Rwandan-born woman welcomes niece to U.S.


Nathalie Piraino, a Rwandan-born dressmaker, fears that nearly all her family in that Central African country has been slaughtered. But the Carney resident has found some comfort amid unimaginable despair knowing that one 4-year-old niece did survive.

Vanessa Uwineza, the daughter of Mrs. Piraino's older sister, was spirited from Rwanda unharmed while other members of the Tutsi minority were hunted down by marauding gangs. Vanessa's little French-speaking voice over the past several weeks has been a telephone lifeline of hope to Mrs. Piraino's home.

Yesterday, after a month-long struggle to win her a visa, the Piraino family brought Vanessa, a bright-eyed child with a broad smile, home from Belgium to a joyous welcome from family and friends at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"I know she represents my country, my family -- she's my everything," said Mrs. Piraino.

Vanessa's arrival capped a journey that began with a heroic Belgian's willingness to take the 4-year-old out of Rwanda and continued only after intervention from a U.S. senator.

Mrs. Piraino hopes that making a home for Vanessa will help her family -- husband, Dave, son, Eric, 14, and daughter, Valerie, 13 -- start to heal from the carnage that has cost uncounted lives in the nation once known as the "Switzerland of Africa." Mrs. Piraino fears that her mother and 10 brothers and sisters and their children perished.

Being with Vanessa already has helped ease some of the pain. "I'm sad, but then I look at her and I think, God, they [other family members] are gone, but I have something," Mrs. Piraino, 37, said. "God bless her, she's cute."

What Mrs. Piraino knows of her family's fate has come in scraps of information: hushed phone conversations with Vanessa's mother soon after the April 6 killing of the Rwandan president that touched off the bloodbath; accounts from foreigners who were evacuated, and secondhand stories from other expatriate Rwandans. There has also been ominous silence, as phone calls to Rwandan homes went unanswered.

When the bloodshed began, Mrs. Piraino's 42-year-old sister hid with Vanessa and a 19-year-old daughter in a Belgian neighbor's home in Kigali, the capital. Thugs of the majority Hutu ethnic group roamed the city, killing Tutsi families and Hutu members of the political opposition.

Faint hopes

Mrs. Piraino does not want to name either her sister or the Belgian neighbor, a man in his 60s, for fear of reprisals. She harbors faint hopes that Vanessa's mother and sister may be one of 15,000 Rwandans under United Nations protection in Kigali. Because her mother's fate is not known, the little girl has only been told that she is still in Rwanda.

When the foreigners were evacuated April 9, Mrs. Piraino's sister asked the Belgian to take Vanessa with him, according to an account the man gave the Pirainos.

Vanessa's mother declined the neighbor's offer to take her as well. She feared that Hutu militiamen would execute Vanessa and her on the way to the airport. She wanted to save her daughter.

The Belgian "took a big risk," said Dave Piraino, an employee of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services who has lived in Rwanda. "He knew they were pulling Tutsis out of cars and killing them. He had already gone out to the street when [Vanessa's mother] said, 'Please, take her,' and lifted Vanessa over the fence to him."

The roads to the airport were blocked, and the convoy of foreigners being evacuated, including the Belgian and Vanessa, had to spend the night in a Kigali hotel. The little girl had no passport or identity documents.

The next day, claiming that the light-skinned Vanessa was his daughter and refusing to leave her, the Belgian talked his way past Rwandan authorities onto a C-130 transport plane. They flew to safety in Nairobi, Kenya.

Arrives in Brussels

Vanessa arrived in Brussels April 13 and stayed in the home of a Belgian-Rwandan couple who agreed to care for her. She asked for her mother and told the Belgians that "there's a lot of mean people in Rwanda now doing bad things," Mr. Piraino said. The couple tried to keep her playfully occupied and comforted her when nightmares awoke her.

Then the month-long process of winning Vanessa entrance to the United States began. Officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service were wary. Vanessa had no documents, and they needed to make sure she was not being abducted. But if Vanessa stayed in Belgium long, she would face being placed in foster care.

Faxes flew. The Pirainos produced family photographs establishing their relationship to Vanessa. (Mrs. Piraino knew Vanessa only through snapshots, but Mr. Piraino had visited her on a business trip to Kigali.) Catholic Relief Services officials sent letters of support, as did Archbishop William H. Keeler. Mr. Piraino's sister, Janet, an aide to a Wisconsin congressman, got involved.

Helene Braver, an assistant to Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, kept the pressure on to admit Vanessa. The Pirainos give credit to Senator Mikulski for breaking the logjam with a phone call to Doris Meissner, commissioner of immigration.

Visa approved

Finally, on May 13, Vanessa was approved for a one-year humanitarian parole visa. The Pirainos flew to Brussels on May 17 to prepare her to come to the United States.

Three weeks ago, Mrs. Piraino wept as she read from the Book of Jeremiah at a prayer service for Rwanda: "Who is wise enough to understand this? To whom has God's mouth spoken to explain it? Why is the country annihilated, burnt like the desert where no one passes?"

In her anguish, she has found no good answers.

Before leaving Rwanda in 1981, Mrs. Piraino lived side by side with Hutus, counted them as best friends and was even sheltered by them during past political unrest. Now she is chagrined sometimes to find herself speaking of Hutus as feared rivals.

"I feel like I'm dying alive here," she said two weeks ago. "I have no power to change anything. Even hearing and reading the name Rwanda makes me sick. It just breaks your heart."

But she has Vanessa. She looks at the little girl's face and sees her sister's smile. It feels strange to have a kindergartner around again. Children Eric and Valerie spent the week in Belgium doting on their "little sister," giving Vanessa piggyback rides.

"She's a lot of fun, very sociable, very active and very loving," Mrs. Piraino said. "She's cute, she's mine, she's everything. I still don't think I have expressed my joy enough yet."

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