Born in Burundi, former professional track athlete and coach Gilbert Tuhabonye grew up in the midst of a centuries old war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. As a Tutsi—a group making up only 14 percent of the country’s population—he experience first-hand the horrors of genocide. Despite the pain and trauma he endured, Tuhabonye has used his experience to transform his life into one of hope.
During TLU’s celebration of Black History Month, he recently shared his story with the campus recounting his journey and the day that forever changed his life: October 21, 1993.
At his boarding school, more than seven hours away from his home, Tuhabonye was a popular student and well-known athlete to many. A high school junior at the time, he was getting ready for several science exams that particular day. He suddenly saw a large group of people running away from the school.
“I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “No one did. A little later we found out Hutu extremists had assassinated the president of Rwanda. This was a mob who had come to the school to eliminate every Tutsi they could find.”
The students decided to organize a march to get away from campus. They made it about half a mile before being stopped by another mob armed with machetes and spears. Within an instant, someone threw a spear striking his friend in the thigh. He said it was pure chaos immediately after.
“They made it a point to capture me first because they knew I could run and make it to get the army for help,” he said. “I saw people killed with machetes. My classmates and I were roped together and they were told they were going burn us alive. I watched as my friends and teachers were killed one-by-one.”
After eight hours of being buried under the burned corpses of his friends, Tuhabonye climbed out to get to a window.
“I thought, if I’m the only survivor, I’m going to tell this story,” he said. “I jumped form the window and started running. I heard them yelling and whistling that they could see me. I ended up running until I landed in a ditch. They were using search lights to look for me. I had to figure out to get away one more time.”
Despite terrible injuries and burns to his back and leg, he began running again until he came across a group of women near a coffee plantation. Shortly after, he was discovered by a group of Hutus.
“They were grabbing branches and getting ready to literally crucify me,” he said. “I was lucky that one woman took me aside and told me to leave. I asked her for some water and she gave it to me. I took it and started running again.”
Seven days later, he made it home. Reunited with his parents, he spent three months in the hospital. It would be a while before he could run, since he would have to learn how to walk first because of his injuries.
Time passed, and after receiving a letter from Tulane University offering him a full scholarship to run for them, he says he really ramped up his therapy and training. While he ended up going to Abilene Christian University instead, Tuhabonye said he knew he had to move on.
“That’s very hard to do when your heart is full of anger and hate,” he said. “I chose to forgive the people who tried to kill me. I put all my effort into running. It helped me stay focused. Running is what got me to the United States.”
Today, he is a retired professional runner, philanthropist, author, and community leader in Austin, where he lives with his wife Triphine and two daughters, Emma and Grace. He is also the owner and founder of Gilbert's Gazelles, one of Austin's largest running training groups, the head cross country and track coach at St. Andrews High School, and a co-founder of the Gazelle Foundation, which provided clean water to more than 100,000 people in Burundi.
“Running has physically and symbolically saved my life over and over,” he said. “I’ve witnessed great tragedy and felt great heartbreak. I want to give my time here to others, whether that’s in my coaching or getting people clean water. That’s what brings me joy. I learned how to forgive and channel my energy to do good. My message to all of you is to find joy in everything you do. Make sure you’re running with joy.”