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Leonard Bagalwa watched as the rebel officers who had captured him and forced him to train as a child soldier walked away to drink at a shop. With his captors’ backs turned, he heard a voice in his mind repeat, “You need to run.”

Though unfamiliar with this part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 17-year-old Leonard told his friends of his feeling. The officers at the shop had guns and were known for their merciless lack of feeling for life, especially towards the child soldiers they had taken and trained on the island of Idwji. Leonard had seen boys killed for even the slightest disobedience.

Yet the voice pressed upon his mind. “You need to run.” With all the courage he had, he looked towards the bush and took off running. Voices and footsteps crashed through the jungle behind him, but he kept running, not daring to look back, but with no idea of which direction to run in. He only knew he had to follow his feeling.


Six months earlier (in 1997), a rebel group made up of Rwandan invaders and local rebel militia had come through Leonard’s village and kidnapped him as he walked home from school. After the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, both Rwandan refugees and génocidaires (those responsible for the mass killings) had come into the DRC, causing extreme tension for the local agrarian border tribes. The First Congo War of 1996-1997 resulted.

The rebel’s goal was to overthrow the government and instate a new president through violent means. Leonard’s whole life was caught up in the crossfire, and while his kidnapping had been reported on the news, his community did not search for him, assuming he had been murdered.


Unbeknownst to Leonard, he had run away from the rebel forces and into Virunga National Park—a game reserve with lions, elephants and gorillas. Though he ran for hours through land no game ranger would ever enter without being armed, no lurking lion or territorial elephant troubled his journey. He only discovered the nature of the dangerous terrain he had been traveling through when he began hearing voices ahead in the bush.

Leonard Bagalwa (far right).

Wary, but in dire need of food and help, Leonard walked into the clearing to find a group of indigenous pigmy people, which he described as, “very short people—shorter than me—but with long arms…they can touch their toes while standing up.” The pigmies told him he was in a game park and that the rebel group nearby knew where they were. They told him that if they took him in they would be killed, too. Leonard’s meeting with the pigmies was short, but they gave him wild game meat and pointed him in the right direction to find his way home, telling him it was a six-day journey.

Having gone through so much trauma and getting very little to eat, Leonard thought it a miracle that he made this six-day journey in four days. After suffering for months, he finally walked up to his front door and knocked in anticipation. When the door opened, his mother’s eyes met his and she immediately slammed the door. He knocked again. “Who are you?” his mother shouted out defensively. “I am your son. You forgot about me?” Leonard said. “You are dead,” she said.

When his mother finally opened the door, he explained where he had been for the past six months and his mother wept. She told him the rebels had shot his two brothers while he was gone. Their bodies were not yet buried. “You cannot stay here,” she said.

Before Leonard could even stay one hour in his mother’s house, she wiped her tears from her cheeks, got her shoes and told him to follow her. They walked through the village and arrived at the Catholic compound where priests greeted him. They knew his story from the news and immediately put him in a car with six others to take him to a city eight hours away.

“In all this, I can just tell you, it was God’s plan,” Leonard said. “It was not my mother’s plan. It wasn’t the priests’ plan. Because there is no way they could have planned this in one evening. She didn’t know I would arrive home that day. Somebody was watching me. Somebody was planning ahead of me.”

Through the priests’ kindness, he caught a boat to Tanzania, they gave him $100 (USD), and they found a hotel for him in Tanzania to stay in while he decided where to go from there. Though he only had enough for two night’s stay at the hotel, the hotel manager let him stay another three nights in the lobby.

After those five days, he caught a bus and crossed the border into Malawi where the bus dropped him and another man named Christian at the border. In one week, he had gone from being imprisoned in a rebel camp to arriving in Malawi, and he hadn’t even had a moment to process all that had happened. He didn’t know when he would see his mother again or if she would be safe. Would he ever see his home village again?

The two young men walked through the bush, not knowing where to go next, when a group of men ambushed them, beat them and stole everything they had, including the clothes off their backs. Leonard lay there in the dark ready to accept death when he heard a voice press on his mind saying, “Go to the road.”

With all of the physical and emotional strength he could gather inside himself, he and Christian got up and made their way through the bush to a road. Leonard assumed he would die there, thinking “at least someone will be able to find my body and bring it home to my mother”, but in the distance there appeared a pair of headlights coming towards them.

Leonard waived at the car, forgetting his bruised and naked body, and a man pulled up in a white Toyota Camry. “Are you guys human or what?” the man said. “What happened to you?” After explaining their situation, the man agreed to take them south to Dzaleka Refugee Camp.


Leonard woke up every morning at 4a.m. and walked. Though the land where the refugee camp now stood was once where the Malawian government executed prisoners, and refugees thought the place to be haunted, the early morning was the only time he could walk peacefully and not face the realities of the poor conditions in the camp. Food distributed by the camp was served directly into residents’ hands, making the size of your hand the measure of your allotment. Very few people had any opportunity for work, leaving them helpless to the handouts of government agencies.

