Woman shows up at her own funeral to see husband who ordered her death
"Surprise! I'm still alive!"
Noela Rukundo showed up at her own funeral to surprise her husband who had hired hit men to kill her.
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.
The incident occurred when Noela went to her native land Burundi to attend her stepmother's funeral.
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 taken somewhere, 30 to 40 minutes, then I hear the car stop."
Noela was pushed inside a building and tied to a chair. "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.
"He told me I'd been stupid because my husband paid them the deposit in November. And when I went to Africa it was January. He asked me, 'How stupid can you be, from November, you can't see that something is wrong?'"
After two days in captivity, Noela was freed.
"'We give you 80 hours to leave this country,'" Noela says the gang told her. "'Your husband is serious. Maybe we can spare your life, but other people, they're not going to do the same thing. If God helps you, you'll get to Australia.'"
Before leaving Noela by the side of a road, the gang handed her the evidence they hoped would incriminate Kalala - a memory card containing recorded phone conversations of him discussing the murder and receipts for the Western Union money transfers.
"We just want you to go back, to tell other stupid women like you what happened," the gang told Noela as they parted. "You must learn something: you people get a chance to go overseas for a better life. But the money you are earning, the money the government gives to you, you use it for killing each other!"
Noela immediately began planning her return to Australia. She called the pastor of her church in Melbourne, Dassano Harruno Nantogmah, and requested his help.
"'It was in the middle of the night. I says, 'It's me, I'm still alive, don't tell anybody.' He says, 'Noela, I don't believe it. Balenga can't kill someone!' And I said, 'Pastor, believe me!'"
Three days later, on the evening of 22 February 2015, Noela was back in Melbourne.
By now, Kalala had informed the community that his wife had died in a tragic accident. He had spent the day hosting a steady stream of well-wishers, many of whom donated money.
"It was around 7.30pm," Noela says. "He was in front of the house. People had been inside mourning with him and he was escorting a group of them into a car."
It was as they drove away that Noela sprang her surprise.
"I was stood just looking at him. He was scared, he didn't believe it. Then he starts walking towards me, slowly, like he was walking on broken glass.
"He kept talking to himself and when he reached me, he touched me on the shoulder. He jumped.
"He did it again. He jumped. Then he said, 'Noela, is it you?'… Then he start screaming, 'I'm sorry for everything.'"
Noela called the police who ordered Kalala off the premises and later obtained a court order against him. Days later, the police instructed Noela to call Kalala. Kalala made a full confession to his wife, captured on tape, begging for her forgiveness and revealing why he had ordered the murder.
"He say he wanted to kill me because he was jealous," says Noela. "He think that I wanted to leave him for another man."
She rejects the accusation.
In a police interview, Kalala denied any involvement in the plot. "The pretence," wrote the judge at his trial in December, "lasted for hours." But when confronted with the recording of his telephone conversation with Noela and the evidence she brought back from Burundi he started to cry.
Kalala was still unable to offer any explanation for his actions, suggesting only that "sometimes [the] devil can come into someone to do something but after they do it, they start thinking, 'Why I did that thing?'"
On 11 December last year, in court in Melbourne, after pleading guilty to incitement to murder, Kalala was sentenced to nine years in prison.
"His voice always comes in the night - 'Kill her, kill her,'" says Noela of the nightmares that now plague her. "Every night, I see what was happening in those two days with the kidnappers."
Ostracised by many in Melbourne's African community, some of whom blame her for Kalala's conviction, Noela sees a difficult future for her and her eight children.
"But I will stand up like a strong woman," she says.
"My situation, my past life? That is gone. I'm starting a new life now."