was wrong—her mother had survived. When the two found each other, they were so emotional, Sandra says, “we could barely speak.” Her younger sister didn’t make it out alive. The rest of the family did.
The next day, Sandra and her family walked through the charred camp. She saw the spot where her sister and aunt had been shot, now a bed of ashes and burned bodies. Some 166 people died in the attack. More than 100 others were injured.
In the following months, the family simply tried to survive, Sandra says, first by staying with acquaintances in Burundi and then by getting a small apartment in Rwanda. “We all shrank,” she says, recounting how much weight everyone lost as a result of stress and poverty. “My mother, always a tall, big, strong woman, became so tiny, it didn’t seem possible.”
When her father heard the U.N. was helping survivors of the massacre move to the U.S., he applied for the program. In 2007, after several rounds of interviews, the family got the news: they were moving to the States. “It was unbelievable,” Sandra says, laughing when she recalls a series of training sessions on how to live in America, where she learned not to stare. “Then we flew to New York City, and there was a snowstorm. It was so scary. I thought, oh my goodness, these people live in ice.”
The family settled in Rochester, and Sandra, then 13, started high school, even though she didn’t speak English. Her first impression of America: “Everyone was obsessed with their cellphones!”
The adjustment was “really hard at times,” she says. The family had to learn to navigate a new world. Her parents found odd jobs, such as cleaning. Early on, her father was hit by a car while riding his bike. No other refugee families from Congo were in the area, Sandra says, as the rest were scattered around the States.
Sandra learned English by watching cartoons and taking classes, and gradually began making friends. Over the months, she found her footing, in part through a group her older sister helped form, called the Foundation of Hope, which helps refugees from the massacre connect.
Now, every year on Aug. 13, the anniversary of the attack, the survivors living in the U.S. meet. “We sing, we talk,” says Sandra, now 17. “We remember.” In recent years, Sandra has begun taking portraits of the people at these gatherings. “It’s another way to tell their story,” she says. Her brother Alex Ngabo takes portraits with her, and the two have their first exhibit in Rochester this month, at the Visual Studies Workshop.
Opening night was heartening, Sandra says, as friends and classmates showed up to cheer her on. She’s not sure they all fully believe her story. “I know they look at me and think, this girl is something else,” she says. That’s for sure.