Remembering Rwanda 1994-2004

During early April this year, thousands of quiet, sad memorials were held across Rwanda. Holy Week also fell in early April, but the passion that Rwanda re-enacted is uniquely its own. Ten years ago, on April 6, 1994, a raging genocide was unleashed that claimed over 800,000 Rwandan lives in 100 days. This densely populated and beautiful central African country was decimated and two million of its people displaced. The world was both shocked and paralyzed.

From 1993 to 2000, I was a frequent visitor to the Great Lakes region, as the central African countries are often called because of the 15 inland lakes there. Since early 1993 I had been on several missions to neighboring Burundi, because the agency I then directed, Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.), had been invited to help displaced people and refugees to return home. With the outbreak of violence in Rwanda, we went to Bukavu, a city in Zaire (now Congo) near the southern shore of Lake Kivu (which forms the southwest border of Rwanda), to prepare for the possible arrival of refugees. The community at a large Jesuit school, Alfajiri College, agreed to assist, although none of us could have imagined the deluge of humanity that would soon wash over this remote corner of the country.


Once the fury of the conflict ebbed, I made my way to Rwanda’s nearly deserted capital, Kigali. At our Jesuit retreat house, Centre Christus, I found the blood-stained room where just a few months before, on April 7, the first day of the killings, a group of people had been assassinated. Among them were three Jesuits, Innocent Rutagambwa, Chrysologue Mahame and Patrick Gahizi. Patrick was the superior of the Jesuits in Rwanda and the director of the local J.R.S. program, helping refugees who had fled Burundi after the assassination of its president the previous October. I picked up a spent bullet cartridge that I still keep as a relic, along with others I have saved from Liberia and Bosnia.

Whenever I chance upon these relics, I search for some meaning to these events. What really happened? Why did it happen? How could the international community be so quick to respond to the humanitarian tragedy, yet so impotent to intervene in order to prevent it? How can the Rwandan people mourn their losses, find a realistic sense of justice and be reconciled and united as a people?

What happened? It was portrayed by many in the media as an ethnic conflict, as if that truth was also an answer or an explanation. On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down as it landed in Kigali. The president, a member of the majority Hutu ethnic group, had been preparing, under intense international pressure, to sign into law the Arusha Agreement, which would allow a more democratic process in the country despite the risk of losing his own 20-year grip on power. Immediately the Rwandan Armed Forces and Hutu militia (the interahamwe) set up roadblocks and went from house to house, killing moderate Hutu politicians and Tutsi. The following day 10 Belgian soldiers with Unamir (the U.N. peacekeeping forces), assigned to guard the moderate Hutu prime minister, were killed along with the prime minister herself. In these attacks, which precipitated the genocide, extremist Hutu groups first targeted moderate Hutu individuals and any other moderate figures, without regard to ethnicity.

Prying open the layers of Rwandan society, one can find factors that help us at least to begin to understand. The withdrawal of colonial power after Rwanda became independent from Belgium in 1962 appeared to accentuate ethnic divisions, which were often manipulated through media propaganda, inequity in employment practice and discrimination in government-run education policies. Exclusively ethnic conceptualizations of what it meant to be Rwandan were also promoted.

Rwanda’s population, some 3 million in the 1960’s, had risen to around 7.5 million in 1994, and its density was among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. The new experience of nationalism in Africa made borders rigid and rendered impossible the nomadic way of life of previous centuries. By the mid-1980’s, the traditional family farming plots had been divided up as much as possible, leaving many second, third and fourth sons with no income and with no future. At around this time, the international market for Rwanda’s principal commodity, coffee, lost half its value. Another difficulty was the growing scourge of H.I.V./AIDS, which left many young people without the care and direction of their parents.

After Rwanda gained independence, the Belgians intensified their aid to education for the Hutu population. As a result, many boys and a high proportion of girls (by African standards) had the opportunity for secondary school education. So there was a significant population of young people whose hopes and expectations had been raised by their schooling, but who were by this point uprooted and left landless, jobless and futureless. Rwanda was like a dry forest after a long drought, lacking only the spark to create an inferno. The struggle for power and the attendant fear provided that spark. Individuals with political aspirations exploited the discontented mass of young people, using radio broadcasts to send them to the Rwandan hills with a poisoned message of ethnic hatred. Ethnic hostility, intensified by poverty, was exploited by individuals for corrupt reasons, allowing the conflict to escalate steadily until the planned and speedily implemented genocide of 1994.

