By Steve Holt, Staff Writer
Burnt and naked, the young man had been trapped in the burning school with teachers and fellow students for more than eight hours when a “voice inside” told him to try to escape.
Using a charred bone from a human leg, Gilbert Tuhabonye smashed a window and began to run.
“The whole idea was not just to run away, it was just to get these people to kill me,” Tuhabonye said. “This is what I call the miracle-I’ve given myself to these people; they didn’t see me. It was hard at the moment to tell who was guiding me, but now I believe that was the voice of God telling me to leave.”
Tuhabonye ran away from the school building across the African bush, eventually falling into a creek bed to put out the fire on his back and legs. Taking everything inside him to stay alive and alert, he eventually made his way to a hospital nearby and to safety from the machete-wielding men chasing him.
Tuhabonye, an all-American distance runner for ACU from 1997-2001, commemorated the 10th anniversary Tuesday of his deliverance from death at the start of Burundi’s current fierce civil war. He now lives in Austin with his wife and daughter, selling running shoes and clothes and coaching distance running on the side.
The skinny, dark Tuhabonye simply shouldn’t be alive today, however.
At about 6 p.m. on Oct. 21, 1993, a mob of Hutus, one of Burundi’s two main ethnic groups, rounded up a group of students and teachers at the Christian school in Kimbimba, locking them inside. The Hutu mob trapped them for one reason-they were from the Tutsi tribe, the dominant ethic group in Burundi. The mob surrounded the building, then doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. Gilbert and many of his Tutsi classmates and teachers were inside.
Many of his Hutu classmates and teachers were outside, chanting and singing about murdering their new enemies.
“To me, everything was happening so quick, I couldn’t understand; I couldn’t see how these people could change to animals,” Tuhabonye recalls. “People you’ve been friends with, your teammate-all of a sudden they become a killer.”
Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of the small African country, had been assassinated by the Tutsi-dominated army that morning. What came next was utter mayhem in the country of nearly six million people-Hutus were enraged at the assassination of the president, who was from their tribe, and sought to kill any and all Tutsis they could find.
The Kimbimba Massacre, as it is now called, was one of the first results of the Hutu hatred of their president’s “killers,” the Tutsis. Inside the school, Tuhabonye watched as many fell dead all around him from trying to escape or because of the flames.
“I was watching people dying one by one, waiting for my turn,” he remembered.
He hid under bodies as Hutus walked through the mass grave searching for any living Tutsi. Finally, at a little after 2 a.m., Tuhabonye said he heard a voice telling him to get out of the building.
“It was locked, and the door and window were made of hard material. I used a charred body-a dead body, because it was burning so long. I could take my body and throw myself outside. So that’s what I did. It was burning my hands, but I didn’t have a choice then. To tell you the truth, it was God telling me to do that, because I had never done anything like that before. Fire scared me-but that night I was so strong, so angry. I couldn’t understand people throwing us in the fire and couldn’t understand the war.”
Charred with third degree burns on his back, right leg and arms, the Burundi 400- and 800-meter national champion ran. He ran until a few Tutsi soldiers found him, taking him to a hospital nearby.
If it had ended there, Tuhabonye’s story could have been a successful box office hit. But it didn’t. The brave teenager wouldn’t let it.
Sometime during his arduous three-month recovery period in the hospital, Tuhabonye decided he wanted to run again. Despite his inability at that point to feed or wash himself, let alone walk, he made it his goal to return to competitive distance running.
Four years after the Kimbimba Massacre, a 22-year-old Tuhabonye stepped onto the campus of Abilene Christian University, which he had heard about from Burundi Olympian Patrick Nduwimana.
“I remember sitting in the dorm, and I heard the bells,” Tuhabonye recalled. “They reminded me of my hometown, because it is the bells that tell you it is time to go to church. It just clicked-I said, ‘This is where I want to be.'”
When Tuhabonye graduated from ACU in May 2001, he had collected much more than just his bachelor’s in agricultural business. He had been a part of seven NCAA Division II National Champion track and field teams and been named all-America three years in track and field and cross country. In 1999, he also was presented with the Giant Steps Award for being the nation’s most courageous male student-athlete, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet then-president Bill Clinton.
“I would say I don’t have any regrets being at ACU,” Gilbert said. “I keep saying that all the things that happened to me at ACU, it was the power of God speaking to me, talking to me.”
Head track and field coach Jon Murray, who, with then-head coach Wes Kittley offered Tuhabonye a scholarship in 1997, said the faith of the Burundian stems from his experiences in life.
“He went through a near-death situation and saw a lot of people die around him, so he appreciates what life is all about,” Murray said. “It’s that perspective that he carries through everything he does in life, because he knows that life is very fragile and can end very quickly-he’s seen it end for a lot of people.
“That appreciation of life, that comes from God, is closely tied to every activity that he does.”
Tuhabonye now tells his riveting story to anyone who will listen-school and church groups, groups of runners and media outlets. Texas Monthly magazine published his story in their August issue, and the story will next appear in Reader’s Digest in early 2004.
“One of the things is just to keep speaking about the power of God, to try to spread the word how God has saved me,” Tuhabonye said of the publicity.
He also dispenses his knowledge of running to anyone who’ll listen. In addition to his full-time job at the Austin running apparel franchise RunTex, Tuhabonye coaches upwards of 100 Austinites who want to run a faster 10K or marathon, or who just want to get in shape.
Tuhabonye’s pupils are called “Gilbert’s Gazelles.”
“I like it-I like watching people, training people. Also, working in the store, you meet a lot of people-because everybody needs shoes. It’s nice in Austin, because everybody likes to run,” he said.
Murray isn’t surprised at Tuhabonye’s current jobs and projects.
“He’s going to be successful wherever he goes,” Murray said. “He’s got a niche down there, he’s done a good job, developed opportunities for himself-I’m proud of him. I think he’s done a good job representing ACU, even past his athletic career here.”
For 10 years, athletics have often given Tuhabonye the platform to tell his story. He tells it freely and with feeling, careful always to give God the glory. He also leaves his future in the hands of his creator.
“There’s a lot of things I hope to do,” he said. “In terms of a career, I’ll go wherever God is taking me.”
What he has done with his tumultuous past also is profound.
“I’ve learned how to forgive and to forget and how to focus more on how to lead other people and be a good example-speaking a word for God, being an ambassador for him as much as I can,” Tuhabonye declared.
“Because if it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be here.”