With the echo of gunshots arousing fear into the city of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, sophomore soccer player Imani Innocent and his cousin run with a crowd of fellow villagers. They don’t know where they are running, but they know they have to keep running. Both are just 8 years old.
Goma is located on the border with Rwanda, the area ravaged by genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi that led to the violent deaths of countless people.
It was a day in 1996 just like any other. “We were just eating lunch,” he said.
“(Then) we heard gun shots. People were shooting. Me and my cousin just took off and left my family behind,” Innocent said. “We just followed the crowd. Everybody was running with babies on their backs and mattresses on their heads.”
Innocent and his cousin spent the night next to strangers, not knowing whether their parents were dead or alive.
Looking for a Familiar Face
“So in the morning, we started looking in everybody’s face … to see if there was anybody that we know, like part of the family, and there was no one,” Innocent said, “So we almost gave up hope.”
Soon after, one of their relatives spotted them, and they were reunited with the rest of the family. They made plans to travel the three-day journey to safety in his mother’s village, Masisi.
Innocent said, “If you were in a car, they would take you out and kill you and take the car.
Genocide from Rwanda was affecting the lives of people in the surrounding countries, such as the Congo.
In Masisi, where his grandfather was the pastor of the local church, his family tried to get back to life as normal.
“There we started all over again. We had a house,” Innocent said.
He started attending school, where students were taught French and Swahili, the language spoken in central and eastern Africa. Unfortunately, peace of this small village near the border of Rwanda was short-lived.
Facing Danger Again
“We had everything going,” Innocent said, “but it wasn’t long before war broke out again.”
This time Innocent says he was “smart enough” to stay with the family.
“We all waited at the same place … we went to a bush that was nearby to hide ourselves,” he said.
Within moments their ability to remain unseen behind the leaves became a matter of life and death.
“My mom said, ‘I don’t trust this place. Let’s move into the bush a little bit. I don’t trust that this can keep them from seeing us.’”
The family quietly made their way farther into the bamboo bushes, fearing their lives could be taken if they made the smallest noise. A snap of a branch within hearing distance of the rebels could end seriously.
“But my aunt said, ‘I’ll catch (up). Let me just stay here and (finish) nursing my baby and then I’ll come over,’” Innocent said.
The family hesitantly repositioned without her.
“She never came back,” Innocent said, “They killed her with her baby.”
Later his grandmother left the safety of the bushes to find her adult son, who was mentally ill.
“(She) went back to get him and never came back,” he said.
The family was forced to contain their grief, forced to keep quiet for their own safety.
Innocent said, “We got all this news, but nobody could cry out loud. If they did, they would kill us.”
With their refuge only a few feet from the men who could take lives with ruthlessness, the family made plans for an escape.
“There was no cooking because if they saw smoke (from the fire), they could kill us at any time,” he said, “what kept us alive was banana trees.”
Journey to “Safety”
They walked back to Goma when they heard it was safe again.
“Once we got to Goma, we had a funeral for those we lost,” Innocent said.
Shortly after, they went to Nairobi, Kenya, for safety.
Innocent said “someone started knocking on the door like they were going to knock it off” one night while the family was eating dinner.
They knew this was how the police knocked.
“When they did that, my dad ran as quick as could to turn off the lights.”
But the police already knew people were inside. His father opened the door and the police handcuffed him, gathered his entire family and put them in jail.
There they remained for more than two weeks, with women and children in a separate cell from the men.
Sent to Refugee Camp
“A couple days later, they put us in a big bus and sent us to Kakuma Refugee Camp.”
This camp contains nearly 100,000 people from nearby countries. Innocent’s family found shelter in a mud home they built in the Congolese community in the camp.
His name, Imanishimwe Innocent, which means “Praise God” in Kinyabwisha, was shortened to just “Imani.”
“My prayer everyday was to get out of there … and get a better country,” he said.
In the refugee camp, school was free of charge, but he paid the price of physical harm.
“I remember everyday being late (to school) in the morning because I had to go fetch water. They had this gate … and a fence made out of thorns around the school,” Innocent said.
If students arrived late, they had to wait outside the gate.
“They would send you back home to get a gallon of water and when you came back with it … they would beat you–beat you up, whether your hands, your buttocks or whatever.”
After class was over, the kids had to clean the rooms with the water they’d brought.
Some of his teachers even used the metal strip on a wooden ruler for enforcing punishment.
“It’s just like a knife … they used it for hitting your hands.”
“I remember another punishment,” he said, “I would have to walk on my knees from the gate all the way to the class, and when I got to my class all the skin came off. It just started peeling off.”
For entertainment, he played soccer barefooted on the hot sands of Kenya, with a ball made out of plastic bags.
He said, “It was not pretty over there, and soccer was everything to me.”
After six years in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, the family finalized plans to come to the United States.
“When I got here it was all different,” he said, “From the airport to the apartment … I just saw all the bridges. It was a night, and the lights–I was like wow look at this place.”
Once in the States, he started high school in Fort Worth and joined the Boys and Girls Club. A woman from their church, Nancy Galassi, helped him apply to colleges.
He played soccer and joined the cross-country team at Carter Riverside High.
He decided to attend UMHB after attending Crusader Connection despite his first impression.
“I saw purple everywhere, and I was, like, this is a girly school,” he said.
New Life, New College
This year, he is balancing the course load as a nursing major and member the Cru soccer team. He is thankful for all God has done in his life.
“God is amazing, in how He could answer my prayer like that,”
Innocent said. “Me being at UMHB is the best choice ever. This feels (like) home.”
As he and his family flew across the Atlantic Ocean, he knew their lives were about to change forever–for the better.
Innocent said, When I was in Kakuma Refugee camp, I just dreamt of the United States as heaven, as a paradise. Even though I did not find the U.S. as a paradise. I’m here. I cannot believe this. It came true.”