By Ellis Cose
Rwanda is one of the most enchanting places on earth—and one of the most haunted. With its rolling hills and lush greenery, it could easily pass for paradise—if not for memories of 1994. Fifteen years ago, on April 6, the plane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot out of the sky. The murder set off an orgy of slaughter and cruelty so extreme that it defied description or understanding.
John Rucyahana, who had fled Rwanda as a teenager, was living in Uganda and visiting Atlanta when the violence broke out. The televised images of suffering and death convinced him that he should return home.
“I needed to be able to have the grip of the horror and then be part of the solution,” the Anglican bishop told me.
When Rucyahana got back to Uganda in mid-July, he rented a minibus, hired a driver and took to the road with 10 other pastors. They crossed into Rwanda and made their way to Nyamata, near Kigali, the capital. The violence had died down but death was everywhere: “We saw mass graves; we saw dead bodies. In one home, we found 27 dead bodies, including a cat and a dog … Some of the pastors couldn’t sleep; they spent all night crying … Two of them had to be taken back home to Uganda.”
During a recent visit to Rwanda, I accompanied the bishop to a bridge near Kigali overlooking the Nyabarongo River. In 1994, it might as well have been the River Styx—a dank passageway to the underworld. “Many people were thrown into the river alive,” said Rucyahana. “Others were killed and their dead bodies were thrown into this river. And they floated … through River Kagera, which continued to take these bodies into Lake Victoria in Uganda.”
Rucyahana had to act. Initially, he ran seminars, urging people to repent and rebuild. But that wasn’t enough. So in 1996, he packed up his family and returned to the land of his birth to preach hope standing on “a pile of bones,” as he puts it. One of his first tasks was to build a boarding school for orphans: “Having lost a million people, lots of babies were left behind.” The school in Musanze, near the Volcanoes National Park, opened in 2001. It is now one of the best schools in the country. It is called Sonrise, which, Rucyahana explains, “means the Son of God rises into the misery, into our darkness.”
But the bishop is reaching out to perpetrators as well as to victims. His prison ministry encourages those who participated in the genocide to accept responsibility and repent. He also has built reconciliation villages whose primary purpose is to bring victims and perpetrators together. I visited one not far from Kigali and spoke to several residents, including Jeannette, who lost seven family members to the genocide. What was it like for her to stand beside a neighbor who admitted killing women and children? “In the beginning, it was very difficult,” she said. “But now I forgive him.”
I asked a pastor who works in the village whether there was a secret to creating trust among former enemies. They have to learn, he said, that life goes on. So instead of dwelling on the past, they embrace the future. And, if their faith is strong, they even embrace the people who killed their children, destroyed their homes and left them traumatized and afraid.
Optimism is surprisingly easy to find in Rwanda these days. I encountered dozens of people intent on rebuilding a nation out of the ashes. And they feel a certain urgency. Rwandans cannot afford to wait “until the pain is over,” says Rucyahana. In Rwanda, he sees a parable of reconciliation: “I think God is using this, the humility, the brokenness, the ashes, to set an example for other countries … If Rwanda can recover from this … other nations can recover.”
Rwanda is far from fully recovered. It has not so much reconciled as clamped a vise around its anger. I was reminded of that one day when someone tossed a grenade at a memorial site I happened to be visiting, killing a guard I had spoken to only moments earlier. Still, Rucyahana makes an important point: Rwanda proves it is possible to stop—at least for a while—the cycle of hatred, killing and recrimination. And his countrymen’s determination to put their animosities aside should encourage others struggling to put broken countries back together.
It’s not clear how transferable Rwanda’s experience will prove to be. Rwanda is a tiny place. Victims knew their attackers, and attackers knew their victims. The country is like one huge extended family. That’s what made the violence particularly unfathomable. But it’s also what gives people like Rucyahana confidence that their efforts, no matter how small, can make a difference.
Adapted from Against The Odds, a radio documentary production of Ellis Cose Inc. that debuts this week on public-radio stations nationwide. For more information on Bishop Rucyahana and “Against the Odds,” go to elliscose.com/ice.