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From Tragedy to Justice: Part 2

Through the stories of Dave and Nathalie Piraino, both former CRS staff, we travel to Rwanda to learn more about the genocide where more than 800,000 people were massacred in just 100 days … and how that event influenced CRS to turn its focus to justice.


Behind the Story Podcast Series
From Tragedy to Justice: Part 2

Nikki Gamer: Hi everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. And welcome back to Behind the Story, a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history—the people we serve, our partners, our staff … and especially the supporters who make our work possible. In our last episode we met Dave and Nathalie Piraino, former CRS employees, who began telling the very difficult story of events leading up to the Rwandan genocide of April 1994 … when nearly a million people were killed in just 100 days. Nathalie is Rwandan, and they met and married when Dave took an assignment to Rwanda in the late 1970s.

Last month, Nathalie took us back to her childhood as part of a fun-loving, devoutly Catholic Tutsi family that began to feel the effects of civil war and discrimination years before the genocide.

Nikki Gamer: We left the story just as Nathalie and her Tutsi classmates were kicked out of school because of mounting violence. Through the kindness of strangers, they began making their escape on foot through the mountains, hiding in tall grass as homes were being burned around them. Let’s listen to what happened next …

Nathalie Piraino: We heard somebody whistling. Uh-oh, they found us. It was a Hutu priest. God bless you—they killed him in the genocide. Anyway, he said, “Other kids are at the parish.” “Where is the parish?” So he said, “It’s like 10 minutes from here.” He said, “But I cannot take you with me.” “Please, please.” We begged. He said, “No, if I take you, they kill you.” He showed us how to go down the hill. Then, he said, “Go down, turn left.” Oh my God. We felt like we died and went to heaven. We walked a little bit. There were these guys, the killers—sweating and with machetes, and it’s like, oooh, your heart is beating and you’re whispering Our Fathers, Hail Marys, as many as you could handle. Oh God, if we die here our parents will never know where we died or who killed us. We run up there, and poor priest, he was waiting for us at the gate.

Nikki Gamer: Wow, what a story. Dave, can you give us some context about how CRS was working in Rwanda in those days, before the genocide? And how we might have seen what was coming?

Dave Piraino: Yeah, CRS Rwanda worked through partners, particularly the Catholic Church with different parishes, but also with other local partners. And, in fact, one of our bigger programs was all the high schools were boarding schools, and CRS supplied those schools with food so that the students could have a good meal during the day. At that time in Africa, we were just starting what became our largest program across Africa, maternal child health programming.

So it was a way to encourage and educate people more to the link between health, eating and growth.

Nikki Gamer: Nathalie, you were fed by CRS as a child, right?

Nathalie Piraino: They fed me when I was a kid. So when we lived in the refugee camp, we left everything behind. So my parents and my older sister Tereza will go to get food, milk with that USAID hand check on the powdered milk, rice and yellow cornmeal. We were fed by CRS in elementary school. Lunchtime, you lined up, they give you two scoops of rice and milk, and you gobble it down.

Dave Piraino: In addition to the food and the weighing and the education, we would do some small projects related to food, like chicken raising or vegetable gardening, and relate those to health and the well-being of the child. We also had some agricultural projects in Rwanda.

Dave Piraino: But just to get back to one of your questions about the tensions between Hutu and Tutsi, there was a quota system for a lot of things in Rwanda. The government said they were basically 10% of the people in Rwanda—although that was questionable … many people thought there were more. But only 10% of the people could go to school and get jobs, and all of that. So one day, not too long after I got there, I was called into the office of the police, and they wanted to question me about our hiring practices. And they said, “Well you have a problem. And here’s the problem: You have 18 people, and you have two Tutsis. You’re only allowed to have 10% and you don’t have 20 staff so you must fire one of your Tutsis in the next week and come back in that period of time.”

Dave Piraino:  And I thought that is terrible. So I talked to the embassy to see if they could help us. I talked to the apostolic nuncio. I talked to some other nonprofits there, and they all said that’s the way it is here. So we ended up looking at the two Tutsis. One was an older gentleman who had actually been set to retire in another 8 months or 10 months, so we ended up firing him. And the other one luckily was younger, who had just started working with CRS, but that was a real wake-up call for me.

Nikki Gamer: Yeah, how did that impact your morale? I mean, because here you are married to a woman who’s a Tutsi and your children are Tutsi, I can imagine. So how did that impact you?

