Mar 13, 2017 / 03:02 am
She begged and scrounged for food in the forest; she drank water from a stream with dead bodies in it; she wrapped grass on her feet in order to walk long distances in the hot sun in order to survive, facing starvation and malnourishment, all before the age of six.
Now, Mirreille Twayigira is a licensed medical doctor hoping not just to save lives, but to inspire young women worldwide – particularly those in her same situation – by showing them there’s hope, and that life is more than the tragedies they face.
While some might label her life “a tragic story” due to the suffering and loss she faced as a young child, Twayigira said others might choose to call it “a story of courage and perseverance.”
However, “I choose to call it a story of hope, a story of God…from ashes to beauty, (like) a beautiful stained glass window.”
Twayigira was among several speakers at the March 8 Voices of Faith women’s gathering in the Vatican, marking International Women’s Day.
First held in 2014, the VoF conference was established in response to Pope Francis’ call to “broaden the space within the Church for a more incisive feminine presence.”
Gathering women from around the world, this year’s VoF took place at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, and featured testimonies of women from around the world, including Syria and Burundi, who shared their stories of perseverance, highlighting the importance of building peace in a world filled with conflict.
In her testimony, Twayigira noted that when war broke out between Tutsis and members of the Hutu majority the government, leading to mass killings of the Tutsi tribe, she was just three years-old.
Although she doesn’t remember much about the war itself when it started, she remembers the day she got the news that her father had been killed.
“I remember being told that my father had been killed, his body being brought home wrapped in this blue tent,” she said, noting that she was too young to fully understand what was happening on the day of his burial.
Before the war, “we were a big, happy family. Our house was next to our grandparent’s house, so my sister and I used to spend our days with uncles and aunts…so it was a beautiful and happy childhood,” she said.
After her father’s death, however, this changed dramatically.
“My family knew that it was no longer safe for us, so they had to pack and leave,” she said, explaining that at first, they fled to another district of Rwanda, thinking they would be safe.
However, after just a short time her younger sister, who was just one-year-old at the time, got sick and, because her family didn’t have access to medicine or proper nourishment due to the war, she passed away.
After her sister’s death – which marked the second time she had lost a sibling, since an older sister had died before Twayigira was born – the family fled through Burundi to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“In the camp I was a very happy kid,” she said, “but this all ended when I encountered more loss.”
While in the camp, her mother fell ill and “one night she was gone.” However, Twayigira said that despite the tragic death of her mother, “life had to go move on,” so she and her grandparents continued to move forward.
But just two years later, in 1996, they had to leave because of war in the DRC, which is when “I began to experience a life that is unimaginable,” she said, recalling how she had her grandparents fled the camp with bullets flying over their heads, and took refuge in the forest.
“We only survived by begging for food,” she said. Her grandparents begged from locals in nearby villages, and at times were given moldy bread to eat. When begging wasn’t enough, “we even had to eat roots from the forest.”
“I remember sometimes we had to drink water from rivers with dead bodies floating in it,” she said, noting that their situation had become one of the “survival of the fittest.”
They had long distances to walk going from village to village and in search of another camp, many times walking on rough terrain. When the weather was too hot for their bare feet, they bunched up grass and tied it to their feet in order to be able to walk.
“We escaped death from so many things: from hunger, bullets, drowning, wild animals, you name it. No child should go through what I went through. In fact, nobody should go through what I went through,” she said. …
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