One morning at 5a.m., Leonard was on his normal walk when he heard a voice call out, “Hey Mirinid!” This was his middle name—the name only those close to him in his home village called him. He looked back in confusion and saw a young boy. “Who are you?” Leonard asked.

“You don’t remember me? My name is Pascal. In 1994 we had a war in Rwanda and my family came to the refugee camp next to where you lived. My dad was a pastor and your mom took our family into your home.”

Leonard looked at this boy in amazement. He thought this family had all been killed in the war, but they had escaped and come to Malawi to make a new life. In the short years they had been in the country, Pascal’s father had bought more than 20 buses and made a significant name for himself in the transportation industry. With that influence, he also made connections at the United Nations office in Malawi. It was in that office that Pascal’s father saw Leonard’s name on the list of refugees in Dzaleka Refugee Camp and sent his son to find him.

With the kindness Leonard’s mother showed this family years before, they committed to help him progress in the camp. Leonard recalled when his mother took them in that his own family had nothing and he couldn’t understand why his mother would still help them. But despite their poor conditions, she always took families and orphans in, saying, “My children, any grain of rice you put in your stomach and your neighbors’ children are hungry, that grain will never do anything for you. But if you take the grain and cut it in half and give the other half to your neighbor, you will be healthy. Make sure you are always your brother’s keeper.”

Leonard believes the reason Heavenly Father blessed him so much through his whole journey was because of the faith, prayers and selflessness of his mother.

As Dzaleka Refugee Camp grew, the Malawian government decided to send a group to a camp in Zimbabwe, and with the Rwandan family’s connection with the United Nations, he was part of that group.

Conditions in Zimbabwe for refugees were much better. Instead of rations, they got food stamps that they could use to buy food in town. They were not confined to the camp and could trade their stamps for money to start businesses and progress. Leonard saved enough money to purchase second-hand clothes from surrounding countries to sell in Zimbabwe. After five years of hard work, he was finally chosen from the refugee camp to be resettled in the United States.


Leonard Bagalwa (right).

Salt Lake City was a big city for a boy from a small, French-speaking village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He struggled getting around and understanding even the most basic appliances in his apartment. With such a saturated market, it was difficult for him to find a decent job, and his fellow refugees suggested he move to Provo to be closer to job and education opportunities.

Though he worked hard, first as a housekeeper at the Marriott and then as a grounds keeper at a cemetery working the ironic “graveyard” shift, he eventually found himself homeless at the Provo City Library, still feeling the foreign nature of this place so far from his rural African home.

After seven days of being homeless, that familiar, prompting voice came to him again: “Talk to the first person you see today.”

When the library opened for the day that Saturday morning, a couple drove into the parking lot and began to walk quickly into the building. With the little English he had in his repertoire, Leonard called out, “Excuse me! Excuse me! I need help.” The husband was hard of hearing, so the wife turned to her husband and said loudly, “Honey, that young boy needs help. Can’t we help?”

“He needs help? What does he need?” the husband said. “I’m a refugee from Congo and I am homeless. I need help.” Douglas Day told Leonard they had just returned from serving over a mission in South Africa and had many Congolese friends. They were in a hurry for an appointment, but Douglas gave him a business card and told him to call on Monday. Leonard used a pay phone and called on the appointed day, and Douglas and Josephine Day invited him to live with them in South Jordan.

Leonard lived with the Days for a year, working on their farm and becoming more familiar with his new country. In that time he met the sister missionaries and decided to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said, “the church felt familiar and people were so nice. We are brothers and sisters. We watch after each other.”

With the Days’ help, and even without a high school diploma, Leonard got a bachelor’s degree from Utah Valley University. He now runs a nonprofit organization in Provo called the Utah Community & Refugee Partnership Center that helps other refugees being resettled in Utah to find jobs, housing, health care and become self-reliant.

Throughout his journey as a child soldier, refugee, and homeless person, Leonard couldn’t help but ask the question, “Why me?” In such dire circumstances, anyone may call out to God and ask why He had forsaken them, but instead, Leonard continues to this day to question every day why the Lord helped him every step of the way and delivered him from his moments of danger, pain, hunger, fatigue, loneliness and struggle.

“A lot of people died in that military camp. Why not me?” Leonard said. “The other people that escaped with me, I don’t think they made it. Why me? In the game park, there were so many animals. They never bothered me. In one day my escape from the DRC was planned—everything was ready. My mother couldn’t have planned ahead.”

Instead of bitterness over his trials, Leonard said, “Sometimes I sit down and start crying. I just think, ‘How did God do this? How did this happen?’” Though he hasn’t found an answer to his question yet, he has come to believe that sometimes Heavenly Father has to take you the hard way to make you what He wants you to be.