On the first day of the Rwandan genocide, on April 7, 1994, Hutu extremists set out to destroy the Tutsi minority with systematic brutality.
By Wisdom Mdzungairi
Yet, the international community and the Roman Catholic Church stood by.
In just 100 days in spring 1994, Rwanda’s descent into terror cost an estimated 800 000 lives. And as they say every story has its end, and for this story the end came on July 5, 1994.
I have personally come to love Rwanda – one of the smallest countries in Africa. It could also be one of the most beautiful and perhaps the cleanest on the continent. The people are lovely too. Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, it has rolling mountains, forests, lakes and waterfalls as well as a seemingly endless variety of plant and animal life.
There is no question about my allegiance to Zimbabwe, but I also consider the rest of Africa my home – any part of this beautiful continent. I have been to Rwanda countless times, I love the beautiful country. The first time I visited many years ago, I was heartbroken, especially after visiting its memorial museum. But here is a country which rose from the ashes to become a beacon of hope.
Even when this tragedy visited the nation, still there was a show of amity among its people. Thus, as part of Rwanda’s commemorations I held interviews with some genocide survivors. Of course, I picked a few I have made friends with over the years to tell their stories.
But as Rwanda commemorates the 25th anniversary of genocide this year, the role of the church in all that madness has never been laid bare — for good or bad — as it has been in recent years.
This fastest-moving genocide in modern times was horrifying for its intimacy – killers and victims were neighbours, friends, fellow churchgoers, workmates, even spouses. Murderers did their “work” with crude implements — machetes, hoes, nail-studded clubs — and lists of those doomed to die.
This was the terrifying reality for Tharcisse Seminega, a Tutsi professor at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. He was targeted for slaughter, along with his wife Chantal and five children, with all hope of escape cut off — until help arrived in the form of Hutu rescuers who repeatedly put themselves in mortal danger to save the family from the machete-wielding assailants.
Thus, his captivating book No Greater Love is the true story of unwavering courage and extraordinary love shown by ordinary people who offered a ray of hope during one of humanity’s most horrific self-inflicted tragedies. This book, which is due for publication any time from now, will be subject of a review in another instalment.
Tharcisse, like many others, survived death by machetes because of untiring love shown to his family by some Hutus. Suffice to say thousands of the victims died at the hands of priests, clergymen and nuns, according to many accounts by survivors, while many were massacred in the churches where they sought refuge – except at the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In fact, the story of Witnesses during the genocide is entirely different, with thousands putting their lives on the line to preserve those of their fellow brothers.
The Catholic Church in Rwanda has apologised for its role in the 1994 genocide, saying it regretted the actions of those who participated in the massacres.
“We apologise for all the wrongs the church committed. We apologise on behalf of all Christians for all forms of wrongs we committed. We regret that church members violated [their] oath of allegiance to God’s commandments,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement which was read out in parishes across Rwanda a few years ago.
The statement acknowledged that church members planned, aided and carried out the genocide, in which more than 800 000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists. Many of the victims were even members of their parishes.
This statement has continued to dominate debate earth-wide each time political contradictions persist, in particular the Middle East, Somalia, Nigeria, the Sudans and lately Zimbabwe.
In the years since the genocide – which was sparked by a contentious plane crash that killed then Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu — the local church had resisted efforts by the government and groups of survivors to acknowledge its complicity in mass murder, saying those church officials who committed crimes acted individually.
The Catholic bishops’ statement could have been a positive development in Rwanda’s efforts at reconciliation when it was issued. But to what extent…?
“Forgive us for the crime of hate in the country to the extent of also hating our colleagues because of their ethnicity. We didn’t show that we are one family but instead killed each other,” the statement read.
According to Phillipe Rukamba, then spokesman for the Catholic Church in Rwanda at the time, the statement was timed to coincide with the formal end of the Holy Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis to encourage greater reconciliation and forgiveness in his church and the world. Rukamba is now the president of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Rwanda.
To others, the admission by the Catholics symbolised unity among the Rwandans, yet to many, it was just a ruse as the church has been involved in 90% of the global conflicts without due regard to Jesus’ explicitly command “not to be part to this world” a reference to involvement in politics, local and global.
This is a subject for debate for another day, but for survivors like Tharcisse, Alphonse Ndayamaje, Jean-Ives Mudaheranwe and Charles Rutaganira, among many others, they survived because of the “undying love” shown by moderate Hutu brothers.
Tharcisse, now living in Canada, says as a Tutsi he was rescued by Hutus who showed unflinching love to him and many others who had been cornered.
Tharcisse argues that some people who study the history of humanity may conclude that religion is a prime source of discord and hatred and that fervent religious faith is the most dangerous of all. They might reach the assumption that the world would be better off without religion. However, several accounts by Witnesses of Tutsi origin reflect the reality that Tharcisse and his family also experienced.
Ndayamaje, a Jehovah’s Witness of Tutsi origin and special pioneer at the time, now living in Las Vegas, United States, told this writer of his experiences as the invading Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) made further advances on the capital, Kigali.
He said roadblocks manned by soldiers and armed militiamen along with local residents were set up throughout the town and at all road junctions. All able-bodied men were forced to man the roadblocks with the militiamen, day and night. The purpose of the blockades was to identify and murder every Tutsi they could find.
How did Ndayamaje survive the onslaught?
“I studied the Bible with a Hutu family. This study was progressive such that they decided they would protect me,” he said, his speech punctuated with heavy sighs of disbelief.
“Thousands of inhabitants left their homes running away from the atrocities. Many of them, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, sought refuge in neighbouring countries. I couldn’t run away so I was trapped right inside the city.”
