Witness in Rwanda

Site of mass graves in Butare, Rwanda

By the second Sunday of Easter, April 10, as the African Synod opened in Rome—the official title for this meeting is “The Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops”—details had just reached the outside world of the slaughter in Rwanda. Among those killed in the wave of “ethnic cleansing” were 19 Africans gathered at the Jesuits’ Christus Centre in the Rwandan capital, Kigali: nine young Rwandan sisters of the congregation “Vita et Pax”; the Rwandan cook; a Rwandan social worker who had apparently sought refuge there; five Rwandan diocesan priests meeting at the center, and three Rwandan Jesuit priests.

At Jesuit headquarters in Rome, African bishops who had arrived for the synod joined the Jesuits’ superior general and young African Jesuits studying in Rome to pray for all the victims of ethnic violence in central Africa and for the restoration of justice and peace. The Jesuits who died were remembered precisely for their work at the Christus Centre, which was dedicated to ethnic reconciliation and the protection of the vulnerable.


The term “ethnic cleansing,” as we know all too well from former Yugoslavia, is a European coinage. There is nothing specially African about either the euphemism or the reality. As in the Balkans, so in Rwanda, efforts to understand what is happening fall back on terms like “ancient hatreds” and “historic grievances,” but there is nothing predestined or inevitable about it. As in the Balkans, so too in Rwanda, unscrupulous and weak-minded politicians—in this case, not hardline Serbs but hardline Hutus—have seized upon an unsettled moment to grab more power for themselves and their party by killing off political opponents, mostly Tutsis, but also Hutus working for political reconciliation. Waving the ethnic banner, as in the Balkans, the hard-liners have unleashed ignorant men to massacre the “others,” and by horrid irony this dirty work is called “cleansing.”

Two weeks ago, America’s 85th-anniversary issue featured the African Synod in two articles, one of them an interview with African theologian Lamin Sanneh, who asks Western Christians to feel for Christians worldwide a kinship transcending idols of national ideology and culture. It is such a kinship that America professes here by publishing in miniature the life stories of three of our brother Jesuits murdered in Rwanda. It is too easy, amid all the blood and death—by April 10 it was thought some 20,000 had perished in and around Kigali—to see just the heaped up bodies and not the faces of those who shared their love of Christ with us. Nor do we mean, by publishing these, to overlook the personal stories of the others, the women religious for instance, who also died at the Christus Centre, but we could quickly get detailed information on the Jesuits:

Chrysologus Mahame, 67, a Tutsi and the first Rwandan Jesuit, had served as regional superior, taught in the seminary and, at the time of his death, was superior of the Jesuit house of studies in Butare. By character and education, he appealed to both Hutus and Tutsis, though his efforts to reconcile the two groups and to serve as an ecumenical and ethnic bridge—by conducting retreats, workshops and continuing-formation sessions at the Christus Centre—earned him enemies. Like Jesuits killed in Latin America, he was unloved by those who had sold out to one or the other political side though, ironically, he was reaching out to both sides.

Patrick Gahizi, 48, was a Tutsi whose family had been exiled from Rwanda into Burundi, where he grew up. He graduated from the University of Bujumbura and entered the Society of Jesus in Burundi. He studied philosophy in Kinshasha, Zaire, and theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He had served as principal of the high school at Gisenyi, Rwanda, and, at the time of his death, was regional superior of Rwanda—a role that fitted him because his background made him acceptable to Hutus and Tutsis, in both Rwanda and Burundi. Destined for higher office, he was not, as a friend clarifies, “political” in any negative sense.

Innocent Rutagambwa, 46, was of mixed Tutsi-Hutu parentage. He had just finished a term as assistant to the Jesuit provincial superior in Zaire. Unlike Chrysologus and Patrick, he was not obviously a leader, being much more low-key by temperament. He had taught in high school, but not too happily, as he was not notably successful in coping with the antics of high schoolers. His preferred métier was spiritual direction, and in that he was skilled and discreet. His baptismal name suited him....

American Jesuits are proud to call them brothers. They died as they lived, trying to overcome the sort of division that took their lives, affording protection to the vulnerable even when it cost them their lives.

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Christopher Rushlau
4 years 10 months ago
I suspect you already regret this editorial. You will have found out by now that Tutsis and Hutus are members of one and the same ethnic group, defined as speakers of a common language. The distinction is that the former echelon were, under Belgian colonial subjection, the designated servant class, staffing the colonial administration (we're learning anew in Afghanistan as we abandon that tragedy after twelve years of making it tragic on purpose) with local people. Empire always uses local people. Divide and conquer mainly by creating a servant class which gets payoffs for managing ("taking in hand") most of the subjugation duties. The English bragged that they ran Sudan with five thousand Englishers. I was in Kenya with the Peace Corps. Empire peels off like a scab, but current policies in the West, represented by this editorial, never let the victim nation heal. So the Belgians picked themselves some local administrators, sent them to college, gave them salaries and cars and uniforms, and after a while Tutsi children were a bit taller than Hutu children because of the better maintenance. I'm sure the Belgians used that term or at least concept, like a slave-owner calculating the cost of maintenance on her investment. What we cannot understand, though, is why this should engender feelings of resentment among the Hutu instant-under-class. This boggles the Western mind, it beggars the imagination. Quite frankly, I can't see what any of this has to do with Israel. I mean, if I'm following the script, racism is a good thing, right? Hasn't God divided the world into races, some of which take care of others in a Great Chain of Being Hypocritical? And we designate the top race by the neutral term "white"? You want an expose? I'm told if you visit Israel you immediately notice that, the higher, the whiter. And yet whiteness is all about culture, all about the idea that your dreams are your reality as long as they comport with the official dream. That is, there is really no reality. There are only narratives. And of course, the Department of Narrative Control, which makes sure you use narratives in an appropriate and non-problematic manner. Never go off script. Don't ask questions. Don't make people feel like they can be themselves with you. You might get yourself, and not just them, in trouble if they say something they're not supposed to: like, are Hutus and Tutsis two different tribes? If so, why do they speak the same language? How did they get separated this way? Are Africans just basically irrationally brutal? As I say, quite frankly, I just don't see what any of this has to do with Israel, the Jewish state in Palestine. God help us.


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