The Refugee

UPDATED 09/26/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/26/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

LIN INGABIRE STARTED SCHOOL two weeks ago. Joining his kindergarten classmates at Holy Name of Jesus, a Catholic school in New Orleans, he finger-painted, sat in a circle for story time and took a nap. He was just a kid doing what thousands of other kids were doing on the first day of school.

Except that Lin's presence in class was a miracle. Until last month, as he wasted away in a disease-ravaged refugee camp in Zaire, Lin, 4, seemed destined to become just another statistic of Rwanda's civil war.

Lin's father, Celestin Hakiruwizera, 38, is a Hutu, a member of Rwanda's ethnic majority, and a physician who had once worked for his country's Office for Population Control. In 1992 he came to New Orleans to pursue graduate 4studies in public health at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. His wife, civil servant Florence Ingabire, 35, and their children, Angelique, 7, and Lin—who, in keeping with local custom, took their mother's surname—stayed behind in Kigali, the capital. The communal warfare between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority, which started last April, erupted so suddenly that Celestin—in the U.S. on a student visa and subject to stringent travel restrictions—was unable to get home to help his family.

On April 8, with warring forces contesting Kigali, Hakiruwizera spoke to his wife by telephone. Sitting in his apartment in New Orleans, he could hear artillery shells exploding. "She told me, 'They bombed the fourth house from ours, so we are inside,' " says Hakiruwizera. "And she said the kids don't have anything to eat—there's no water." That conversation was the last Hakiruwizera would have with his wife. When he tried to call her again the next day, the line was dead.

On June 19, Hakiruwizera, frantic with worry over his family, got a letter from Rwanda's former minister of public health, an old friend from his days in government service, with the news he had been dreading for weeks. Florence, a Tutsi, had been slain with a machete.

Then on June 30, another letter, this one from Hakiruwizera's sister-in-law, by now in the Goma refugee camp, brought news of a holocaust. "My wife was dead, my daughter was dead," he recalls. "So were my dad, my two brothers, my two brothers-in-law and my two sisters." All that was left of his family was little Lin, the son he hadn't seen since the boy was just 2. His sister-in-law, who would soon die of cholera, had seen him in the camp.

Desperate, Hakiruwizera turned to his friend Allen Campbell, president of Air Care International, a New Orleans-based humanitarian organization that ships supplies to war-torn areas of Africa. Hakiruwizera had been assisting Air Care's Rwanda relief effort by consulting on his countrymen's nutritional needs. Recalls Campbell: "When Celestin called, he was weeping. He said 'Allen, help. My son is alive in Rwanda. I've got to get him out.' " As Campbell worked out the logistics of taking his friend to Africa, Tulane students helped raise $500 to defray his expenses.

Through the intervention of Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D.-La.), Hakiruwizera got permission to leave the U.S. for 60 days. On Aug. 2 he and Campbell took off for Uganda, which borders Rwanda on the north, and rented a truck to travel to Zaire. "We went from camp to camp, looking around and asking people about Lin," says Hakiruwizera. At one point they were joined by a man claiming to know where Lin was; eventually the search party grew to 10 people in two cars.

On Aug. 5, Lin's fourth birthday, Hakiruwizera got a break. A refugee at one of the camps said, "We found a little boy who said he's so glad his daddy is in America." Hakiruwizera ran to the boy, and the child cried out, "Dad!" For a few seconds, the father was doubtful, not recognizing the emaciated child who had lived for three months on a daily ration of a spoonful of rice and some raw corn. "The problem was he was sick with malnutrition," says Hakiruwizera. "Honestly, I thought he was not my son. Then I thought, 'Tonight he is going to die.' He was lying on the ground, the very dark soil."

Instead, Lin remained in Kampala, Uganda, for the next 3 ½ weeks as his father nursed him back to health. On Aug. 30 the two began the 21-hour journey back to New Orleans, where Lin, afflicted with too-vivid memories of Rwanda's carnage, can try to recapture his childhood. After a brief visit to New York City, Hakiruwizera, who is back at Tulane, is planning to resume his studies. He is still dazed by his good luck in finding Lin, but he worries about the children he saw in the camps. "I will return to Rwanda," he says. "I am somebody who can help those people."

MICHAEL NEILL
SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City

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