Even now, 22 years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Marie-Christine Williams has a hard time getting her words out. Unspeakable things happened to her, but miraculously, she wasn't among the 800,000 people murdered in 100 days of terror.
Williams spoke to a full house at Westminster College Thursday, becoming emotional at times but always completely inspiring. She now lives in the St. Louis area with her son, Shawn, and it is for him she tells her story.
"I'm so thankful to be here today to see you all," Williams said. "My life turned out to be the very best I can ever imagine."
Williams was 14 years old in 1994. Born in Romania, she lived in Kigali, Rwanda, with her father, a member of the minority Tutsi ethnic group. Her mother was French and Romanian, and ironically, the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
Her stepmother was a tyrant.
"It was a very, very rough ride growing up," she said. "I grew up in a small country — it was the poorest country you can imagine."
Ethnicity counted. About 85 percent of Rwanda was Hutu and the rest Tutsi. The two cultures had clashed for decades. On April 6, 1996, a plane carrying the nation's Hutu leader was shot down, killing everyone aboard. On April 7, the Hutu prime minister was murdered. That sent the country into turmoil — Hutu against Tutsi.
On April 8, Williams was sitting in her family's backyard when she heard her neighbors screaming.
"I remember getting so confused," she said. "I saw my friend I grew up with running."
The friend was being chased by a man with a machete.
"He cut her down," Williams said. "I fell backwards on the ground. The guy shouted at me, 'You're next.'"
Then she heard screaming in her own house. She hid in the flowers.
"I heard bad, bad sounds from my home. I heard everyone begging for mercy. I head a man yelling, 'I will kill you all,'" she said.
Williams said her brother and grandmother were immediately murdered. Her house was set ablaze.
"I remember smelling smoke coming from my house," she said. "Everything was quiet. I thought everyone was dead. I begged for God to come and save me."
She ran to a neighbor's home who happened to be Hutu. This neighbor had been a trusted family friend.
"My neighbor threatened to kill me because he would have no Tutsi in his home," she said.
As Williams ran away from him, he shot her in the leg.
That was the beginning of a 100-day nightmare.
The dark side
Much has been said of the Rwandan genocide, raging from April 7 to July 15, 1994. Rape was pervasive, causing a spike in HIV infections and births born of rape. Still, 1994 was just another reign of terror in a country where terror was the norm.
In this 100-day genocide, militias used mostly machetes to mutilate and hack off heads. Hutu gangs rooted out victims hiding in churches and school buildings. Ordinary citizens were incited to kill their neighbors, and if they refused, they were often murdered themselves.
Some Hutus resisted participation. The movie "Hotel Rwanda" told the story of one savior, Paul Rusesabagina. Andre Sibomana was a Hutu priest and journalist who saved many lives. Others stepped up, and some of them died.
While all this was going on, Williams was busy trying to save herself.
"I was naked, running for my life for 100 days," she said.
While she ran, she remembered advice given to her by a stranger: "Don't make it easy for them to kill you."
"I took a stranger's advice," she said.
She was alone, lost and hungry.
"I kept on going and going and going," Williams said. "As a survivor of genocide, I know what it's like to be desperate waiting for someone to come help."
Her feet were so worn and infected they turned blue. Someone gave her a pair of socks. She was naked. Someone else gave her clothes.
"Be thankful for what you have, because you live in a beautiful country," Williams said Thursday. "We should all be grateful and thankful."
She was carved into pieces with a machete. And worse, she was tossed off a bridge onto a pile of headless corpses and covered with more.
"We have to keep moving on with our lives," she said.
Someone found Williams under the corpses and dragged her back to the living. She was broken, battered and nearly dead. She was taken to a hospital — not a pretty hospital, but a horrible hospital.
"I remember my neighbors in beds next to me dying," she said.
There was no food and little hope.
"I wondered when my turn was," she said. "It wasn't worth it, the pain."
But then came hope.
"My grandmother from Europe found out I was alive," Williams said.
Because of her grandmother, Williams got the care she deserved in France.
"They wanted to amputate my leg, but nobody gave up," she said.
Williams spent half a decade in a wheelchair, living in hospitals, enduring one surgery after another.
"Remember, you don't have to survive a civil war to be a hero," she said to her audience. "You are all heroes in your own way. If you do good for someone else, treat each other the way you want to be treated."
Remembering the darkness
After Rwanda, Williams lost her memories. It took years and years to recall those events.
"I didn't even remember my own name," she said. "I was in very, very bad shape."
Her entire family died. Everyone she knew died.
"My father died after the war, and my sister died in a car accident," Williams said. "I am the only one left. I actually am the only one who survived in my neighborhood."
Eventually, Williams met an aid worker from St. Louis, David, who helped her heal. They were married for 10 years, and had a son together. He passed away in 2008.
Williams recounted her experiences in a book, "The Dark Side of Human Nature: The Rwandan Massacre of April-July." She said it gave her a voice.
"It took 22 years and counting to decide to share my story," she said, adding the decision was made because of her son. "If something happened to me, who would share my story?"
She got a degree in criminal justice in Australia and learned a baby she had tried to save during the genocide had survived, as well.
Williams admitted people don't forget horrible things that happen to them.
"How can you forgive someone who destroyed your family? The new president — he's trying hard to do do his best to clean up the mess left by the disgusting history of genocide."
The courts, however, are helpless. People confessing to participation in the genocide only get five years in prison, and the prisons are full.
"They don't know how to fix it," Williams said of the left-over pain. "Every time I go to Rwanda, I roll my eyes. I only stay a week. No one knows me."
The book has helped her move forward, along with therapy and friends. Her friend, Carol Watanabe, came along with Williams to her lecture Thursday.
"We've known each other for several years," she said, adding Williams serves on the board of her charity, LittlePatriotsEmbraced.org.
"We talked about getting her some real therapy, going out and speaking," Watanabe added. "It's important that women support each other."
Williams said if she could make it through the Rwandan genocide, anyone can make it through their own trials.
"Twenty years from now, who knows who will be standing here telling you their story," she said. "I learned to never judge anyone by the color of their skin but (rather) their morals and character and behavior."