On the night of August 13, 2004, Fille Kinyamahanga laid under a bed next to her grandfather. The lights were off and they did not make a sound as they did not want to make their presence known to the attackers outside. The two were forced to take refuge under the bed after a bullet penetrated the kitchen window. In silence, they were filled with fear for their lives and their loved ones less than a mile away. She realized that even in this "safe haven", a refugee camp, danger was imminent. The sound of gunshots continued to echo throughout the camp. Still, she took comfort from a verse in the book of Titus.
“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” - Titus 1:5
Fi fi grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the daughter of a pastor and respected leader in the community. At the time, she was the second oldest of her three siblings. Her tribe, Banyamulenge, was primarily Christian and with her father as pastor, her family was immersed into the local church.
Though her father was regarded as a spiritual leader in the village, Fifi never felt completely accepted by her friends or others in areas outside of her tribe. Banyamulenge are considered outsiders to most locals in the Congo. It is believed that they originated from East Africa and migrated to the Congo.
“Life was hard," Fifi says. "We had so many friends, but we knew at the end of the day they would not consider us as their own people — and these are the people you grow up with, my friends, kids I went to school with.”
Society reminded her constantly from a very young age that she and her people were not welcome. When she was just five years old, her family was thrown out of their own village. Similar to the racial discrimination between Hutus and Tutsi during the Rwandan massacre, her people were looked down upon with the same disdain because of their “immigrant” status.
“I have always considered myself a refugee," Fifi says. "Even in my own country, I am not accepted.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is in the central region of Africa neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. The country is about three times the size of Texas with a population of around 80 million. It is a nation renowned for its never-ending conflict. Many regard the nation’s recent conflict from 1994 to 2003 as the world’s deadliest since World War II. Today, there is still conflict in eastern areas of the country due to continual tribal quarrels and rebellions.
Because of this conflict, Fifi and her tribe were forced to leave their home village in June of 2004. Her tribe had evacuated before to avoid an attack. Usually, they crossed the border into Burundi and waited until the war died down before moving back.
This time, locals threw rocks at them as they left the village. Members of their tribe were beaten in the street. “This time, it felt more hostile,” she said.
After a couple of days traveling, they finally crossed the border into Burundi. They were safe. They slept on the ground in a field for several days with other refugees before the United Nations began constructing tents for refugees. Her family split up. Her uncle moved into the city, and her grandmother moved to a separate refugee camp. At the time, her mother was about six months pregnant.
Despite poor living conditions in the camp, Fifi remembers her tribe praising the Lord for his goodness and their survival. They regularly held services. Her father preached while the choir worshipped as if it was a normal service in their home village.
Two months after their arrival in Burundi, Fifi paid a visit to her grandmother in the separate camp to check on her. While visiting, her grandmother told her to return home. Fifi’s mother was now eight months pregnant and the baby’s birth could have happened at any moment. She began making her way back home with her cousin when she decided to rest at her grandfather’s home because it was getting dark. Her cousin prompted her to keep going, but something did not feel right.
“Inside my heart, I was really nervous,” Fifi said. Her grandfather’s house was only a ten-minute walk from her home, but she decided to stay while her cousin continued walking to the camp.
This is the night it happened — where we return to the start of the story.
Fifi crawled from under the bed. As the gunshots outside of her grandfather’s home grew faint, she heard screams. The sound of gunfire was now coming from the direction of the refugee camp — her home. She began thinking of her cousin. “I was just walking with her two hours ago. Did she make it there? Should I have stayed with her?”
She worried for the safety of her family, her tribe. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., she heard a man yelling outside her grandfather’s home. He was yelling in their native Kinyamulenge dialect, “Help! Somebody come help us!” As the man came closer, she recognized him. It was her father. He was covered in blood.
He said that the attackers swarmed the camp and lit their tent on fire. As her parents tried to escape, the attackers opened fire, shooting her pregnant mother and two sisters. Her father held on tightly to his son as they ran outside of the tent, but his son was also shot. “He died right away, right there in front of me,” he told her.
Fifi listened, but refused to accept the reality of her family’s death. “I had to go find my mom, my sisters,” Fifi said. “My dad tried to grab my arm but I got out of it and started running towards the camp.” Her father and grandfather ran after her.
She arrived in front of the camp and froze in disbelief. Smoke filled the sky. Tents were burned down. People she had known her entire life were screaming in agony.
“You can see a person burning alive and you don’t have a way to go and help them,” she said.
They made their way into the camp where she saw both of her great uncles dead on the ground. Their bodies were piled on top of each other. “I told you,” her father said. “No one survived.” She took a few more steps when she saw her aunt lying there, dead as well.
Later, she came across the dead body of her cousin; the same cousin who prompted her earlier that night to continue the trek back to the refugee camp.
She and her father searched the camp for hours but were unable to find any members of her immediate family. Despite death all around her, she held onto the same verse from Titus and received comfort from this passage.
After a few hours of grieving such loss and tragedy, Fifi then found a friend from her tribe who told her that her mother and siblings were miraculously alive and in the hospital.
This event would later be known as The Gatumba Massacre. A total of 166 were slaughtered by armed factions between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. during the evening of August 13, 2004. Victims of the tragedy were exclusively members of the Banyamulenge tribe.
Since that night, more than 500 survivors including Fifi and her family were relocated to North America. Fifi gives all the thanks and glory to God for her family’s survival. Though they sustained serious injuries, they are all alive and well today including her brother who was presumed dead and her youngest sister born after the massacre.
Though she was initially filled with gratitude, she was also confused. “Why would God spare them?” she asked. Her cousin and most of their entire family was wiped out. Friends that she knew growing up, members of her tribe laid dead on the ground, but God spared her family. She looked back on the sequence of events - how she felt uneasy about going back to the camp, how her mother and brothers were miraculously saved. She recounted again Titus 1:5. “The reason I left you was that you might put in order what was left unfinished.”
God saved Fifi and her family for that reason — “You might put in order what was left unfinished.”
Her father spent his life spreading the message of God’s love to a people who considered him an outsider. They threw rocks at his people. They attacked his tribe. They forced him and his own family out of their village because of the belief that they were inferior. Yet, they came back to the very people who continued to treat them with such disdain to share a message of love to them. Why? Simply because of the Great Commission.
Today, Fifi is a junior at SAGU and is studying social work. She believes the training she is receiving will equip her to go back and minister to the Congolese. Her story will provide a unique voice to speak into the broken lives of the Congolese who desperately need to hear the Gospel.
“I feel like there is always a second chance in life,” she says. “There is a reason why. The life that I used to have is my testimony today.”