When she was 14, Marie-Christine Williams was shot in the leg and the back, chopped with a machete, pushed off a bridge and left to die.
“I remember everything like it was yesterday,” says the 36-year-old who lives in O’Fallon, Mo., with her son, Shawn, 11.
He is her best friend, her reason for living, for looking forward and not backward to that awful day that changed her life forever.
“Everything I have done is to give my son the life I never had,” Williams said.
Williams almost died on April 7, 1994. Most of her family, and all of her childhood friends, did.
She lived in Rwanda with her father, who was a member of the minority Tutsi ethnic group.
Twenty-two years ago this month, the Hutu majority in Rwanda, cheered on by government leaders, perpetrated one of the worst genocides in world history, systematically trying to wipe out Tutsis and anybody who protected them, family by family, village by village.
More than 800,000 people were killed.
“I was in the backyard and I heard screaming,” Williams remembers. She climbed the fence and saw her best friend grabbed and killed by a man with a machete. She was about to go hide in her house when she saw that it was under attack. Her grandmother and brother were killed. She hid in a flower bush.
“As soon as the house was quiet, I started running,” she says.
For 100 days, she ran and hid, using nightfall to her advantage. She had few clothes and little food.
“I used to hide in the bushes and sit up in the trees. I would run when it was dark and raining. I was running for my life,” Williams says.
She credits God for saving her life, and she says she honors him now by telling her story.
It wasn’t easy, though.
For years she kept everything bottled up inside.
During her journey running from the Hutu, Williams was caught more than once but escaped by running and hiding. The last time, near the end of the genocide, she was shot as she ran from her would-be killers on a bridge. After being rescued by soldiers as she lay nearly dead in a pile of bodies pushed off that bridge, most of them beheaded first, Williams made just enough noise to get somebody’s attention. She ended up in a hospital and was there for three years, mostly in a wheelchair. She nearly had her legs amputated. Eventually, her French grandmother tracked her down and brought her to France. She underwent several surgeries. Her knees and hips had to be fixed. Her face needed plastic surgery.
At almost 19, she flew back to Rwanda. She had to see her home and try to find any family survivors.
On the plane, she met a man named David Williams, who was with an aid group.
When they landed, Marie-Christine headed to her old house. It was mostly burned and there was no roof. Some of the walls were collapsed. She insisted on staying there. Her new friend tried to get her to leave but she wouldn’t. So he brought her a mattress and blanket.
She slept in the house where her grandmother and brother were killed. The bodies were still there, rotting. She cleaned them up, and opened the home to orphans.
“They were everywhere, just living in the streets,” she says. “I had to help them.”
Williams was 22 years older than her, but they struck up a friendship. Eventually, they would marry and live in Romania.
Marie-Christine was born in Bucharest, to an unusual alliance between a mother who was French and Romanian and a father who was a Tutsi from Rwanda. After she was born, her parents split. Dad took the children to his homeland.
David Williams was from St. Louis. He died in 2008. His widow moved here so her son could grow up with family.
Williams’ story is a painful one to digest. She knows that. But after her husband died, she decided she needed to tell it so she could get all the “negativity out of her head” and focus on moving forward.
Starting in 2008, she would write a page, and then have to walk away and leave it alone for a couple of days. Eventually, she wrote enough pages to publish a book, “The Dark Side of Human Nature: The Rwandan Massacre of April-July 1994 — A Personal Story.” She’s now working with a movie production company on a motion picture based on her life.
Her goal in telling her story, she says, is to help others.
“God gave me a chance to be alive,” she says. “I’m using the chance he gave me to be useful, to help others.”
Williams is on the board at Little Patriots Embraced, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that provides help to children of servicemen and women who are deployed. And she keeps telling her story, no matter how painful.
“You can never let your past affect your future,” Williams says. “I came to realize that if I share my story, I can help others live a better life.”
Editor’s note: Read Marie-Christine Williams’ recollections in an essay she wrote to remember the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide: www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/columns