Dave Piraino: I felt helpless. I was in a system that promoted this and it appeared there was no way to get around it, and you have to bite your tongue, and figure that you’ve got to keep going and do it the best you can.

Nikki Gamer: What year was this?

Dave Piraino: This was 1978.

Nikki Gamer: Okay, so quite a few years before the actual genocide …

Dave Piraino: Yes, it was …

Nikki Gamer: The question then becomes, how did CRS not see this coming If we are in the country, if we are experiencing things like that. What went wrong in our own system?

Nathalie Piraino: I think every institution, with the exception of those who planned it, were taken off guard. If they knew they would have tried to flee, even if you cannot have the entire family run away, at least a few. I know within my family, at least my youngest siblings would have fled if they knew that they were going to be wiped out.

Dave Piraino: Well, for Catholic Relief Services, we were very focused on social economic development. That’s what we did. And we were an agency that didn’t get into politics. And for us, by not looking beyond our projects, we didn’t really look at the relationship between people.

I think as an agency, we looked at our work. We looked at what has to happen and what we could do differently. What were the relationships within the country that could affect the people? What was the government? Not that we wanted to feel we had to get involved with government issues, but we realized we have to know how those relationships, whether they’re good or bad, would impact on the people that we were working with—and then we might have to change how we would approach our projects.

Nikki Gamer: And from my understanding, the focus on peacebuilding came out of that.

Dave Piraino: Yes, that’s correct. And out of that, where we ended up is going back to Catholic social teaching. And we wanted to look through what we called the “justice lens” and look at the principles of Catholic social teaching, which basically were the idea of the dignity of every human person, the rights and responsibility of people. We wanted the people closest to problems, the people that knew the problem best to not only help solve it, but to identify what it was.

And of course, solidarity—together as a team and with various people in agencies. So the next 2 years after these initiatives were taken, every country program, including headquarters here in Baltimore, had to go through a process that we call the justice reflection. They had to look at their programming, they had to look at the relationships within the office, within their staff, within management and within the country, through this justice lens that basically focused on these principles of Catholic social teaching.

Nikki Gamer: So it’s 1994. You are living in Baltimore, and Nathalie, tell us what was going on at that time in Rwanda. What you were hearing from your family in the days leading up to the genocide?

Nathalie Piraino: I remember the last time I talked to my mom was the 26th …

Nikki Gamer: What month was this? …

Nathalie Piraino: Of February, a month and a half before they killed them. I used to call, not too often, but she wouldn’t say much on the phone because this is, again, the fear people carried over the years that the government may be listening in so she wouldn’t say much. But, friends in Kigali, or siblings in Kigali, they were more open, they would say, “Things are not good.”

I say, Mom, please this phone call, it’s going to cost me money. Can you please answer my questions? Because my mama was supposed to come here to live with us. You know, I had my citizenship since ’83. So to sponsor a parent wouldn’t be difficult. So I told her, I said, ”Mom, tell me, do you feel comfortable for me to come at Easter? Because we keep moving it.” She said, “Sounds good, but why don’t you keep saving money and come at Christmas instead of this Easter?” But, because she was suspecting something. And I thought,  it’s Mom, being Mom … just said, “Okay, I will work hard, but please at Christmas you’ve got to come.”

Nikki Gamer: Do you remember the last thing you said?

Nathalie Piraino: Well, I told her, “I’m going to tell the kids. We are excited, we are going to be together at Christmas.” She said, “Well, you will call again, right?” I said, “Yeah, I will call …”

Nikki Gamer: What was that like for your family back in Baltimore?

Dave Piraino: Well, one thing I remember is on April 6th, I came home from work, went down to watch television, and that’s when they announced Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down. He was the president of Rwanda at that time. He returned to Kigali from Arusha, where they were having peace talks, and the president of Burundi was with him. Basically, people were trying to encourage the president of Rwanda to have peace in Rwanda. It’s felt that Hutus actually shot down his plane because they were afraid he was giving too much away. And that was a signal to start the genocide. And we were here for that. And when I told Nathalie it was on the news, she said right away, “Oh my God, that’s going to be the end of Rwanda. It’s going to start the killing.” One time, she was in CRS here, and we were talking to her family and her sister said, “I have to go right now. There’s somebody knocking at the door!” And, of course, what they were doing in Kigali, was going door to door to see if they could find Tutsis. So it was a very, very unsettling time. Her whole family basically was killed, over 100 people. And it was a terrible, terrible time that we went through. And it impacted our family, our two children, especially Nathalie who had to go through this.

