GORHAM, Maine — Georges Budagu Makoko had just been robbed of everything he owned, and was looking at a new home that consisted mostly of ruins.
“It was a war-torn zone. It was an unbelievable mess,” he recalled. “They had destroyed everything.”
But in that environment, empty-handed and surrounded by rubble, Budagu Makoko primarily felt relief. It was October 1994, and the 21-year-old had just completed the treacherous crossing from what was then the African country of Zaire into neighboring Rwanda, and he was happy to simply be alive.
Budagu Makoko — now a Portland resident and award-winning property manager for nonprofit Avesta Housing — detailed his life and harrowing escape from his home country in a new book, “Ladder to the Moon: A Journey from the Congo to America.”
“In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Rwanda, Georges faced discrimination due to his tribal affiliation,” wrote Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, in a foreword to the book, released in August. “He consoled parents who would never again see their children, endured theft and feared for his own life.”
The 247-page hardcover book can be purchased online through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, among other places. Budagu Makoko will give a presentation and book signing 4 p.m. Nov. 22, at the Portland Public Library.
In 1994, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were killed by rival Hutus in the Rwandan Genocide, a mass slaughter that galvanized Tutsi militants, who in turn overthrew the Hutu government and seized control of the war-torn country. That development drove the heavily armed Hutus into exile in the neighboring countries, including Zaire, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That meant Tutsis in Zaire — like Budagu Makoko — were in danger of attacks by the displaced and disenfranchised Hutus in exile. Budagu Makoko and others like him were faced with a decision: Dig in where they were or travel upstream through the incoming Hutus in hopes of reaching safety in the country the Hutus were evacuating.
“It was a very dangerous move. We had to go through camps of Hutu refugees,” said Budagu Makoko in a Wednesday interview at his office at Avesta’s Inn at Village Square housing complex in Gorham. “We could easily have been killed. I think I did a good job [in the book] of explaining how stressful it was to make that decision to cross over.”
The danger didn’t just come from Hutus. Budagu Makoko said members of Congolese military were just as menacing. Emboldened by power and corruption, government soldiers from Budagu Makoko’s home country routinely robbed and abused civilians — and they were stationed all along the route to Rwanda.
“In the Congo, if you see a member of the military, you run,” he said. “If they catch you, they take all your money or they beat you.”
Between the gun-toting Hutus and armed soldiers, Budagu Makoko said, “you could not tell who would help you or who would kill you.”
Budagu Makoko and more than 20 others packed themselves into a small car — with a factory capacity of six people — and left before dawn for the perilous hour-long drive to the Rwandan border, bribing a local military official for safe passage and hoping to complete the trek before Hutu militias became active for the day.
“We could hardly breathe,” he recalled of the cramped car.
At the checkpoint exiting the country, Congolese soldiers ordered the travel party out of the car at gunpoint, threatened and intimidated the group until they were sure they had given up every last possession of value they were carrying.
“You only care about saving your life [in that situation],” Budagu Makoko said. “You don’t care about money or anything else.”
The group, freshly harassed and robbed, finally crossed over into Rwanda, a country that itself was decimated by war. It was better than what they had left behind.
“Those who decided to stay [in Zaire] were later killed or forced to move,” Budagu Makoko said. “People we went to school with, people we played with, people we loved. And the saddest thing is the world doesn’t know about it.”
Budagu Makoko ultimately went to college in his new home country and began to attend conflict resolution workshops and conferences around the world.
He was attending a conference at Georgetown University in 2002, when violence flared back up in Rwanda. He was stranded in the United States.
“We’re talking about a conflict that still hasn’t ended yet,” he said. “People are still dying today.”
He kindled a North American romance with a woman he’d met in Rwanda and who had relocated to Canada. The two married in 2007. The couple now has two young children, Budagu Makoko is a U.S. citizen and his wife finally relocated to live with him in Maine this year.
Budagu Makoko was named the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development’s 2012 Maine Site Manager of the Year for Housing for the Elderly for his work with Avesta.
But he said he felt he owed it to his family and friends still in Congo and Rwanda to write a book and raise awareness of the violence they live through every day. Since 1996, about 6 million people have been killed due to the conflicts in the Congo, a figure that’s added to 500,000 killed in nearby Burundi and millions more in Rwanda.
“This is like wiping out the entire population of Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut in a couple of decades,” Budagu Makoko wrote in his book. “You would think that the whole world would know about a region where 7 million people have died. This is more than a calamity — but, sadly, very few people know about this tragic situation.”