I did not write this post with the hopes that you would feel warm and fuzzy inside after reading it. Quite the opposite; I hope that you feel uncomfortable and that it makes you really think about the injustice and calamity that took place 23 years ago. The genocide was a tragedy that was planned; it was not a simple mistake. What makes it almost unbearable to me is that the church played such a large role in it, and not necessarily a good role. There were pastors that betrayed those of their own flock; church leaders bulldozed their churches down with thousands inside, for the cause of eradication of all Tutsis. There were others that turned a blind eye or who encouraged, and even joined in the betrayal of their Tutsi and moderate Hutu community members. Rwanda was the epitome of a Christian nation; over 90% of the country was Christian. Hutus and Tutsis went to the same churches and worshipped together. Christian killed Christian. Tribal ties ran deeper than the ties of Christian brotherhood.
The Nyamata church memorial is inside of the old church building. In 1994, during the genocide, the extremist militia known as the Interahamwe showed up at the door of Nyamata Church. There were about 10,000 men, women, and children inside of the church, hoping that their attackers would not dare attack the house of God. Sadly, that was not the case. Grenades, machine guns, and machetes made short work of those inside, with no survivors. Now, 23 years later, a mass grave and memorial stand as a symbol of remembrance.
As we entered the memorial, we took in the windows that had been blown out; there were gunshot holes in the ceiling and in the walls. On all of the pews, piles of dusty, torn clothing were piled high; more clothes than I had ever seen in one place. These were the clothes of the victims, taken and placed in piles as part of the memorial. There were babies’ bonnets, a little boy’s shirt, a mother’s wrap. pile after pile, with holes, ripped in them, bloodstains, dust. Nothing was behind glass–you could reach out and touch everything if you wanted. The church altar’s once-white cloth was bloodstained, and there were rosaries laying on it from people who had been praying there before they had been killed. All was left as it had been so that no one who saw it could say it was not a tragedy. On one end of the sanctuary was a stack of coffins in a seemingly haphazard pile. Each coffin held the bones of many, as there was not enough room to bury each person as they deserved.
Down a staircase, in the middle of the church, was a whitewashed room that held an open glass case containing skulls and bones of victims. Leon, our guide, told us that all of the people represented in the glass case had been killed by machete, and you could see it in the blows and cracks of the skulls. Below the skulls, in another room, was a lone coffin that held a woman who had been raped over 10 times by 10 different men. She was then impaled lengthwise with a sharpened pole, from her legs to her head. I was shocked by the fact that people could do something so brutal, not only because it was a horrible act but because more than likely the perpetrators personally knew the woman. This was not a war of strangers; these were friends and neighbors killing one another.
Above all of this was a statue of the Virgin Mary who had been untouched during the attack. Her eyes looked down and her hands were folded in prayer. I thought about the carnage that she would have looked down on, the chaos that she had witnessed. I thought about the silence that would have come after the destruction, and about her now looking down over this memorial, keeping watch, as she had been for over 23 years. To me, she symbolized an unchanging hope in the midst of chaos, a symbol of peace in the middle of the carnage. She was one of the first things that you saw going in, and as we left, she was the last thing I saw.
We headed out to the mass graves next, which were still open, as bones were still being found. We headed into the grave, where 48 coffins lined each of the four walls, stacked high. Some of the coffins were open so you could see the shards of bones and the skulls of people who had been killed there. The mass grave, we were told, held the remains of 45,000 men, women, and children. This ended our tour of the memorial, but it was impossible to erase what we had just seen from our minds and hearts.
Fast forward to the next morning, when we were able to sit and talk with two victims and their would-be killers. All four of them were open to answering any questions that we had for them and additionally, they had amazing stories of reconciliation and forgiveness to share with us. I was amazed that Claudine, one of the victims, was able to reconcile with Ananias, the man who had killed her brothers and her children. The same with Innocent; he had been maimed by Wellars, and yet still found it in his heart to not only forgive him but the willingness to build a relationship with him. It was so amazingly brave of Claudine and Innocent to forgive those who hurt them.
As I was sitting there, listening to them speak, I realized that Claudine and Innocent weren’t the only brave ones- Wellars and Ananias were also incredibly brave. I can’t begin to imagine the pain that you feel every time you see living proof of your sins, as Innocent and Claudine were. Not only that, but Ananias and Wellars were willing to look that sin in the face and reconcile with their past. And even more than that, they are now sharing and talking to groups like ours, sharing their story, in an effort to make sure it never happens again. That is bravery, pure and simple, and I am so incredibly honored that they took the time to meet with our group.
Meeting with the CARSA group, and later hearing a speaker talking about peaceful cohabitation versus reconciliation made me realize that Rwanda may be considered a developing country, but it far surpasses the US in matters of the heart. Yes, there is still pain, and there are still some people that aren’t willing to let go of prejudice, but overall Rwanda had learned the true meaning of reconciliation. I was thinking on this in light of the Charlottesville events, and I decided that the reason that we still have so much tension is because we are living in peaceful cohabitation and calling it reconciliation. We aren’t willing to discuss the sins of our fathers; we are dismissing history in an effort to erase the ugliness of our past. If we were able to look the past in the face and search for true reconciliation, how much different would our communities be? How much more integrated would our churches be? Is it worth it to step out of our comfort zone, apologize, forgive where it is needed, and reconcile? I would like to think so. It seems to have worked in Rwanda, and my prayer is that the church in America can take the cause of true reconciliation up and lead the way.
My hope for you, as you read this, is that you can see that out of deep heartache and tragedy can come true healing and forgiveness; those that hurt you the most can also help you heal. Ubumuntu, which means “I am because you are”, has never been more relevant for us as it is in this day and age. No matter the skin color, the sexual orientation, the religion, tribe, or the gender, we all need each other. We are a part of a complex and beautiful world that needs all of us in order to thrive. Ubumuntu is something we all need to strive for; humanity is worth it.