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From Tragedy to Justice: Part 1

Through the stories of Dave and Nathalie Piraino, both former CRS staff, we travel to Rwanda to learn about the events leading up to the genocide of April 1994, when more than 800,000 people were massacred in just 100 days.


Behind the Story Podcast Series
From Tragedy to Justice: Part 1

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 spoke to the Trujillo family of Atlanta about our work to help resettle thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States in the 1960s. Today, we’ll be talking to Nathalie and Dave Piraino, both former CRS staff, about a very difficult moment … April 1994 … when the Rwandan genocide shocked the world—and pierced the heart of CRS. In just 100 days, more than 800,000 people were massacred, including five CRS employees, and many, many family and friends. Nathalie, Dave, welcome. Thank you both so much for being with us and for reflecting on what I can imagine was a very painful time for both of you.

Dave Piraino: Oh you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here, back at CRS.

Nathalie Piraino: Thank you for having us.

Nikki Gamer: I heard there were so many people who knew who you are … that you’ve been getting stopped, you know, every 5 minutes before even getting up here.

Dave Piraino: Well, we’ve got a chance to see some good friends, old friends that we haven’t seen for a while. So that’s a bonus here.

Nathalie Piraino: We are part of the family.

Nikki Gamer: Love that. Love that. All right, so we’re going to go back in time, the way-back time machine, and we want to know how the two of you met.

Dave Piraino: Well, I joined CRS in 1977, and so I ended up in Sierra Leone working on a pilot school project near the Liberian border. And about 18 months later I was contacted by headquarters asking if I wanted to go to Rwanda. I knew they had mountain gorillas, and I knew Rwanda was called the country of a thousand hills with perpetual spring. So I arrived in Rwanda on July 1, 1978.

Dave Piraino: I was met at the airport by an American, and she took me to a small Catholic guesthouse in Kigali. So I found my way down to the dining room around 6 o’clock and went in, and there was one person sitting in the dining room. Yes, believe it or not, it was Nathalie. And she was the very first Rwandan that I met in Rwanda. And I knew immediately she was pretty special. And we started the next few days helping each other. She helped me learn my high school French a little better, and I worked with her on her high school English. And before we knew it, 6 months later we were married.

Nikki Gamer: What about her struck you? You said you knew she was special right away.

Dave Piraino: She was so friendly, outgoing, caring. After a little while, some people came in. They all came over and hugged her. And whether it was the server or the cook, or whoever, it didn’t matter. She just was someone that loved people besides of course being beautiful.

Nikki Gamer: And Nathalie, what did you think about when you saw him for the first time?

Nathalie Piraino: Well, um,  he was cute back then.

Dave Piraino: Back then?!

Nathalie Piraino: So after we talked a little bit and I found out that he was Catholic. I knew I was in business because Dad was going to approve.

Nikki Gamer:  And what positions were you both holding at the time at CRS?

Dave Piraino: Well, I had arrived as the country representative in Rwanda at that time and had a typical job is to be overseeing and developing country programs and what our focus would be.

Nathalie Piraino: I worked for the government, the Ministry of Youth, as a social worker.

Dave Piraino: We stayed in Rwanda 3 years after I arrived, and we had two children. And from there we moved to Zaire.

Nikki Gamer: So Nathalie, I want you to take us there and describe Rwanda the way you remember it as a girl.

Nathalie Piraino: It was a fun place to live in, to be. The climate was perfect. My parents had 12 kids. So families tended to be bigger, which to me was a great thing because then it’s more cousins to play with. But as I was growing up, also, there were some bad things, because I grew up after the revolution, which took place in 1959. But being a child, having a family and friends was really the most important thing for me. Even though we were going through civil wars, I felt safe because of the family and the community and the Church. So, my childhood was the best time of my life.

Nathalie Piraino: After sixth grade you had to go through the process of passing a national exam, and because Rwanda had a quota between the main ethnic groups of Hutu and the Tutsis—I was Tutsi—only 10% of the Tutsis were allowed to go to school. And so I was among the blessed ones who went to high school. And high school, then you had to go away from home to a boarding school, Catholic boarding schools. And it was fun too. It was challenging because then I discovered discrimination. So to study under those conditions, thank God for prayers. It was very hard, stressful, fearful. But through prayer, the Holy Spirit shows you the way and you learn how to become friends with the enemies.

Nikki Gamer: Nathalie, how did your parents make their living?

Nathalie Piraino: During that time, even now, the majority of Rwandese were all farmers. The economy of Rwanda is based on tourism and agriculture … subsistence economy. So we helped when we were home, we helped with the chores at home and in the field. It was fun because when you help your parents—let’s say it’s the season to grow beans, or squash—then you see every step of it. And after the harvest, you feel proud. My parents were super, super sweet and generous. Because when I was younger, we lived in a refugee camp after the revolution. So we knew what hunger felt like.

Nathalie Piraino: So as we moved out of the refugee camp, and there were widows in our neighborhood whose husbands were killed during the revolution and during all the civil wars. So Dad, God bless him, no one asked him, but every harvest he had to have a portion to take to the widows in the area. And guess who carried that on our heads? Us. Ten kilo here, 25 kilo there. We did it because we had to obey, but we didn’t like it. “You’re taking our food away … we work hard for it!” But as I got older, I appreciate what my parents did. As a 10-year-old, you go take care of your little brothers and sisters who are 3 and 4. We never left each other. We worked together. We ate with each other. It was beautiful.

Nikki Gamer: Do you remember anything else you’d want to share about your mother?

