KIGALI, Rwanda (BP)–From the small window of the Kenya Airways jet, I looked down on the beautiful green mountains of Rwanda as we slowly made our descent to the Kigali airport, where 17 years ago an airplane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down, sparking one of the most evil acts of humanity in my lifetime.
I was a junior in high school in 1994 and vaguely remember seeing reports on newscasts about violence in an African country I am not sure I had even heard of. Years later I watched a film, “Hotel Rwanda,” which told a story of love and sacrifice during the chaos of the Rwandan genocide, during which at least 800,000 people were murdered by their countrymen. This was when God first stirred my heart to learn more about this violent war.
Two days into the trip, I visited the Nyamata Genocide Memorial in the Bugasera district, just a half-hour drive from Kigali. The memorial is a former Catholic church where people once came for mass. The building is comparable to the size of a rural church in America’s Bible Belt.
In April 1994 around 10,000 Tutsis sought refuge at the church, praying to escape the fate of hundreds of thousands of others. Unfortunately they, too, were hacked to death by machetes, the weapons of choice for most of the Hutu killers roaming Rwanda with one goal: to wipe from the face of the earth their countrymen, the ones they called “cockroaches.”
Inside the Nyamata church now are thousands of dirty, blood-stained clothes and accessories, all piled together in neat rows — each piece belonging to an individual who was mercilessly killed in the genocide.
The tour guide, Elisabeth, with her soft voice and gleaming smile, led my friends and me through the church, sharing the story of the massacre of 10,000 people. I walked through row after row of piles of clothing, taking note of every piece I could: jewelry, a shoe, a belt still woven through the loops on a pair of trousers, a leg brace, a child’s sweatshirt. I tried to imagine whom each of these items belonged to.
The altar in the front of the church is still covered with the white sheet that was there the day Nyamata was attacked. Faded blood stains are still visible and a machete left behind by one of the killers lies across the altar next to rosary beads removed from bodies. Directly above the altar, on the metal ceiling, are blood stains turned black, a picture of how violently people were slaughtered that blood could splash so high to the ceiling. Sunlight radiated through bullet holes dotting the ceiling and tears in the metal from grenade blasts.
As we moved to the back of the church, Elisabeth told us the killers reserved this area to execute children. A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach grew as she explained how the killers would take children under five years old, hold them upside down, then smash their little heads into the brick wall, over and over, until they were dead. Elisabeth pointed to a certain brick on the wall, a brick still stained with the blood of helpless children.
We carried on to a new addition to the memorial, a downstairs area where we saw the first of hundreds of human skulls. Some bore no visible signs of trauma, while others had large cracks streaking across the top or sides, evidence of machete attacks.
Below the skulls display was the coffin of a lady who was killed in the church. She was of no particular importance in society, but Elisabeth explained her death represented the death of most women in the genocide. This lady had been raped by more than 20 men and then brutally stabbed with two sharp sticks through her genitals to kill her. If a woman was holding a baby she was stabbed in the front, through her body and into the baby on her back. Who thinks of such torture?
Throughout the week my friends and I visited with several Rwandans who survived the genocide. Their stories are powerful and during much of the visits I was hanging on their every word.
Jean Baptiste Tuyishimire had a mission to accomplish: to reconnect his pastor with his wife and children. Tuyishimire walked for miles and miles and saw the unthinkable devastation from the genocide, but God watched over him and helped him to complete the task. He left Rwanda for many years, angry at what happened. Over the years, God healed his heart and now he helps pastors plant churches in Rwanda.
Eugene Ntaganda was a member of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, or RPF, who helped liberate the Tutsis. Through his efforts he met his wife, Georgina, at a refugee camp after her family was murdered and she narrowly escaped death. Every April, when the country mourns and remembers the past, Georgina struggles through the emotional wounds, but forgiveness, she says, releases those emotions and gives her peace.
Some of the most touching and heartbreaking stories came at the end of the week, just a few hours before we boarded the airplane to leave. We visited widows who receive counseling and encouragement from Solace Ministries, an organization started in 1995 to help genocide survivors.
These resilient women who have placed their hope and lives in Jesus Christ lost their families in 1994. One lady and her family were thrown into a pit latrine (a long-drop African toilet), where they were stoned by their neighbors, then set on fire. She managed to crawl out of the pit but most of her family was dead, and for awhile she was committed to a mental institution. Her faith has brought her through the tragic events of her life, eventually allowing her to forgive her neighbors, whom she lives near again.
Another lady watched her neighbors murder her husband and all eight of her children. She was attacked with a machete on her leg and hip but managed to escape and flee to Kigali. Today she has forgiven her former neighbors and, remarkably, offers them and their children a place to stay when they need it.
Each of these stories speaks volumes about God’s faithfulness in times of tragedy and how faith in Christ equips us to forgive and heal. It is through forgiveness Rwanda is healing.
As our plane lifted off the runway in Kigali, I looked down once more at the beautiful green mountains of Rwanda, truly amazed at God’s stories of forgiveness and grace.
Based in Africa, Jacob Alexander is a writer for IMB’s Global Communication Team.
Watch videos related to this column:
Forgiving Our Killers
In 1994, a genocide driven by ethnic hatred killed over 800,000 people in the small, east African country of Rwanda – nearly a tenth of the country’s population. Today, survivors continue to deal with the trauma and aftermath of the killings. In spite of their experiences, many are finding healing and even forgiveness for those responsible.
As a young woman, Georgina lost most of her family in the 1994 genocide. Ntaganda, a former RPF soldier, fought to liberate Rwanda from the mass killings. In late April 1994, their paths crossed and their lives were changed forever.
Beaten and bruised, cut and bleeding, stoned and set on fire, dehumanized and traumatized — stories of Rwandan genocide survivors tell of how they lived, how they hurt and how they forgive.