Georges Budagu came to the United States in 2002 to attend an international conference on conflict resolution at Georgetown University, and he couldn’t leave.
Grinding unrest had flared once again between Hutus and Tutsis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the central African nation where Budagu grew up, and Rwanda, the small neighboring country where he attended university.
Afraid to go home, Budagu applied for political asylum, settled with fellow Benyamulenge Tutsis living in Portland, and freed himself from more than a decade of prejudice, persecution and constant fear for his life.
The terror flooded back last October, a little more than a month before Budagu became a U.S. citizen. His older brother, Eraste Rwatangabo, was among seven Tutsi humanitarian aid workers who were executed in the Congolese province of South Kivu.
Budagu led a memorial service in Portland that drew many of the estimated 200 Tutsis who live in Maine. But it did little to ease the fear he feels for friends and family members still in the Congo, his sorrow for those who have died, or the survivor’s guilt that plagues him to this day.
“It kills me,” said Budagu, 39. “The conflict is still going on, and every time something happens, it brings it all back. I don’t know how I’m going to take it away.”
As a child in the Congo, Budagu knew nothing of the tensions between Tutsis and Hutus that are rooted in the Belgian colonial era. When he left his quiet village to attend high school in Uvira, on the Rwandan border, he was regularly harassed and attacked by Hutu gangs. His uncle’s home, where he stayed, was pummeled with rocks at night. Before he fled to Rwanda, packed like a sardine in an SUV, he saw a respected Tutsi judge beaten bloody by Hutu rebels.
While attending the National University of Rwanda in the mid- to late 1990s, he often kept watch at the border, waiting to assist other Tutsis fleeing the Congo. Many were robbed, beaten or killed by corrupt Congolese soldiers. He helped to exhume and properly bury Tutsis who had been murdered and dumped in mass graves during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Since 1994, more than 6 million people of various tribal backgrounds have died in conflicts in and around the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. More than 3,000 refugees from those conflicts are living in Maine, he said.
Budagu’s life has changed dramatically since he came to the United States. He is a property manager for Avesta, a Portland-based nonprofit housing agency. Married in 2007, his wife, Lise Karara, a Tutsi woman he met in Rwanda, lives in Montreal with their 3-year-old son, Ael. Until she gets a green card, he sees them on long weekends and vacations, Budagu said.
“The only fear I have now is for my people still in the Congo,” Budagu said. “If anything happens to them, there’s no justice for them there.
For all the victims of the war, justice has never been served. That is my sadness.”
Budagu said he relishes the freedom from fear he experiences as a U.S. citizen. He knows many Americans may take it for granted, while people in the Congo can’t imagine it.
“Sometimes I think this is the place everyone should live, just for one minute, to see what life is like without fighting, without fear,” Budagu said. “I will never take it for granted.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]