The dark soul of Rwanda

“Prejudice is demonic because it turns people into objects of derision. It lessens them. It harms them. It dehumanizes them. And when small comments of derision about another race or group become more vociferous, these become policy, these become Nazi Germany, Bosnia . . . Rwanda.”
-Father Tim Farrell


My dear friend Father Tim Farrell and five women of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Farmington, New Mexico, spent the month of October on a mission trip to Africa. DemWit published Father Tim’s account of the mission work going on in Uganda, “Bringing hope to Uganda’s orphans,” on November 24.

Here are Father Tim’s reflections on their time in Rwanda:

Rwanda, on the surface, is a pleasant country of hills, mountains, forests, lakes, laughing children, markets of busy people, drummers, dancers, artisans and craftsmen.

Eight million people live in this tiny country. Rwanda has been home to this people for many centuries. They are one people who speak one language with one history.

But something is very broken in Rwanda. On one Spring day in 1994, the murder of one million people began. One million souls perished in three months. One million bodies littered the streets of Kigali, the countryside, the rivers.

I sat at a restaurant in Kigali in October 2010 with the five women who traveled with me from Sacred Heart (Becky Schritter, Rosie Gomez, Margaret Zamora, Katie Pettigrew and Jayme Childers) and we ate the delicious food in front of us. But something bothered me as I saw the hustle and bustle of this city. I looked around at the people walking by in the streets and I couldn't help but think, "Were you here when it happened? Are you a murderer? Were you a part of the genocide of the Tutsis?"

Our last stop in Rwanda before we went back to Uganda, our principal visit on this journey, was the Kigali Memorial Center, the genocide memorial to the one million souls who perished around Easter 1994. It was the most wrenching experience I believe I have ever had. As I walked through the museum I saw the film of the children and adults who had survived the torture of the Hutus. They had deep gashes in their heads and on other parts of their bodies. They were like the walking dead, having survived the carnage, but knowing that their families and friends lay dead and forgotten. I saw the skulls and bones of the thousands and thousands of children murdered. I saw the clothes of the massacred, hanging like ghosts of the martyrs. I read the testimonials of the survivors:

"We fought against them using stones. Some people died during battle . . . We were using stones, they had guns. They left because they couldn't handle us . . . [Then], there came a truck full of militia and soldiers." -- Emmauel Mugenzire

"I can't find the exact words to express how I feel about (Damas) Gisimba's actions. He protected more than 400 human lives. A love that sacrifices itself in that way is beyond my comprehension . . . I don't know if you'd call it an act of heroism or an act of love." -- Donatha Mukandayisenga speaking of Damas Gisimba who saved 400 orphans, refugees and employees from April to June of 1994 by taking them into his orphanage at Nyamirambo. He also rescued people who had been thrown into mass graves.

It literally took my breath away to read of the evil human beings could inflict on one another. Ten thousand people a day were murdered. Four hundred each hour. Seven each minute. Throughout the countryside. Tens of thousands had been tortured, mutilated and raped. Tens of thousands more suffered machete cuts, bullet wounds, infection and starvation.

Corpses littered the countryside. The country smelled of death. The genocideaires had been successful in their evil aims: Rwanda was dead.

Some of the most infamous stories came from massacres at churches, places of supposed sanctuary from the evil:

At Nyamata, around 10,000 people were murdered in the church and its surroundings. Fearful people crammed into the large church of St. Famille and its precincts. Father Wenceslas was supposed to be a figure of protection, yet is known to have openly collaborated with militia groups. This was in contrast to Father Celestin Hakizimana who made valiant attempts to save as many as he could.

The church, convent and school at Nyarubuye were turned into a killing center where around 20,000 people were murdered.

Two thousand congregants were sheltering in the church when Father Seromba gave the order to bulldoze the church building. He murdered his own congregants in his own church.

At Ntarama, while able-bodied males attempted to stop the genocide, women, children and elderly who had fled to the church had hand grenades thrown on them in the building. Stunned survivors were then hacked or shot to death. Thousands were murdered around the church.

The horrors seem endless. What could have caused this horror? Was it true, as one survivor noted, that "hell was unleased on Rwanda." Or was it evil in the hearts of human beings who hated for hatred's sake. I have often said that there is always a minority, a group "not good enough," someone we can pick on and laugh about and abuse because it makes us somehow feel better about ourselves.

Prejudice is demonic because it turns people into objects of derision. It lessens them. It harms them. It dehumanizes them. And when small comments of derision about another race or group become more vociferous, these can become policy, these can become Nazi Germany, Bosnia . . . Rwanda.

