Noela Rukundo is one of the few people in the world who can claim to have attended their own funeral.
That might sound funny, but her story is actually rather chilling, involving a vengeful husband, assassins with a conscience, and a trip halfway across the world.
It all started a year ago when Noela, a resident of Melbourne, travelled home in Burundi, East Africa to attend her step mother’s funeral. She was accompanied by her husband, Balenga Kalala, a refugee from Congo whom she had met 11 years ago.
She used to translate for him when he first arrived in Melbourne, and they eventually fell in love, got married and had three children.
Over the years, Noela learned that her husband had suffered a violent past that had brought out an abusive streak in him. “I knew he was a violent man,” she told the BBC. “But I didn’t believe he can kill me.”
The man blindfolded her, took her to a building and tied her to a chair, and she heard other male voices around her.
“You woman, what did you do for this man to pay us to kill you?” one voice asked her. When she told them she had no idea what they were talking about, they revealed that her husband had actually sent them to kill her. To prove it, they called Kalala on speakerphone and had Noela listen to his voice saying, “Kill her.”
Shocked beyond her wits, Noela fainted. When she woke up, the kidnappers told her they would not kill her because they did not believe in killing women.
They set her free two days later, but they kept the 7,000 Australian dollars her husband paid them, telling him they had completed the job.
They also gave her a memory card containing the recordings of their phone conversations with Kalala.
“We just want you to go back, to tell other stupid women like you what happened,” they told her, before they drove away.
But that is exactly what Kalala did, or had planned to at least. Suspecting that Noela was going to leave him for another man, an accusation that she now denies, he hired hit men in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital city, to have her killed.
As she rested in her hotel room after the funeral, Kalala called Noela and asked her to step out for some fresh air. And when she did, she found herself face-to-face with a man pointing a gun at her.
Meanwhile, Kalala began to make arrangements for his wife’s funeral back home in Melbourne, believing that the hit men had done their job. And Noela began to plot her next moves. She returned to Melbourne with the help of the Kenyan and Belgian embassies in Burundi.
Once she got home, she called the pastor of the church where her funeral was being arranged and told him what was going on.
The pastor kept her return a secret and helped her get back to the neighborhood where she lived.
From the pastor, Noela learned the details of her funeral. That night, she drove to her house and waited outside in a car, as the people inside mourned her death.
After the service, guests started filing out of the house, and eventually, her husband emerged as well. That was when she stepped out of the car and confronted him directly.
Kalala was flabbergasted. “Is it my eyes?” she recalled him saying. “Is it a ghost?”
“Surprise! I’m still alive,” she told him.
Kalala’s shock soon turned to terror as he realised that his wife was not dead.
He began to scream and wail and apologise for what he did, but it was too late, Noela had already called the police. Kalala later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison for incitement to murder.
Sadly, although the ordeal is now over, Noela has not been able to put the past entirely behind her.
The court may have pronounced her husband a criminal, but Melbourne’s Congolese community prefers to hold Noela accountable for everything that happened.
They have ostracised her for reporting her husband to the police, leaving her threatening messages and even breaking her back door.
She has had to flee her own home and rely on the Department of Human Services to find her a new place to live.
She also repeatedly relives the nightmare of being kidnapped for two days, traumatised by her husband’s voice saying the words ‘Kill her’.
Despite everything she has been through, Noela is determined to remain strong for her children.
“I will stand up like a strong woman,” she said.
“My situation, my past life? That is gone. I’m starting a new life now.”