by Bridget Tharp '06

Chosen to Die, Destined to Live

by Bridget Tharp '06

Growing up in Rwanda, BGSU Firelands student Frida (Umuhoza) Gashumbe was often reminded: “There is always strength to do what you need to do.”

It was just one of those things her mother said, a scolding when Frida was avoiding her childhood chores or whining about the unfairness of having so many responsibilities. After all, her brothers were allowed to play outside for hours, and her only sister had escaped such duties by living with doting grandparents.

Being female meant being responsible, she learned. Rwandan girls were in training to become women who kept their families healthy and happy. Training started early. With no running water in her village, Frida was 6 years old when she started the daily walk of three miles to gather fresh water for her family. She had to wash the family’s clothes by hand, water the garden and help to tidy the house.

Her mother was busy with the daily duties of maintaining a banana plantation, and her father supported his wife and six children as a business man by supplying secondhand clothing to retailers and operating a taxi service in another city. They could also afford to send Frida and her siblings to private school, which was something of a luxury that some other families couldn’t afford. Both her parents also ran small businesses on the side, offering services to many of their poorer neighbors whether or not they could afford to pay. Life was good, and Frida was happy.  

“My family was really generous, and they did a lot for others,” Frida said. “I used to think we’d be OK because we are loved so much in this village. That it would never happen to us.”

Those words of scolding had a different meaning after May 7, 1994. It was the day her entire family was murdered. She had been buried alive in a grave with her dead family before she was rescued. She was 14 years old. Her mother’s words — “There is always strength to do what you need to do” — and her faith in God became sources of healing strength that empowered her to later return to her nation to rebury her family and to meet with one of the killers to forgive him.

From left, sister Solangé “Mimi” Umugwaneza, Frida holding the face of her youngest brother, Regis Dominique Shumbusho; house boy Mbangukira Welaris; brother Alestide Munyabugingo; oldest brother Cesar Uwineza, and cousin Alain Munezero. All but Frida were killed.

Frida has spoken publicly at BGSU Firelands and for groups around the world about how she forgave those responsible for the tragedy. Six years ago she also published a memoir, “Frida: Chosen to Die, Destined to Live” (Sovereign World, UK). After her book was published, she met an Ohio family who offered to help her move to the United States. She is now busy studying nursing at BGSU Firelands and raising three children as a divorced, single parent. The international student recently sat down with BGSU Magazine to share the rest of her story.

Tensions had been growing between Rwanda’s two racial tribes throughout her childhood. Frida’s family was Tutsi. Growing up she had often overheard her parents discussing whether the family should flee the country to avoid the growing threat of violence by the other race, Hutu. The most powerful leaders in the country were of Hutu descent, and the government was distributing weapons to Hutu people and using public radio to encourage the slaughter of Tutsi people. In school, the Tutsi children were often asked to stand up to be counted and doing so became a progressively more humiliating and dangerous exercise. The hatred was contagious. Though the conflict is sometimes recalled as a civil war, Frida doesn’t believe that Tutsi victims were fighting back.  

Genocidal mass killings had been going on for weeks before the day her family was killed. They had to split up, hiding separately for days in the woods and in neighbors’ homes. In her memoir, Frida wrote that when she and her grandmother were thrown out of their last safe haven, the Hutu neighbor hosting them had remarked: “I don’t want you to die here” and suggested that it might be safer to flee to the mountain where many other Tutsis were gathering. It turned out that doing so only made killing most of them easier for the mob, which included some of neighbors her parents had once helped. Some of the killers who didn’t want to waste a bullet even asked their victims to pay for the bullet, or be beaten to death instead.


One by one, Frida watched the people she loved die. Only her father, who had not been reunited with the group, was missing as each was asked to lay in a mass grave before being killed with a club or blade. Slain were her mother, several cousins, and her beloved siblings: her sister Mimi, and brothers Kiki, Cesar, Alestide, and the baby, Regis. The same fate was planned for Frida, who was clubbed in the back of the head and had her feet partially cut off before being pushed into the grave. She was in and out of consciousness as the mob hovered and started to bury the dead. She knew she had to lie very still, or they would finish killing her. After what was probably several hours in the ground, Frida heard the voices of the group that would rescue her. It was common practice for Hutu to bury victims, dead or not, and so some of Frida’s neighbors knew to check for survivors.

Today, Frida only holds on to a few mementos from her childhood. Most are photos of her family: an unsmiling photo of her parents posing on their wedding day, her cousins and siblings, and her childhood best friend. But the most remarkable among these items was the proof she has of her father’s death: withered identification papers that were buried with him when he was killed. For decades, her father’s remains were missing like many other victims of the genocide. She hoped, deep down, that meant he had survived. It wasn’t until she held the papers found when his body was exhumed that she felt she had some closure.

Left, Frida 7 years old. Above, she embraces a woman who lived near her family home.

“I thought as I’m working through the pain, that there was no way I could hold grudges and make it,” Frida said.

So she asked God for the strength to forgive the neighbor who had confessed to killing her father. She met with him to tell him so.

“It took years, but I knew it would do much more good for me to let go of something, to let go of the anger,” she said. “It eats you up. I was crying and depressed. I had abandoned God. I had no faith.”
She has three small children now who are just starting to ask questions about what happened to her, and most recognizing the absence of extended family on days like dance recitals or grandparents’ day at their elementary school in Norwalk, Ohio. Since they moved to the United States almost 18 months ago under the sponsorship of a family in Norwalk, she has tried to continue to teach them about their nation and its history. The nation remains unstable, despite the efforts of leadership to rebuild. Survivors continue to live beside those who killed loved ones. Even during her last visit home before moving to the U.S., she still couldn’t bring herself to sleep in her village.

The healing process continues, but she has found a new community through BGSU Firelands where she is enrolled in classes to earn a degree in nursing. She dreams of becoming a nurse and helping other orphans of the Rwandan genocide to heal. She has an extensive support system of friends and surrogate family in northwest Ohio and across around the world to help her reach those goals. She has much work ahead of her, and her mother’s philosophy will come in handy.

“I just wake up every day and tell myself I’m going to work,” she said. “I think it’s going to work.”

Updated: 12/01/2017 11:59PM