Before I can share individual experiences, I need to give you a bit of history on the circumstances leading up to the genocide in Rwanda. For some of you this may be a review, but for others (who like me have been virtually ignorant when it comes to Rwandan history), I will attempt to set the stage for the testimonies of resiliency and courage that I will share in the coming weeks.
The Rwandans lived in peace for generations. They were one people, with one culture, speaking one language. When the Belgians colonized Rwanda, they needed a way to ensure that the Rwandan people did not revolt. They divided the people into two groups: the Tutsi (those with cattle) and the Hutu (the farmers). The Belgians favored the Tutsi by giving them wealth and power. Since a person’s wealth was subject to change, the Belgians decided that they needed something more permanent to differentiate the two groups so they began using a person’s height and the width of his nose to determine whether a person was Tutsi or Hutu. They even issued identity cards to every Rwandan which stated whether a person was Hutu or Tutsi (these cards were later used to identify those to be killed).
While the two groups continued to live in the same communities as neighbors, resentment and bitterness began to take root in the lives of many of the Hutu. To state it briefly (I’m skipping a lot of stuff here), when Rwanda gained its independence, seeds of prejudice had already been planted in many hearts. Hutu rebels killed the President of Rwanda and blamed it on the Tutsis. They then called Hutus throughout the country to take up arms and annihilate the Tutsis. Sadly, this was how the genocide began.
In 100 days over one million of the 8 million people living in Rwanda were killed. Perhaps the thing that differentiates this from all other genocides was the fact that neighbors were killing neighbors. Christians were killing their brothers and sisters in Christ. Some pastors even participated in the murders. How could this happen? Where was God in all of this? These questions still remain for many Rwandans today. Others have experienced the presence of God in indescribable ways and are finding healing and peace.
After the genocide ended, the prisons were overflowing with inmates. The government realized that it would take 300 years to try each person in prison. After 7 years, the President made the surprising decision to release those inmates who showed remorse for their actions. Over 250,000 perpetrators were reintroduced to society. In one day, 40,000 murderers were released into the streets. Imagine the panic of the survivors. Imagine the fear of the perpetrator’s families. Lastly, imagine the guilt and shame of the perpetrators themselves as they had to go home to face the survivors of the very people they had killed. I don’t know about you, but I cannot even begin to fathom what the communities faced during those early days.
Almost 17 years have passed since the genocide occurred, but the fallout remains. Widows and orphans desperate for food, clean water, and shelter scatter the country. The economic fallout is paramount. Many survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators deal with post-traumatic stress and other mental disorders as a result of the mass killings.
Rwanda is at a critical juncture in history. It can embrace forgiveness and reconciliation and move forward as a nation or it can foster anger, bitterness, and shame and risk history repeating itself. Now that I have seen many of the faces that represent Rwanda, I cannot remain silent. I’m not sure what I am called to do in response to the things I’ve seen, but I do know that I must tell their stories. Seventeen years ago, the world turned a blind eye to this nation at a time when they needed us the most. The United Nations pulled out all troops and the U.S. and the rest of the world refused to send in aid. We abandoned the people of Rwanda and left them to fend for themselves. Praise God they have climbed out of the abyss, but I pray that the world will take notice and look for ways to assist them as they seek to move forward.