Gilbert Tuhabonye: Survival, Forgiveness and Heart

It isn’t every day I get to meet someone who survived a genocide. I don’t know what I expected, but the man I encountered was extremely kind, humble (even to the point of asking apologetically if the interview was taking place too early in the day for me) and—probably the most remarkable of all—forgiving of the people who were once out to kill him. Meet Gilbert Tuhabonye: champion runner, renowned running coach and co-founder of the Gazelle Foundation, a nonprofit that has provided clean, fresh water to thousands in Gilbert’s native Burundi.

Surviving Genocide

While Gilbert’s description of the events of October 21, 1993, give us only a glimpse into the horror of that day, it is nonetheless enough to portray an atmosphere of extreme betrayal and a terrifying ordeal.

On that day, Burundi’s president, Melchior Ndadaye—a member of the Hutu tribe—was assassinated by members of the rival Tutsi tribe. The Hutu immediately retaliated throughout the country by rounding up and putting to death every member of the Tutsi tribe they could find.

Gilbert was in his final year of what we would call high school, in the town of Kibimba, and up to that point any intertribal rivalries had not been an issue. He was already a national champion runner in the 400- and 800-meter events. But suddenly those who had been Gilbert’s friends and even running teammates were bent on putting him to death.

“The Hutu retaliated everywhere in the country,” Gilbert told Calmful Living. “At my school, they came and were trying to kill all the Tutsi they could find. I ended up in a burning building; they put us in the building and set the building on fire. I knew the people who put us in the fire. I was at that school for six years, and it was not a big city, so I knew everybody. I couldn’t understand how in the world these people who had yesterday been my friends were now doing this. In fact one of my teammates was really involved in trying to kill Tutsis, and I couldn’t understand.”

Although badly burned and surrounded and covered by the corpses of his fellow students and friends, Gilbert somehow managed to stay alive. “I was in the building for eight hours and witnessed my friends dying one by one,” Gilbert said. “I was waiting for my turn. Finally I asked forgiveness to God, and then I was able to run free.” With a charred bone, he broke through a window and escaped the burning building. After a harrowing journey, he ended up in a local hospital.

Recovery and Hope

“I spent three months in the hospital,” Gilbert continued. “I was told that running was out of the question because of my burns.”

But while in the hospital he received a letter from Tulane University in the US, offering him a full running scholarship. Despite being told he could never run again, Gilbert realized that running would provide the only key to his recovery from the horrible disaster that had befallen him. “That letter was a message of hope,” said Gilbert. “I began thinking about how I could start running again.

“The same night a friend of mine came to see me in the hospital. I could not stretch my leg because my knee was bent—I had a really bad burn above the knee. But the next day I stretched it using a bicycle. Then I began training and I started doing physical therapy.

“Running was the thing that gave me life again. It brought me joy, helped me to forget and move on in my life. I was able to forgive and forget about what happened—especially forgive. I decided to forgive the people who had tried to kill me so I could move on, and the only way to do it was running. After that, my goal was to make it to the United States and to run in the Olympics.”

Coming to America

In fact, it was Gilbert’s Olympic dream that ended up bringing him to the US.

“I was doing well as a runner in Burundi, but the country didn’t feel comfortable about letting me train there because it was not safe,” Gilbert said. “The war was still going on, so I had to come here where it was safer so that I could train and not worry about people trying to kill me.”

It was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that made it possible for him to do that. “The IOC goes to third-world countries like Burundi and gives scholarships to a few athletes who have the potential to become Olympians,” Gilbert explained. “In 1996 I came to the IOC training center in LaGrange, Georgia. The whole idea was to train for the Olympics.”

Shortly after he arrived, Gilbert was one of the carriers of the Olympic torch through Birmingham, Alabama, and following that he decided to study for a degree. It was not easy. “My English was horrible,” Gilbert recalled. “Burundi is a French country, so I had to learn English in order to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association. After the Olympics I was in Atlanta, but then I moved to Savannah, then on to Abilene Christian University in Texas on a full scholarship, where I won the 800 cross-country meet and 1,500 meters.”

During his time at Abilene Christian University, Gilbert became a national collegiate championship runner. He also received the Giant Steps Award from President Bill Clinton, at which time he met lifelong idol Muhammad Ali. And despite the many challenges in both language and culture, he went on to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Gilbert’s Gazelles

After college, Gilbert moved to Austin, Texas (his home to this day), where another change entered his life. “When I moved to Austin I was working for the RunTex running store,” Gilbert recounted. “It was about selling shoes, but at the same time it was about getting involved in the community and putting on events that bring the community together and help some good causes. One day I won this big 10K race. Afterward two women approached me to help them improve their running. They were triathletes. I helped them improve their time tremendously, from a ten-minute to an eight-minute mile. They went to their co-workers and told them about me. In a month twenty people had shown up, and they wanted to pay me.