I had to leave the memorial building because I was simply overwhelmed and felt sick to my stomach. I sat on a bench in the sunlight, trying to breath the fresh air. It didn't help much. Beneath my feet lay the bodies of 250,000 souls who had perished in the genocide. This was not only a memorial, it was a graveyard for the unknown victims left rotting on the sides of roads or thrown into the rivers. Even the smell of the flowers in this beautiful place seemed somehow sickening to me. Becky Schritter found me sitting on the bench and joined me and we looked out at the bustling city of Kigali and we talked of the terrible loss of humanity.

The government of Rwanda in 1994 preached hate 24-hours-a-day. Their militia put the genocide into action. But it was the everyday people -- many now walking these streets, who allowed it not only to happen but took part in it. As Stephen Tabaruka, our Ugandan guide said, "there is a hiddeness to these people. They know what they have done. They know their sins and they can't live with themselves. They pretend life is going on, but it can't go on."

The corpses may be gone and the leaders may have been tried and convicted, but the heart of Rwanda, I believe, is dead. How can a country move on knowing that it has blood on its hands?

As we begin this new year, it is a good thing to be able to examine our own lives, to root out the prejudices, to be done with making fun of others or bullying the weaker among us.

If we do not believe that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, we crucify our beliefs as Christians. If we have room for making snide remarks about another race or a group of people, or an individual, then we lessen our humanity, not theirs. We sin. They don't.

I tried to think of any positive thing I could find in Rwanda's genocide aftermath. My heart was troubled. My soul was deeply wounded by what I saw and felt. Then, as I sat on that bench in the sunshine of Kigali, on the top of this mass grave of hatred, I remembered the little boy. Our van had broken down on the side of the road heading for Kigali. The radiator in our van had sprung a leak and we were in desperate need of water. There was my hope . . . our hope. A smiling little boy offered to go and fill his two containers he was carrying with water so we could fill up our damaged radiator. Time and again he ran a long distance to get the water and bring it back. His smile stays with me. It was better than the sunshine and fresh air outside the memorial. It brought me hope -- at least a little hope -- in this broken and tortured country, this place of great hiddenness in the darkest place of the Dark Continent of Africa.

PHOTO: The smiling boy.


BJ’s postscript: I have just listened to an account in Stephen Ambrose’s “The Victors,” which left me with the same feelings about “man’s inhumanity to man.” As Allied forces began liberating the concentration camps, Nazis at Dachau herded 4,000 starving Jews who had barely survived into barracks, nailed down the doors and windows, dowsed the buildings with gasoline and burned them alive. I turned off the tape and sat and thought about Father Tim’s words, particularly the quote highlighted at the beginning of this post.

And now the threat of genocide and civil war looms in post-election chaos in Africa’s Ivory Coast.

Will the insanity ever end?

As long as there are smiling children and people devoted to ministering to others, there is hope.


Ahab said...

Large-scale inhumanity continues today in DR Congo, in Ciudad Juarez, in places too numerous to mention. And yet, the human heart perseveres, and compassion repeatedly asserts itself among the ugliness. That gives me hope.

tnlib said...

I'm eager to read this and will do so in the morning when I'm more alert. As it is, I wouldn't be able to get through two graphs. But I do think I can muddle my way through to putting a link up on my blog.

Tiny said...

There is so much inhumanity going on in many areas of the globe, which is heartbreaking to read. Tiny wonders if those who hate so deeply and completely even have a soul or if they are just dark force automations of some sort.

Fear ridden people seem driven by their materialistic wants and fear they won't be able to get all that they want because there's too many people with needs. Everyone needs some material things to live in a material world. But no one takes any of it with them when they leave!

Tiny remembers preachers having militia members on their TV programs in the 80s and praising them for their training etc. And we hear the hate speech filling the airwaves in our own country, along with invoking people to get their guns and be ready to reload them if they don't get what they want.

Let us continue to believe and to be the caring people in the world and hope that caring for each other becomes a contagion and the ruling force in the world.

Thanks to Father Tim and BJ for shining a light in another dark corner of the world.

tnlib said...

Such a haunting tale of a horrific time. I can't even imagine going through something like that - just as I can't imagine living though the Holocaust. The similarities are indeed chilling: an evil government, media compliance and a people wittingly or unwittingly supporting the destruction of another peoples.

It would be easy to say that this little boy was only smiling because of the anticipated monetary reward, and maybe so to a certain extent, but I prefer to think of it as a sign of hope that Rwanda, just as Germany did, will come out a stronger and more humane nation.

And there is hope as long as people like Damas Gisimba and Oskar Schindler and thousands like them go to extraordinary lengths to save mankind from its own inhumanity.

Thanks so much for sharing these very humbling reflections and experiences.

Frodo, not much more to say, said...

Frodo fears that he will someday hear a world leader deny the existence of this holocaust, too.

There are times when the enormity of the crime is such that what is human inside of us is simply unable to process what happened, there, beneath our feet.

It is why alcohol was invented.