Nikki Gamer: I want to ask Nathalie, you’re Rwandan and you talk so beautifully about people in Rwanda. How do you wrap your head around the violence in that complete evil that sprung forth in these days? How do you explain that?

Nathalie Piraino: Every Rwandan person or friend of Rwandan person has a story to tell. I remember I used to cry all the time. All the time. I’d be in the middle of shopping. I would ask a person who was driving, could you pull your car there? I need to scream. I mean, I would just scream in the middle of a city. You didn’t know where it came from. It took me 7 years to get rid of it. I was guilty because, remember the story of my mama coming over? I was supposed to be there that Easter and I remember Easter was April 3rd, 1994.

Nikki Gamer: And the genocide … it began April 7th  …

Nathalie Piraino: I carried that guilt. But I learned my ways, and it’s through prayer and talk.

I was very, very close to everyone in my family. Every one of them was unique in a special way. To this day, I live with those memories. Thank God I had those good memories. But during the time, I had guilt for every one of them.

Nikki Gamer: Dave, do you want to add anything?

Dave Piraino: I was just going to say, during this period, it was also a traumatic time for Catholic Relief Services. Five of our staff in Rwanda were killed during the genocide. And as an agency, CRS really supported us as individuals, but they also looked at Rwanda as something the agency had a very strong connection to.

Nikki Gamer: So, what does Rwanda look like today? I understand Paul Kagame, who had commanded the rebel force that ended the genocide, is now president of the country?

Dave Piraino: Rwanda is amazingly moved ahead from where they were, and to this day it’s almost a miracle! What Kagame did, he said, we are no longer Tutsis and Hutus, we are Rwandans first. And we are not going to be labeling ourselves. So he’s really working to break down the different classes, and the hatred and the separation that’s out there, that hopefully by doing that will be a partial movement toward a more equitable, peaceful, just society.

Nikki Gamer: Twenty-four years later. Nathalie, when you think back on those family members you lost, how do you honor them?

Nathalie Piraino: Because they were so dear to me and such beautiful individuals, they are with me every day, every day, every hour I’m awake. The good life they give me when I was growing up, thank goodness, made me the person I am today. I pray all day long in the car, in bed, all the time, because I envision them in a better place. There is no way a good God with love wouldn’t receive these guys immediately. Their soul must be with Jesus.

Nikki Gamer: My last question—and both of you can answer it any way you want, any way you interpret it—what do you hope for? And Dave, if you want to start …

Dave Piraino: Well, I hope that we continue to have the strength, especially Nathalie, who lost her whole family, to keep going, to somehow see a world that is not going to be an evil world because we know what evil can do. There’s so much responsibility—and it’s not just the leaders, but they play a big role. It’s what we all can do to find our own way, our own means of contributing somehow to do a justice lens, not only in our own lives, but in the lives of people around the world. Because in the end we are one family. It’s what I believe.

Nikki Gamer: Thank you. Nathalie?

Nathalie Piraino: People got to know Rwanda after the genocide. And if we don’t teach this in schools—what happened and what can we do about that … and teach really everybody respect, respect, being a man or female, young, old black, white, blue … We will see things similar to the genocide in the future. Every one of us has a role to share—what you heard or what you went through in life. You never know who may learn from you, so my hope is that as an individual, families and organizations like CRS, take on the daily responsibility. Even if it’s one person on your bus or in your neighborhood, make a difference. And hopefully they will learn to understand others who don’t look like them.

Nikki Gamer: My goodness, Dave, Nathalie, thank you both so much for being here and for sharing these stories that I know are not easy to recount, but as you said, are so important to all of us to think about. So thank you very much.

Nathalie Piraino: You are welcome to invite us over.

Nikki Gamer: I will!

Dave Piraino: Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share these things.

Nikki Gamer: Thank you for listening to that harrowing story. And please do join us next month when we talk about a time—less than 20 years ago—when people said it was impossible to stem the deadly tide of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Until then, check us out online at And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please do go subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

Behind the Story Podcast Series
From Tragedy to Justice: Part 2
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