“This Hutu family had a beautiful homestead. They did not take part in the killings of the Tutsi. First, they hid me in their bedroom. Their neighbours came asking for me, saying we know you used to study the Bible with a Tutsi, where is he? They denied any knowledge of me, so that evening they asked their neighbours to help them build a pit latrine on the borders of their homestead. A sizeable number of villagers gave their time even though the killings were escalating. They put a concrete slab well at night and asked me to get inside. This was to be my home for the next 28 days,” Ndayamaje said his eyes welling with tears.
Ironically, this pit latrine was to service the whole village, while he remained there until the family “whisked me away during the night to the Congolese border where I took off to Nairobi. I was to meet other Witnesses during meetings at a Kingdom Hall in Nairobi. This American family from California was on holiday going to Mombasa, so they asked me to accompany them.”
Ndayamaje later fell in love with and married their daughter Donna and the rest is history.
Adolphe, Justin and their companions were the masterminds of Tharcisse and family’s survival.
Alfred Semali, a Tutsi Witness, received word from his neighbour Athanase, a Witness of Hutu origin that all the Tutsi would be killed. Athanase insisted that Alfred and his family come to his house. Before the genocide started, Athanase had built an underground chamber about 12 feet deep. There he supplied food and mattresses for Alfred’s family.
Alfred said: “Although the neighbours suspected that we were hiding there and threatened to burn his house down, Athanase and his family continued to hide us. Clearly, they were ready to die for us.”
After three more days, there was fierce fighting in the area, so Athanase’s family also joined them into the hole, bringing the number there to 16. They sat in total darkness and subsisted on starvation rations — each had one spoonful of soaked raw rice a day, until the 10th day, when the food ran out. Alfred and Athanase’s teenage sons decided to go look for food. They said a prayer and came out of the hole. They found that the RPF, which was led by Paul Kagame, had taken control of the area. It remains the ruling party in Rwanda to this day.
Alfred relates: “Some soldiers came with us. I showed them where we had been hiding. They did not believe it until all the brothers and sisters started coming out of the hole, one by one. The soldiers were astonished that people from both ethnic groups had stayed together in that hole.
“We are Jehovah’s Witnesses,” I explained, ‘and we do not have any racial or tribal discrimination.’ They were amazed and said: ‘Give food and sugar to these people from the hole!’ Then they took us to a house where about 100 people were being temporarily housed. After that, a sister insisted that all 16 of us stay with her family. We are thankful that we survived.”
Jean-Ives Mudaheranwe, who was 10 in 1994, says he was born of a Hutu mother and Tutsi father. Hence, their family was targeted. He now lives in the US. He says he only became a Witness after the genocide. But he says the reason Witnesses were targeted was because of their neutrality.
Two Hutu Witnesses, Angeline Musabwa and her sister Valerie Musabyimana lived in Kigali Gatenga. They came from a devout Catholic background and their father was a catechist. Valerie had been in a convent, training to be a nun. Before making her vows, though, she became disappointed with the church. Valerie left the convent and became a Witness. Angeline was indignant. It was such a shameful thing for her family! But later she started to study the Bible and got baptised as a Witness not long thereafter.
When the genocide started, they were living in Kigali and working as full-time evangelisers. They were able to hide nine people (a mix of Witnesses and non-Witnesses) in their house, including two pregnant women — the husband of one had already been killed in the attacks. When the Hutu militia learned that they were hiding people, they said: “We have come to kill the Jehovah’s Witness Inyenzi (cockroaches).” But an army officer owned the house where the sisters lived. So the killers were afraid to enter. In fact, the owner of the house was also hiding Tutsis in his home. He confided to them: “It is the normal thing to hide people who seek refuge with you.”
Every time Angeline and Valerie left the house to draw enough water for nine extra people, they took their lives in their hands. After some time, the woman who had lost her husband went into labour. They had no hope of getting a doctor so the sisters helped her give birth themselves. When the neighbours learned of this, they brought rice, sugar, and flour. Toward the end of the war, the fighting intensified with a continuous rain of bullets. They had to evacuate the house, and all survived.
Charles Rutaganira says: “It was on Sunday. The crash of the President’s plane was on Thursday, but the genocide started when the killings first targeted top politicians, the richest and people in town. The militiamen put people in a queue and there was indiscriminate killing of people.”
There were many who also betrayed the trust of their countrymen. Even then, Charles says he has forgiven all those that tormented them during the genocide.
“Who am I not to forgive these if Jehovah has forgiven all of us?,” he says.
Angelique Rutaganira who married Charles in 1996 after the genocide had this to say: “My congregation in Rugesera had 100 publishers – comprising Hutus and Tutsis. After the genocide when I returned to the area, which is a 30-minute drive from Kigali, only 10 publishers had remained. The rest had died.”
Angelique contends that each time she was asked how she survived when she was Tutsi, she always indicated that she was not Tutsi, but a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Tharcisse, like his surviving compatriots, says he’s alive to give his testimony today because ordinary, imperfect people have shown that it is possible to follow in Jesus’ perfect footsteps, being willing to love one another as he did. “If all people would learn to show love to this degree, no one would ever wish to kill another. And therefore, no one would have to surrender his life to save another,” he says.
“It is a prospect I delight to share — a Biblical message bound up in the Messianic hopes of the Jewish faith and in the Christian prayer to God repeated by millions: ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ I am convinced that the majority of earth’s billions would wish to live in such a peaceful world founded on life-affirming love that can move people to live for one another with kindness and respect,” he says.
Rwanda is one country that has managed its transition in an admirable manner such that other countries with similar experiences and in varying degrees, can learn a thing or two.
Wisdom Mdzungairi is the Editor of NewsDay