My friend the Olympian
I had been working out at the only gym in town, at the Kivu Sun hotel. (I use the term "gym" loosely because it has two treadmills and a couple of hand weights.) My friend Fabrice was there with his friend, Fred.
We began discussing the Olympics, and it was revealed to me that Fred had represented Rwanda at the 2000 Olympics, in the 10,000 meter and the marathon. (When I arrived, he had run 15 kilometers on the treadmill over the course of 30 minutes. I’m still trying to figure out how he did that.)
I’ve never met anyone who has competed in the Olympics, so we got to talking. Fred’s an Anglophone, which is the first sign of a refugee who lived in Uganda or Kenya. I was right. Fred’s grandfather had 5 wives, 32 children, and 800 heads of cattle. Owning cattle is a symbol of wealth, and Fred’s grandfather was very wealthy.
In 1959, his family fled Rwanda’s first recorded genocide against the Tutsis. They moved to Uganda, where he was born. They lived in the central region, and when Fred was 6, which would have been 1989, militiamen from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) invaded his village and carried him away to become a child soldier. He was given a one-month training course before he was armed. He carried an AK-47, which was taller than he was, so he dragged it on the ground. He was instead told to carry a box of bullets, and when the LRA went to battle against Ugandan army forces, he was to resupply the rebels.
During one battle, the LRA was defeated, and Fred ran. And ran and ran and ran. He eventually ended up in the hands of an international organization, who gave him demobilization training before he was sent back to his home to find his parents.
When he arrived, he was told that his parents had been killed by a train, and he took care of his three sisters, one of whom is wheelchair-bound.
He worked to put them through school, and joined a running club. He was soon running faster than everyone else, and did the same at the Olympic qualifying trials. He went to Sydney, and talks about it often. He hasn’t had the time to go to college yet, but he wants to learn computer science. “If running is all you have,” he said, “then once someone is faster than you, you don’t have anything anymore.”
After the Olympics, he returned to Kigali, where he finished secondary school and tried to get a job. In 2004, he heard that MONUC, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Congo (there is a very large contingent in Goma, across the border from Rwanda) was looking for English translators. He and a Rwandan friend were two of four finalists; the other two were Congolese.
He and his friend received the jobs, and were paid very well--$250 a month. Soon after they were hired, the two Congolese who hadn’t been hired pulled up beside them in a car, offering to show them around Goma.
Fred resisted, but his friend wanted to go with them. So they both got into the car, and the car started driving out of the city. When Fred asked why, they said that they were going to pick up a friend before driving back in.
After a while, there were no more houses, and they arrived in the forest, which is a known rebel area. The car stopped, and Fred and his friend were pulled out of the car, blindfolded, stripped naked, and beaten with sticks, reeds, and rocks. They were accused of being Rwandan spies, and of stealing Congolese jobs.
They were beaten every day. For three months.
The two were held in a rebel camp (yes, the two Congolese were rebels trying to be hired within the UN Mission that is fighting against them), and were forced to stand in a ditch filled with water up to their necks. Every morning, their captors would discuss whether to kill them that day, or whether to wait until the next day. Fred became emaciated. “I looked like an AIDS patient,” he said.
After three months, inexplicably, the head rebel decided to have mercy on them, saying that he would call one of their friends to let them know that they were hostages. The two were plucked from the water, showered, and given clothes. They were again blindfolded, and dropped off in Goma in the middle of the night.
Weak from the torture, their skin coming off in pieces, and in the middle of one of the most dangerous cities in East Africa (“At night, if you’re not murdered or raped, you will be at least robbed,” said Fred) the two sat on a curb and waited until daylight, when they were picked up and taken back to Rwanda.
For the next three months, Fred was in rehabilitation, his skin recovering. He told me that he will never go to Congo again.
Despite his experiences, Fred is calm, generous, and funny. He laughs, and I don’t know how he can manage to do so. Everyone copes with calamity in different ways, I suppose. He hardly tells anyone about what he’s been through, and when he does, it’s not to show that he’s been a victim or to impress. “It’s just life here,” he said, smiling, as if being a child soldier, an Olympic runner, and a hostage were inevitable. I told him that I can never really complain about anything again.