Living in Rwanda 20 years after the genocide

I live in Rwanda, a tiny country in the middle of Africa. Rwanda has been in the headlines this week, because 20 years ago there was a genocide in the country where I live. Nearly 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. People died in the most heinous and horrific ways at the hands of the Hutu militia, the ‘Interahamwe1, purely because they carried an identity card, which read ‘Tutsi’. We are coming to the end of the official week of mourning and I have read many of the articles written about ‘kwibuka 20’2 and watched some of the TV reports about Rwanda 20 years after the genocide. The one article that has stood out for me is the New York Times‘Portraits of Reconciliation’ (click on the photograph below to visit the article.)

The images presented in this article are certainly alluring. The photographer has managed to capture both Tutsi survivor and Hutu perpetrator standing shoulder to shoulder. Often the Hutu perpetrator had killed their children, their families and destroyed their properties.

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Portraits of Reconciliation

So this is the question: how is it possible for a woman to stand side by side with a man who killed her husband and children? How can genuine reconciliation and forgiveness take place? Even the New York Times article admits, “In many of these photos, there is little evident warmth between the pairs…”

Before I moved to Rwanda 4 years ago I read about 1994 in books. I read testimonies of killers and testimonies of survivors alike. I was captivated by how ordinary people could pick up farming tools and kill their neighbours, in an act of obedience to the radical Hutu government at the time. However these people remained distant from me, they were people in books, people in the middle of Africa, perhaps a little like the New York Times photographer, I felt separated from the people who had undergone some of the most unthinkable crimes in this last century.

Then I came and I lived amongst them, not knowing what people had gone through, what they had seen or indeed what they had done. Not knowing if I could ask. Wondering what had happened in the house where I live, were people killed here? We would find shoes buried in our garden, many, many shoes, I often wondered if those shoes belonged to victims. Each time I saw a man casually walking down the road with a machete (a common sight here in Rwanda)3, I would wonder if those hands had held a machete before, a machete that dripped with human blood.

I have visited memorial sites and museums hearing stories, mostly of the torture by which people were killed. Nyamata was a place teaming with Tutsis.4 10,000 Tutsis were killed in the Catholic Church there. The young woman who calmly showed us around said, “Can you see the blood that soaked this wall? This is where they killed the children, when they did not die instantly they would finish them off by throwing them against this wall.”

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‘Kwibuka’ 20 slogan – remember-unite-renew

Now the people of Rwanda are no longer distant, they are not just people in books or museums, they have moved closer to me, much, much closer. They are people I have come to know, people I eat with and pray with, they have become my friends, people I live life with, people I love. I have Hutu friends and I have Tutsi friends. I have come to know them and their stories. I have heard my Tutsi friends tell me how much they hated Hutus. I have heard the guttural sobs of some of my Tutsi friends, as they have told me how they survived but their family did not. Then one day a Hutu friend came to visit me with the specific reason to tell me ‘her’ story. She told me everything, and what was apparent was that her family had suffered too.5 The one thing that stood out from her story was the collective guilt she felt, being identified with a tribe who are known as Tutsi killers.

The week before the memorial week I sat in my living room, with two girls. Two girls who have come to know Christ. Two girls I read the Bible with. Two girls who I have grown to deeply care about. Our threesome is an interesting dynamic in many respects. We are dependant on each other, learning from each other, sharing our lives and challenges and praying for one another. Two girls, from two tribes. One a Hutu and one a Tutsi. I knew that they had probably never referenced their tribal identities in front of each other. I have often marveled at this triangle of three women and how we have become so close. From different nations and different generations, from different tribes and speaking different languages. A ‘muzungu’6, a Hutu and a Tutsi. Natural enemies, by nature we should have nothing in common. Perhaps we could tolerate one another in polite company, but meet week after week, seek each other out?

We sat together a week before the 20 years were up. I asked the question, “Is the memorial week going to be a hard time for you?” My Tutsi friend started to speak of some of the challenges she faces during memorial week, some of the terrible memories she has of her family hiding from killers. She spoke of some of the unthinkable things she had seen and endured. She even spoke of her previous hatred of Hutus. She began to cry, to sob. The Hutu girl put her arm around her and said “mwihangane”7 I looked on as my Hutu friend comforted her and I asked, “Does she know your tribal identity?” This was the first time they had spoken of these things. It was a profound moment that I had the privilege of witnessing; there was no lack of warmth here, but genuine concern and acceptance of one another. In that moment it struck me that genuine forgiveness and reconciliation can only come through the cross of Christ. The picture of these two women before me reminded me of how Christ came to create one new humanity out of the two.