Could the international community have done something to stop the genocide in Rwanda? Alerted by the warnings of nongovernmental organizations (like my own J.R.S.) that were present in the country, could not powerful nations have done something? General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian chief commander of Unamir (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) from 1993 to 1994, tried in vain to persuade his superiors (Kofi Annan was then head of peacekeeping at the United Nations) to send more troops. (General Dallaire left Rwanda in 1994 with post-traumatic-stress disorder and recently published his autobiography, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, which gives a first hand account of the genocide.) The reluctance of the United States concerning humanitarian intervention, shaped by its humiliating “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, influenced other powers in their vacillation and tragic inaction.

What can be done now? The Rwandan people have put enormous energy into reconciliation and into rebuilding and overcoming the country’s debilitating history. Last year the people cast their votes peacefully, approving a new constitution that outlaws incitement to ethnic hatred. Steps are being taken to achieve a sense of national unity and a more inclusive, ethnically heterogeneous national identity. Both structures and rhetoric are intended to hold the people together as one nation. Despite their pride in these efforts, there is still grief. Of course, people cannot forget what has happened.

Creative attempts to seek justice have been made in Rwanda. Because of the immense number of people accused of involvement in the genocide, and because of the limited number of people competent to implement the proposed justice system, many of the accused were still awaiting trial years after 1994. So a village justice system, called gacaca, was set up to help all Rwandans acknowledge the truth. Last year 40,000 people were released under the gacaca system. But not only are the prisoners released, so too are the survivors, who risk becoming prisoners of the past. It has been important to find a system of justice that will not be so heavy that the whole society is unable to carry its burden.

Rwanda’s experience is in some ways unique, but it carries echoes of other stories of survival after crisis. In my 20 years with the Jesuit Refugee Service I came into contact with survivors in many countries, including East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, Angola and Bosnia. Those who have experienced such brutal atrocities have found a range of emotional and psychological survival tactics. While some survivors choose to forget, others were clear that only by remembering could they be helped to recover. Most wanted to know the reasons and to learn every detail about what had happened and who was responsible for the disappearance or death of their husbands, mothers, siblings, friends and colleagues. They wanted to bring those responsible to justice and so be able to begin to put the past behind them. They said, “We don’t seek revenge but justice, and the perpetrators have to be held responsible for their acts.” They want reconciliation, but reconciliation with justice. They do not want past events to recur.

One cannot come to justice until the truth comes out. One cannot come to reconciliation if justice is bypassed. In El Salvador I learned that there is a natural progression from truth to justice to reconciliation. Then in Rwanda we learned that one cannot begin to inquire into the truth of what happened until the mourning is finished. And mourning does not end until the bodies are properly buried and the spirits of the dead are able to rest in peace. As the time for mourning passes, the possibility grows, in the calm that follows, to learn what really happened. Judgments can then be made on the basis of the facts, establishing the truth as far as that can be done and making possibile decisions about reconciliation. Yet while the truth must come out, there is a risk that by continually repeating the stories, sentiments will only harden.

The immense heaviness of the Rwandan story was from the beginning lightened for me by the qualities of many people whom I met, both in Rwanda and in the refugee camps. I witnessed great kindness and repeated acts of courage. Hundreds of families took in orphaned children, as the most natural and most African thing to do. Tutsi widows helped their Hutu neighbors prepare food to bring to the men in prison, who may have killed their husbands. In his book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch tells the stories of two groups of school girls in Kibuye and Gisenyi, who during an attack on their schools were roused from their sleep and ordered to separate themselves into groups—Hutu and Tutsi. The girls refused, saying they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately. Gourevitch concludes, “Mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls, who could have chosen to live but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?”

Should we hold memorials, or should we try to forget? No one can tell a grieving widow to forget the love of her life or the child of her flesh. Ten years is a short time for mourning and recovery from such an immense national tragedy, and memory is important. But alongside the tragedy, it is important for the Rwandan people to remember the heroism shown by those girls. And it is important for Rwanda’s international friends to know that side of the story too. Rwanda remains poor; the extreme pressure for land remains. The Rwandan people deserve our prayers certainly, but also our solidarity in looking to the root causes of the injustices they have suffered and of their grief.

