FOREST PARK – Looking at Marie-Christine Williams in the event space at the Missouri History Museum, you probably wouldn’t tag her as someone who has seen as much, if not more, violence than any other resident of St. Louis. But that’s exactly who she is.
She spent her early childhood in France living with her grandmother, who survived German concentration camps and made it through the Holocaust. Williams comes by her survival instinct honestly.
“I never understood it,” she said of her grandmother’s constant message of fighting for survival. “I never understood her pain until it actually happened to me.”
It began happening to her the day after the president of Rwanda was assassinated in 1994. She remembers the date: April 7. Williams was then living with her father, a member of the Tutsi tribe, in Rwanda. Her village, like so many others that day, came under attack by blood-thirsty Hutu gangs.
“I remember hearing people screaming and begging for mercy and forgiveness,” she said. “And I remember the smoke. My house was on fire.”
She peeked over her backyard wall to see what was happening.
“That’s when I saw one of my friends, her name was Irena, coming toward the wall, the fence where I was. There was a man behind her with a machete, a broad machete. When the man saw me, he told me that your house was next. So, at the time he killed my friend, I fell to the ground. I panicked.”
Then she ran. Over the next 100 days or so, anywhere from 500,000 to a million people were hunted down and murdered in Rwanda. Memorials display their bones. It’s a stunning visual that illustrates the horror. Through it all, Williams followed that one instinct: Run.
“I was in the jungle for 100 days, completely naked with no shoes on,” she recalled. “I was lost most of the time, and what I used to do during the day, I would hide, and move during the nights.
“I used to go places where nobody wanted to go. Like hiding in the dead bodies, and hiding under bridges and in the sewers.”
At one point she found an infant. The baby was the lone survivor of an attack. Everyone surrounding the crying infant was dead. She tried to care for the child, but eventually the two were captured.
She said they were locked away with a large group of women and children in a school.
“Every day they would come and pick three or four women and girls. They would take them and gang rape them and kill them.”
Eventually, she said, her captors realized they were about to lose the country’s civil war. Everyone in the school was gathered up and marched to a bridge. This was to be the day that they were all going to die. Most of them did. But Williams followed that instinct again.
“I took off running, and the Hutu tribe decided to shoot me. He shot me in the leg. So when I fell to the ground, he came quickly, he grabbed my leg and took me back on the bridge,” she recalled. “He snatched that baby out of my hands and he threw it off the bridge. And the first thing I remember was the first swing of the machete. Then of course he threw me off the bridge. Later on a stranger actually found me, and took me and dumped me in an empty hospital.”
The slaughter ended with the Hutu government’s being overthrown. She said she was hospitalized for four years, recovering from her injuries, both physical and emotional.
In the years that followed, she would meet an American, whom she married. He was diagnosed with cancer and passed away about a decade ago, just after the couple arrived in the United States for good.
Many of his relatives were in St. Louis, so she moved here to raise their son among family.
Countless memorials to the hundreds of thousands of dead in Rwanda have followed the slaughter of 1994, along with books, including a pair by Williams. She speaks often around the country, and in St. Louis, because she believes her message needs to be heard.
“Me being here, I think God placed me here so I can help people to understand what love means, and acceptance, and diversity, and that we can accept each other how we were created,” she said. “My story is just to remind them that I’m here. I made it. I found peace and I found hope and found love in my heart. After everything I went through, why can’t you do better? You live in this beautiful country.”