THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)
Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.
I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.
By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.
To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.
This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.
During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.
I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.
Why did Christians commit genocide?
It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?
I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.
Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.
NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)
The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.
Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.
This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.
How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?
When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?
In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).
As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.
“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”
Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty. Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.
Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.
MEMORIES OF DEATH: Genocide memorial site guardian Danielle Nyirabazungu lingers near the skulls of people killed at the Ntamara Church in Nyamata during the genocide. Photo: Newscom.
The most beautiful place in the world is a valley in Gikongoro, Rwanda. Everywhere you look, you see hills full of palm trees and winding red paths. The light of a setting sun graces the hills with a golden hue. You cannot imagine a place more perfect, more pristine.
And yet that word, pristine, would be the wrong one. These hills are not unspoiled beauty, because they were once tainted by blood. This valley is home to the Murambi Technical School where 45,000 Tutsi people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.
When I studied abroad in Rwanda this July, I went to the Murambi Genocide Memorial and saw the remains of countless bodies—person after person, yet only a fraction of the people who were killed at this place. I saw heaps of the victims’ dirty clothing laid on benches inside the Nyamata Catholic Church where thousands were slaughtered, and I saw rows of their skulls and bones stacked underground in remembrance of their terrible murder.
I walked on the same ground the killers and their victims did 17 years earlier, and I imagined what it must have been like for the Tutsi people to be forced into hiding, fervently praying for their family’s survival. The idea that professed Christians systematically killed the Tutsi people solely because of their ethnicity, sometimes singing worship songs or pausing to pray in the middle of their sickening task, is more than I can believe. I keep thinking, How could anyone believe God would approve of ethnic hatred and genocide?
The genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda was government-sanctioned, and to many, it appeared church-sanctioned, too. In the decades leading up to the genocide, the church supported the extremist Hutu government and failed to denounce the ethnic persecution of the Tutsi. And in 1994, churches were the main site of massacres. According to a 2002 government report, about 11.6 percent of victims were killed in churches, often with the help of priests who themselves lured victims there with false promises of sanctuary.
Stories of the genocide make me wonder, where was God when a place of such breathtaking beauty seemed to turn into a living hell where evil walked, where so-called Christians chopped down their brothers and sisters in Christ without the slightest qualm? Where was God when people justified this violence with ethnic ideologies? Couldn’t God shake them out of their cold, complacent hatred?
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial on July 9, 2011. Photo by Catherine Newhouse.
The thing about gruesome violence like this is that it never makes sense. It’s so extreme and disturbing that the immensity of it all seems enough to overload a person’s brain, but instead life goes on—the beauty remains, and so does the echo of the voices of children who play in a village down the path.
It doesn’t seem right. It seems like this place should be forever somber, weighed down by the tragedy that happened. How are we supposed to make sense of such senselessness? Who would want to destroy the beauty of this place, spilling the blood of murder in the valley between these red hills?
Who would torture and kill someone just because they are Tutsi? Who could believe their ethnicity not only made them superior to others, but gave them the divine right to kill?
And how are we supposed to trust God after He let this genocide run unchecked for 100 days? In the Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial, you can see the rosaries that belonged to the Rwandans who died there. I wonder how many Christians reached for these rosaries and desperately cried out to God in the moments before their murder. Why didn’t God save them? The usual theological explanations for why terrible things happen just don’t seem to cut it for this.
In the aftermath of genocide, many Rwandans wondered where God was during the darkest chapter of their history. Could it be that he was silent, dead, absent, or sleeping?
Some believe God suffered along with his people in Rwanda — another victim of the evil choices that humans made. In Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, survivor Reverien Rurangwa shared how he made this sudden discovery:
This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. … He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs. Is he the victim?
Perhaps God was present during the genocide, feeling the full-blown pain of the victims, mourning the loss of his beloved children, aching with Rwandans when killers violated the sanctuary of his church and his Earth.
In the end, I still don’t have all the answers, but that’s part of why I went to Rwanda this summer: I’m searching. I still don’t understand how people can have faith after living through genocide, why God can’t intervene to stop the worst violence, and how professed Christians can kill someone based solely on ethnicity. But I know that if we’re going to prevent future genocides, we have to be ready to stand up for the inherent worth of God’s children, seeing Jesus in the faces of the poor, tortured and killed (Matt. 25:34-40), and rejecting ideologies that try to warp religion into ethnic dehumanization.
And perhaps, hidden somewhere in Rwanda, there is something more: a piece of wisdom I cannot see yet, a clue to trusting God even amidst the most horrifying of horrors, a hope for the redemption of even the most twisted killers, a belief in a Christianity that will stand against genocide.