This article is based on my documentation of the trip to the Cyangugu Diocese in southwestern Rwanda where Fr. Kenneth Schmidt and his associate Sharon Froom, a therapist, provided trauma recovery training workshop to priests and human service professionals ministering to survivors of the 1994 genocide. To view the blog of the trip, see Trauma Recovery Associates in Rwanda.
Evil has never been an easy for me to comprehend.
I have been loved by my family, secure in my community, well-educated, never without work or the ability to sustain myself, and not been exposed to personal violence. Compared to most women in the world, I am privileged, fortunate and seemingly shielded from evil.
Then, I visited Rwanda, a small country of 8 million people in the heart of Africa, a place that for some reason had evil descend upon it in 1994. One million people were killed in 100 days after a century of hate, resentment and violent retribution.
The killing began on April 6, three days after Easter Sunday, and lasted until mid-July.
Thirteen years before, apparitions of the Blessed Mother—her first and only apparitions on the African continent—foretold the genocide to children in Kibeho, a small town in southwestern Rwanda. This area turned out to be one of the worst places of slaughter as Hutu militia fighters literally hacked multitudes of Tutsi people to death with machetes.
As a self-sufficient individual, which is what our American culture teaches us to be, faith in God’s grace has not been easy for me either. Then I met Rwandan priests, teachers, nurses and social workers who actually view their work and their country as a light to the world, given its sordid history. These courageous and faith-filled men and women are among the leaders who are attempting to bring justice to the perpetrators of the genocide and healing to the survivors.
Rwanda is a country where 100 percent of its population lives with constant memories of that terrible time.
For example, deep pain, guilt, embarrassment for surviving and the urge for retaliation remain in the hearts of many people.
Children share the same classroom with those whose parents were killed or those whose parents are in prison on suspicion for genocide crimes. Violence breaks out often and schools are not always safe so children can’t learn and teachers can’t teach.
Every village in Rwanda had instances of genocide so people suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, headaches, stomachaches and other psychosomatic symptoms. Families and neighbors of mixed ethnic backgrounds still have hard feelings.
Mass migrations have taken place since 1959 when Tutsi refugees spilled into the neighboring countries of Burundi, Congo, Uganda and Tanzania because Hutu regimes preached hate and discrimination. President Paul Kagame, who led the rebel army against the Hutu government in 1994 and subsequently quelled the genocide, was among those Tutsi families who escaped to Uganda.
Since the Tutsi takeover of government, 3 million Hutu have left the country, some still lusting after Tutsi blood. This massive population dislocation is as unsettling for Rwandans as it is for their neighbors who are forced to host refugees they don’t want.
Rwanda also remains one of the poorest, most densely-populated countries in the world.
How a situation—and a history—so horrendous and so destructive to the human spirit can be healed seems an insurmountable undertaking. And yet, it is happening in Rwanda.
"There is no other place for people to go," a social worker told me. "We must get along."
The Kagame government desperately wants this to happen as it continues to stabilize the country through policy and economic development.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has become a major player in taking on the emotional and spiritual reconciliation of genocide survivors and perpetrators in this predominantly Catholic country. That is why Bishop Jean Damascène Bimenyimana recently assigned Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a parish priest well known for his healing work, to full-time leadership in establishing the Center for the Secret of Peace in Cyangugu. (Fr. Ubald says the secret of peace is forgiveness and reconciliation.)
Fr. Ubald, 53, is a lively, energetic, tireless, can-do and charismatic man who has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr. He can’t walk down the street without people stopping him to talk and he constantly receives cell phone calls from parishioners as well as friends and acquaintances in Europe and America asking him to pray for them.
One reason why Fr. Ubald is so effective is that during the genocide he lost 80 members of his own family, 45,000 members of his parish and barely escaped the terror himself. He has made healing his country’s wounds his passion and the focus of his ministry.
Fr. Charles Ntabyera, 34, saw his father carried off by the killers. He became separated from his mother and siblings when they escaped the country. At age 17 he suddenly found himself alone in that dangerous world.
And yet, his call to the priesthood came from his father’s prayer that one of his sons become a priest. During Mass, Fr. Charles consistently and fervently proclaimed that “the love of Jesus Christ helps us conquer the world of evil. Let us always be turned to Jesus and fight to overcome evil in the world.”
Lent is a time to focus on our sinfulness and the fact that Jesus’ life and death were meant not only to save us from evil but to overcome evil with love, compassion and healing.
This truth is often be obfuscated by our tendency to focus on our political, economic, social and cultural differences. When we do this we are giving in to the forces of evil that if taken to the extreme could lead us to a bloody outcome like it did in Rwanda. This already happened once in our history, during the Civil War when 625,000 died.
Rwanda is a powerful and an inspiring example of what it takes to overcome evil: people who are engaged in a daily struggle together as a community and as the Church.
The strife in our world today is incredibly difficult at every level, but let us get through the evils it instigates as men and women of love, compassion and healing rather than as proponents of violence, hate and retribution.