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The pain of genocide

We started to read those powerful words of reconciliation from Ephesians 2 together, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” These words refer to the dividing wall that existed between Jew and Gentile, the hostility and division that existed between these two groups. I re-read these profound words inserting Hutu and Tutsi. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the Hutu and the Tutsi one…”His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two thus making peace and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility…”

In Rwanda there is much talk about reconciliation between the tribes, through creating a new Rwanda where there is no longer Hutu or Tutsi, but the two groups have become one – ‘Rwandans’. These words in Ephesians take this thought of oneness onto a new and higher level, where we are no longer even Rwandans, South Africans, Americans or Chinese, but we are a new humanity who identify our whole person-hood with salvation and reconciliation found at the cross of Christ. In Christ I become a Christian, my identity is in Christ and with his people. I am a Christian, a Christ follower before I am a Hutu, a Tutsi or even a Rwandan. My cultural, tribal or national identity is no longer what defines me, but I am now identified as a “fellow citizen with God’s people” “I am now a member of God’s household”.

And so my two friends and me are defined by our new family, there is no need for us to carry identity cards, that say Hutu or Tutsi, or in fact for me to carry my British passport. As Christians we are fellow citizens with God’s people, our citizenship is the same, there is no difference. We call on the same Father. We are children in God’s household, we are sisters and not enemies. We are not bound by tribal or national identity, because in Christ we are reconciled and we truly become one. Our oneness is not false of forced, but recognition that in Christ I have become a new creation, and in the truth of his word I share a tangible unity with my sisters and them with each other. For those who look on we are an unlikely triangle. But for those with eyes to see, they will know that we have everything in common, because we are on the same journey home to our same Father in Heaven.

I would love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment.

End notes

1 ‘Interahamwe’ means ‘those who work together’, ‘Intera’ comes from the Kinyarwanda verb gutera, which means ‘work’. ‘Hamwe’ means together deriving from the word ‘rimwe’ for ‘one’. The ‘Interahamwe’ saw killing Tutsis by machete as the ‘work’ they did together.

2 ‘Kwibuka’ is the Kinyarwanda verb ‘to remember’

3 Rwandans still use machetes for working the land, it is not uncommon to see a man walk down the road carrying a machete or other traditional farming instruments.

4 Nyamata was uninhabitable before the 1960s due to the infestation of Tsetse flies. These flies transmitted ‘sleeping sickness’ which is fatal to human beings if not treated. In an attempt to exterminate Tutsis the government forcibly moved many Tutsi from the Northern province to live in this infested area. In 1994 there were still many Tutsi living in Nyamata and so it became a target for the ‘Interahamwe’. I know people who hid in the near by swamps by day, eating raw potatoes and cassava to survive. Sleeping on the banks of the swamp at night and re-entering at sunrise to hide from the killers.

5 Moderate Hutus who refused to kill Tutsi neighbours, or indeed a Tutsi spouse or children were often killed themselves. Many moderate Hutus were also displaced during and after the genocide, often finding themselves in refugee camps with the ‘Interahamwe’.

6 Muzungu comes from the Bantu language root ‘zungu’ which literally means the ‘aimless wanderer’ or the ‘dizzy person’, in Rwanda it has the connotation of ‘rich person’, but it is mostly used to describe people of ‘white skin’.

7 ‘Mwihangane’ is Kinyarwanda for ‘be patient’, it is used to show sympathy.

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3 comments

  1. Innocent M · · Reply

    None could think that any life could come from the bloody, messy and loss that we faced in genocide. By 1997 when I first visited the memorial site (Bisesero in Karongi), the corpses, exhumed, yet to be re-buried (with respect ) were gathered. They were not covered,exposed under April rain. The cloud of death covered the mountain. The memories are still fresh. Yet, God has actively accomplished a lot. I am so grateful to Him. Many hearts are yet to fully come out of the pit, others have come out and have walked to get long cords to pull their brothers from the pit. God is active. There is hope. The Gospel is the need. For surely it is only through Jesus (the Cross) that true reconciliation is. Thank you Nancy and Loots among many who have come over, ate our food, walked our villages, and shared our pain and sorrow. We are very excited to share even the joy of God’s achievements.

  2. So powerful, the hate and the reconciliation. Blessings to you and your family. Read about you in AIM magazine. Geoff Allwright

    1. Thank you for your comment Geoff.

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