“We were hunted every minute, every second – people dying all around us. Rwanda looked like a big, open graveyard at one point. There were bodies everywhere.”
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Celestine Lakin
Jeanne Celestine Lakin survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994. She says that as a child, her life in the east-central African country was a good one. She was one of ten siblings, and says she was spoiled by all the love she received. But she saw the seeds of the eventual genocide planted in her school and community. Members of the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority populations were segregated in schools.
“The neighbors, those we considered our extended family – many of them started telling us that we would actually die,” Lakin says. “But then it all happened very fast.”
When the killing began, her family split up. Her infant brother remained with her mother, while Lakin and her three-year-old twin sisters stayed with her father.
“We lived in the bushes, moving from one bush to another, hiding in the swamps,” Lakin says. “We were hunted every minute, every second – people dying all around us. Rwanda looked like a big, open graveyard at one point. There were bodies everywhere.”
By the time of the genocide, some 1 million people had been killed.
“At one point, there was this misleading propaganda on the radio,” Lakin says. “They said that they [had] forgiven women and children. I went to the mayor to confirm, and the mayor sent me to a village were he said we would actually be safe. He actually sent me into a killing squad.”
Lakin was sexually abused by the leader of the killing squad, and was taken by him to a refugee camp in Congo.
She escaped and returned to Rwanda, where she could find no services or shelter because the orphanages were full. The experience led her to create One Million Orphans, a nonprofit that raises money to provide counseling to orphans worldwide. Lakin has also written a memoir, “A Voice in the Darkness,” about her experiences.
“It’s very amazing how so many people can relate, not just like the sexual abuse, the heartbreaking experience watching my family die, but also just as simple as really being able to walk through the forgiving process,” Lakin says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.