Spared by the hitmen with principles

By Frank Yeboah
Noela Rukundo.
Noela Rukundo.

One year ago a group of gunmen in Burundi was hired to kill a woman visiting from Australia. But the hit did not go as planned, leaving her with a chance to turn the tables on the man who wanted her dead.

 

"I felt like somebody who had risen again," says Noela Rukundo.

She was supposed to be dead. The hired killers had been paid. They had even explained how they would dispose of the body.

But now, waiting outside her house for the last of the mourners to leave, she was ready to face down the man who had put out a contract for her murder.

"When I get out of the car, he saw me straight away. He put his hands on his head and said, 'Is it my eyes? Is it a ghost?'"

"Surprise! I'm still alive!" she replied.

Noela's ordeal began five days earlier, and 7,500 miles away in her native Burundi. She had returned to Africa from her home in Melbourne, Australia, to attend her stepmother's funeral.

"I had lost the last person who I call 'mother'," she says. "It was very painful. I was so stressed."

By early evening Noela had retreated to her hotel room. As she lay dozing in the stifling city heat of Bujumbura, her phone rang. It was a call from Australia - from Balenga Kalala, her husband and father to her three youngest children.

"He says he'd been trying to get me for the whole day," Noela says. "I said I was going to bed. He told me, 'To bed? Why are you sleeping so early?'

"I say, 'I'm not feeling happy'. And he asks me, 'How's the weather? Is it very, very hot?' He told me to go outside for fresh air."

Noela took his advice.

"I didn't think anything. I just thought that he cared about me, that he was worried about me."

But moments after stepping outside the hotel compound, Noela found herself in danger.

"I opened the gate and I saw a man coming towards me. Then he pointed the gun on me.

"He just told me, 'Don't scream. If you start screaming, I will shoot you. They're going to catch me, but you? You will already be dead.'

"So, I did exactly what he told me."

The gunman motioned Noela towards a waiting car.

"I was sitting between two men. One had a small gun, one had a long gun. And the men say to the driver, 'Pass us a scarf.' Then they cover my face.

"After that, I didn't say anything. They just said to the driver, 'Let's go.'

"I was taken somewhere, 30 to 40 minutes, then I hear the car stop."

Noela was pushed inside a building and tied to a chair.

"One of the kidnappers told his friend, 'Go call the boss.' I can hear doors open but I didn't know if their boss was in a room or if he came from outside.

"They ask me, 'What did you do to this man? Why has this man asked us to kill you?' And then I tell them, 'Which man? Because I don't have any problem with anybody.' They say, 'Your husband!' I say, 'My husband can't kill me, you are lying!' And then they slap me.

"After that the boss says, 'You are very stupid, you are fool. Let me call who has paid us to kill you.'"

The gang's leader made the call.

"We already have her," he triumphantly told his paymaster.

The phone was put on loudspeaker for Noela to hear the reply.

Her husband's voice said: "Kill her."

Just hours earlier, the same voice had consoled her over the death of her stepmother and urged her to take fresh air outside the hotel. Now her husband Balenga Kalala had condemned her to death.

"I heard his voice. I heard him. I felt like my head was going to blow up.

"Then they described for him where they were going to chuck the body."

At that, Noela says she passed out.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Balenga Kalala had arrived in Australia in 2004 as a refugee, after fleeing a rebel army that had rampaged through his village, killing his wife and young son.

Settling in Melbourne, he soon found steady employment, first in a seafood processing factory and then in a warehouse as a forklift operator.

"He could already speak English," recalls Noela, who also arrived in Australia in 2004. "My social worker was his social worker, and they used him to translate Swahili."

The two fell in love. They set up home in the Kings Park suburb of the city. Noela had five children from a previous relationship and went on to have three more with Kalala.

"I knew he was a violent man," admits Noela. "But I didn't believe he can kill me. I loved this man with all my heart!

"I give him, beautiful and handsome, two boys and one girl. So I don't know why he choose to kill me."