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11 years 9 months ago
How is it possible that so few Americans are aware of the horror in northern Uganda: since 1988, nearly 20,000 children abducted, more than one million civilians living away from their homes in squalid camps? Thank you for trying to inform them (“Child Soldiers and the Lord’s Resistance Army,” 3/29).

Thanks too for “Rwanda Ten Years Later” (4/19) and your editorial urging “the need for the American public to be better informed about African politics.” The U.S. bishops argued for such self-education and involvement in public policy in their November 2001 “A Call to Solidarity with Africa.” Unfortunately, very few American Catholics, even professionals in ministry, seem to have heard of this. A student in our Jesuit school in Bukavu, Congo, recently asked me, “Why do your people know so little about us, when we know so much about America?”

To counterbalance the usual bad news, your authors also highlight the hopeful “antidotes”—so many beautiful, faith-filled people here who struggle daily to combat the heavy forces against them (including, too often, some from the “civilized” world). I long for the day when Africa begins to get the good attention that so many Americans gave to Latin America in the 1980’s. Africa also has heroic witnesses to the faith, even martyrs worthy of canonization. At a recent Mass in Rwanda, I heard the large, mostly young adult congregation singing, “You are at the center of our lives; you are alive.” Immediately after the genocide in 1994, the Africa bishops proclaimed, “The Risen Christ Is Our Hope.”

The U.S. bishops remind us of the power of prayer but go on to advocate more diocesan/parish twinning (including Catholic schools and retreat houses). For those to whom it applies, they call for more corporate responsibility and responsible investment. Could my company/investment somehow be making things even worse for those who are already poor? What about my country?

Finally, I have come to learn that there is no better means to solidarity than personal contact, trying to get to know some Africans in the United States or, even better, somewhere here.

11 years 9 months ago
I found it striking that your editorial on April 19 about the horrendous genocide in Rwanda warns the church not to be “too closely allied with one political party,” and on the very next page reports on Vatican documents telling Catholic politicians that they have a “grave and clear obligation” to oppose laws that promote abortion or same-sex marriages. Must such focus always be on the “pelvic issues?” Don’t Catholic politicians also have a “grave and clear obligation” to oppose a wide variety of policies that are not in accord with Catholic social principles? It would seem neither just nor equitable to single out one group, but not the other, for admonishment.

11 years 9 months ago
The editorial and story on Rwanda are thoughtprovoking (4/19). How could this happen, and how could the world let it happen? The past cannot be changed, but we can all look at preventing such actions in the future. The article, by Mark Raper, S.J., speaks of reconciliation, and the editorial speaks of lessons to be learned. One element that is not mentioned is the role of obedience in this ghastly affair. Many commentators have mentioned that Rwandans were trained in obedience, apparently by both their government and their religious leaders. When the time came, they were told to kill their neighbors if they were Tutsi, even if they knew them well and lived side by side with them for years. The people, accustomed to obedience, did what they were told.

We in the United States live in a very violent country, but I cannot imagine that we would kill our neighbors just because we were told to do so. We are not trained in obedience, and no one will excuse any bad behavior just because we “were only following orders.” I often think that obedience has been too often overstressed. But we need to teach everyone and learn ourselves that no act of obedience can turn a bad behavior into a good one. It is frightening to think of all the evil perpetrated in the name of obedience throughout the centuries. Maybe our rebelliousness is not so bad after all.

11 years 9 months ago
I much appreciated the reflections by Mark Raper, S.J., formerly head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, about the massacres in Rwanda 10 years ago (4/19). Father Raper mentioned the three Jesuits who had been killed on the first day at the Jesuit retreat house. They were singled out, along with priests, sisters and others on their team, for devoting themselves to harmony between the two peoples of Rwanda.

The oldest of these, Chrysologue Mahame, the very first Rwandan Jesuit, was a classmate of mine in theology at College Saint-Albert, Louvain, Belgium. We were ordained together in 1961. In our final year, when we both took a seminar to prepare a licentiate paper, Chris chose as his topic St. Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity. I think of him, pray to him now as an authentic martyr, one who has witnessed to the Trinity, that holy and divine community.


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