Nathalie Piraino: Oh, my mom was goofy. My mom, God bless her. I don’t know where she got this sense of humor, but she was a very, very hardworking woman. But she was very, very funny. Because being so many at home, there will be times we were hungry, and you come back from school … Before you go to school, you do your chores, then you come back running to do more chores at home. But we would tell mom, before we go fetch water, can we please have a little bit to eat? Because she didn’t want to make us upset, she would throw in a joke. She would kind of hand you her hand, and said, “Here, have a bite.” It’s like, “Mom, seriously. I’m hungry.” So you knew you had to go do what she asks you to do. Just laughing and do it anyway. But then you come back. She gives you a lot of food, gives you compliments: “You’re a good kid,” and those kind of things. And so we worked for compliments too.

Nikki Gamer: All right, I want to talk about your faith. What did being Catholic mean to your family?

Nathalie Piraino: We prayed so much when we were growing up. We prayed before we went to school, we prayed the Rosary every night before we eat dinner. It was something we grew up with, so it was really part of us. So being Catholic was a good thing, and that’s what we knew. We lived our faith all the time. You know, if you mess up at school, your sibling will tell on you, and then, guess what happened? Confession. And we went a lot!

Nikki Gamer: Dave, when you hear your wife remember and talk so beautifully about her childhood, what comes up for you?

Dave Piraino: Well, I had the opportunity to really get to know her family because we lived there basically 3 years, and we spent a lot of time there. Family was the most important thing. Her father was this wonderful person who watched over everything. And her mother was a funny woman. I didn’t speak a word of Kinyarwanda, she didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow she got across to me when she was happy with me or a joke that she was telling.

Nikki Gamer: So getting back to the dynamics between the Tutsis and Hutus. How did that play out on a daily basis?

Dave Piraino: Well, I lived in Rwanda from ‘78 to ’81, and during that time it was really pretty peaceful. Hutus and Tutsis were friends, generally. And we were aware, of course, that there were tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. But when I hear the stories—and of course then the genocide happened—it’s just so hard to fathom. How people who really were so loving, so kind … Family was important. They intermarried. They were one. Their culture, their language, their holidays, their everything was one. How that could happen. And how scary that was as they went through it.

Nathalie Piraino: When there were so-called peace, we were one people. Now I remember back now after the civil war in 1973, they kicked all the Tutsi kids out of school. And I think that civil war lasted 3 months. I was away, hiding, far away from my parents’ place. And when we got back home, the president said on the radio, “Peace and unity.” Whatever they will say, people will listen …

Dave Piraino: … back then.

Nathalie Piraino: And how the president said this, there was peace—you play with your friends again, you know?

Nikki Gamer: So it wasn’t like, “Oh, my neighbor is a Hutu …

Nathalie Piraino: No, no …

Nikki Gamer:  … we’re not talking to them.”

Nathalie Piraino: We had our farming, our Church, our community. We felt comfortable, and until there will be a civil war. When there was civil war, you always felt fearful.

Nikki Gamer: So, Nathalie, this was going on during a period of civil war …. before the genocide … while you were at boarding school … is that right?

Nathalie Piraino: We all went away to boarding schools. So they had a campaign mainly at the boys’ schools, telling them that they need to kill every Tutsi student and kick them out. And in the middle of the night the principal comes and picks every one of us. We thought we were in trouble. So we went in the convent. She said, “I’m sorry, children, you have to leave.” I said, I just passed the national exam and now you’re going to kick me out before the end of the semester?” We said, “What did we do?” She said, “Well, there is something going on, and it’s out they’re after Tutsi children.” So we have to leave. And she said, “Make sure you don’t tell your friends.” But at that time we didn’t know anything. So we said, “So how are we going to get to the main town?” Because we were hoping they would drive us. They didn’t want to do that because they didn’t want to be implicated. So I knew a priest, Father Augustin, who was a friend of the family. So this person took us to his house. When we got there, God bless them, they give us food and milk, and we said, “Can we stay here?” Because we didn’t know what was going on.

Nikki Gamer: Yeah, that’s terrifying.

Nathalie Piraino: And she said, we are known in the area. If you stay here, they will kill you with us. And the family is the one who told us what was going on. So they advise us go to the commercial center. Don’t say anything. It was very bad. We walked very long distances, and Rwanda is very mountainous. So these two guys said, “What’s wrong? What’s going on?” We said, “Well, they just kick us out of school.” So they turn around with us. So we followed them. So we walked 2 days, 1 night. And one of these guys was Hutu, but they were nice to us. Thanks to God we have them because at night we were afraid. Guess what? The next morning, noise going around, burning houses. It’s like, oh my God, I had no clue where we were going because we were in the hills where we’ve never been before.

Nikki Gamer: Sure.

Nathalie Piraino: So we walked another day up and down, and then we run into other students.

We ended up, we were like 13 girls and these two guys. The killers start running toward us. And those guys said, “We cannot stay with you. If we stay with you they will kill us.” We were close to a parish, the grass was tall. So we went, kind of hid in the grass, and those guys walked on top of us. They didn’t even feel us. But the type of fear you have at that time, it’s like you are numb. It’s like your brain goes to sleep even though your eyes are open.

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.” We said “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 …

Nikki Gamer: What did Nathalie and her classmates find at the bottom of that hill? Refuge? Or something else? Join us next month as Nathalie tells us how the situation in Rwanda went from bad to worse … and how this catastrophe changed CRS forever. Until then, check us out online at 75.crs.org. And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast. Thank you.

Behind the Story Podcast Series
From Tragedy to Justice: Part 1
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