Can you imagine being a guest at your own funeral? In a story that seems ripped from the pages of a Hollywood movie script, Noela Rukundo journeyed across continents, was kidnapped by murderers-for-hire who had guilty consciences, and then ended up confronting none other than her own husband for hiring them.
Rukundo, who lives in Melbourne, but is from Burundi (a small country in Africa located South of Rwanda), was traveling to her native country to attend the funeral of her stepmother. She had no idea she'd end up narrowly escaping her fate as a murder-for-hire plot victim.
Her husband reportedly paid around $7,000 Australian ($5,000 US) to have her kidnapped and killed in an elaborate scheme because he believed she was cheating on him and leaving him for another man—something she has said was completely false.
In an interview with the BBC, Rukundo said losing her stepmother was very painful and stressful, and that as she lay in her hotel room in Bujumbura, her husband, Baling Kalala, called. The couple who had been married for 10 years, had three children together and were raising five more children of Rukundo's from a previous relationship. They had a storybook courtship, both having come to Australia as refugees from Africa, in search of a better life.
After some normal chitchat between husband and wife, he advised her to go outside from some fresh air to feel better—which she thought was a good idea.
As she left the hotel property, a man with a gun approached her. He told her if she screamed, he'd shoot her. "They're going to catch me, but you," she recalls he said, "you will already be dead." So she did what he said.
They told her that it was her husband who hired them. She didn't believe them and told them they must be lying. So they called her husband and put him on speakerphone for her to listen. "Kill her," he told them.
She told the BBC that two more men were in the getaway car with guns; they covered her face with a scarf and drove her somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes away. What happened next was straight out of the movies.
They took Noela Rukundo inside a building, tied her to a chair and interrogated her, asking what she had done to the man who wanted her killed. She had no idea who they were talking about, and they told her that it was her husband who hired them. She didn't believe them and told them they must be lying. So they called her husband and put him on speakerphone for her to listen.
They told him they had his wife, and then she heard him say it—"kill her." The three kidnappers described to him over the phone how they'd dispose of her body and he agreed. She passed out from shock, believing she'd surely be dead soon.
But when she came to, she was surprised that the kidnappers told her they weren't going to kill her at all. They didn't kill women or children, they told her. But they did tell her that her husband had paid them a deposit back in November to kill her. It wasn't until three months later, in January, when she traveled back home for her stepmother's funeral.
The somewhat-principled kidnappers decided to extort the husband for more money "to finish the job" and then after two days, let her go when they received the payment. They told her to get out of the country within about three days' time because they couldn't guarantee other, less-principled hit men wouldn't find and kill her if her husband got wind that she was still alive.
As a parting gift before leaving her on the side of a road to escape, the kidnappers turned over evidence such as money transfer receipts and a memory card containing recorded phone conversations of him discussing the murder for hire, in hopes that it would help her catch him. They told her to warn other women about what happened to her.
Then, she began planning her return to Australia and contacted her church pastor for help. At first, the pastor couldn't believe the husband would do such a thing. But then the husband began telling everyone his wife was killed in a tragic accident. Mourners and friends came to the couple's home to console the widower and their children.
As a parting gift before leaving her on the side of a road to escape, the kidnappers turned over evidence such as money transfer receipts and a memory card containing recorded phone conversations of him discussing the murder, to help her catch him.
Noela and her pastor sat in a car parked nearby, watching guests leave the home. Boldly, she got out of the car and approached her husband in front of their home. He stood, scared and in shock, not believing his own eyes. He walked toward her, "slowly, like he was walking on broken glass," she told the BBC.
"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.'"
But that wasn't the end of it all—she called the police to have him removed from their home and got a restraining order against him. With help from police, she set up a phone call to record him confessing again to her that he'd hired the hit men.
Balenga Kalala is now serving nine years in prison in Australia after pleading guilty to attempted murder charges—a sentence which Noela believes is not sufficient for the evil, violent way he tried to get rid of her. And although Noela Rukundo will have a difficult road ahead raising her eight children alone while also facing scorn and being ostracized by Melbourne's Congolese community for turning her husband in to the police, she amazingly still has a positive outlook on life despite what she's been through.
"My situation, my past life? That is gone. I'm starting a new life now," she told the BBC. And she said "by God's grace," she'll hopefully marry again someday. Until then, she's asked Melbourne's Department of Human Services to help her find a new place to live so she won't feel unsafe or suffer repeated harassment at her home.