“It was not something I planned. If you had asked me if I wanted to coach people, I would have said no! Back then I just wanted to train myself in order to go to the Olympics. But I found out that training and coaching other people is more rewarding. When you have someone achieve something like qualifying for the Boston Marathon, or bring home a trophy for their high school, or win a championship, it motivates you to go on; and I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”

It was then that his fledgling group of trainees asked him about the name of their team and organization. “One day when they showed up to run they said, ‘We want to pay you but we need a name.’” Gilbert laughed. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about, name?’ I was tempted to call them Gilbert’s Girls, because there were a bunch of women. But there was also a man, so that was no good. Then I got the picture of a running gazelle, and I came up with Gilbert’s Gazelles. It’s been growing ever since, from three people to now a couple of thousand. So I’m very happy and pleased to have things working out in Austin with the Gazelles.”

Gilbert coaches the local St. Andrew’s Episcopal high school team as well, which has won five championships in a row and is now going for a sixth.

This Voice in My Heart

In 2006, Gilbert wrote a book entitled This Voice in My Heart, in which he told his story and talked about the many lessons he has learned. “I never dreamed of writing a book,” Gilbert said. “But I was approached by many people to tell the story so that my kids or my grandkids or anybody could see what I went through and learn from it. It’s a memoir of genocide and faith and forgiveness. Most people think it’s about running; but it’s not about running, it’s about life. It’s about overcoming obstacles and being able to learn from the past. It’s about having faith in what you are doing and about having faith in God.”

Water to Burundi

One byproduct of the book was a very effective charitable organization called the Gazelle Foundation. “When the book came out in 2006 people kept asking, ‘How can I help?’” Gilbert related. “They said, ‘You have an incredible story; you have a mission. How can I help?’ Then one day I was running a 22-mile run with my two friends Peter Rauch and Paul Pugh. Paul was just coming out of Ethiopia, where he had been working with Habitat for Humanity. He asked me, ‘How can you do something to help your country? I’d be interested.’ We started tossing ideas about foundations, and sure enough, we got together, formed a committee, put together a group of people and the Gazelle Foundation was born.

“The main focus of the foundation is to provide clean water to people in Burundi where I grew up. When I was growing up we didn’t have water in the house, so I used to walk miles to go get the water. And sometimes it was contaminated because we shared water with animals. I started looking back at what happened, how I grew up and what I could do to change the lives of these people. So the foundation focused first on bringing clean water to the village where I grew up, then we moved around. At this moment I’m proud to say that 20,000 people are getting clean water close to home. It’s something beyond my comprehension to be able to do that. It’s really a great feeling. The foundation is doing an incredible job and I couldn’t be happier.”

Specifically, as of June 2013, 20,280 Burundians are being served with fresh, clean water, and 32.8 kilometers (20.3 miles) of pipe have been laid to carry this water. The Gazelle Foundation is targeting to have 10,000 more Burundians served by the end of the year.

“The hope for the future is to keep providing clean water so we can stop the cycle of poverty,” Gilbert said. “I am hoping that the water will help the people, so that kids can go to school and become better educated instead of spending hours fetching water; so that women can be creative and plant some vegetables by their homes. Usually they have to plant vegetables closer to the water.

“We give the water to everyone, even the Hutu who tried to hurt me, because it’s a sign of reconciliation. We want everybody to get clean water.”

Lessons Learned

The most profound message Gilbert has to offer deals with how he learned to move on and succeed in life, when the odds were most certainly stacked against him. It is this message that he imparts every day of his rich and rewarding life.

“One lesson is to not look into the past and to keep looking forward,” said Gilbert; “forgive your inner hate, forgive your family, forgive your relatives, and be able to move on. [pullquote]Wherever someone has hurt you in any way, be able to clear your mind so you can move on. Focus on the things that you can do better and focus on yourself. That’s how I was able to do it[/pullquote].

“When I’m coaching, I always push the message of forgiveness. I know that to be able to enjoy what you’re doing, you first have to have a passion. That passion comes about because you love what you do. To love what you do, you’ve got to clear your mind, you’ve got to look forward—always look forward toward what tomorrow will bring. You can change what tomorrow will be but you cannot change the past. You can learn from your past but you cannot change what happened.

“So I’ve learned from what happened to me. I’ve learned to live a healthy life. I’ve learned to move on. And that’s really huge and it’s very important to me.”  n


For more information or to donate to the Gazelle Foundation, please visit www.gazellefoundation.com.

To find out more about Gilbert’s Gazelles, go to www.gilbertsgazelles.com.

Gilbert’s book This Voice in My Heart is available from the Calmful Living bookstore