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Friday, 17 September 2004 00:00

Encountering Darkness and Light in Rwanda

Encountering Darkness and Light in Rwanda

In South Africa, 2004 is synonymous with the 10th anniversary of democracy and the joy associated with our first democratic elections. For the people of Rwanda it is the 10th anniversary of the genocide which preoccupies the nation.

Back in 1998, I made my first visit to Rwanda. In some ways I had dreaded that visit. I worried about whether I had anything to offer to a nation still coming to terms with the enormity of genocide. When I was taken to genocide sites, I was anxious about how I would cope with the gruesome sight of thousands of bodies in varying levels of decay including large numbers who were slaughtered on the altars of churches.

In 1998 the invitation came from World Vision and the visit was sponsored by a number of churches of varying traditions including the Roman Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. Once again the Institute was invited by World Vision, this time for a one week visit between September 5 and 12, 2004 and I was accompanied by our networker organizer, Mongezi Mngese

The first three days were taken with a healing of memories workshop with 25 participants including particularly leaders of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. The workshop was opened by Fatuma Ndangiza who is Executive Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and we were also welcomed by the National Director of World Vision, Mr Kofi Hagen. It was apparent on the first day, that whilst pastors faithfully preach to their deeply wounded people, they themselves struggle with their own unfinished business and some participants worry about the impact of hearing so many painful stories on themselves.

Whilst participants were overwhelmingly positive about the workshop, several commented that there was a disappointing imbalance between Tutsi and Hutu participants. However in some of the small groups where both ethnic groups were present there was a depth of sharing that may well be life changing for particular individuals.

At the Journey to Healing and Wholeness conference on Robben Island in April, our two Rwandese participants, Solomon and Jean Baptiste had alerted us to the complexities, challenges and pain associated with the 10th anniversary.

We were told that the presence of the International community at the tenth anniversary commemorations and the apologies by the UN and others, has been an acknowledgement which has poured balm on the wounds of the people. It cannot be denied that the world abandoned Rwanda and did nothing whilst hundreds of thousands were mercilessly hacked to death.

The day after the workshop, I was invited to address the Kigali based staff and commissioners of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission followed by a one hour question and answer session. I shared some of my own life journey and explained the context in which we have developed a healing of memories process. Although I met many people with whom I had interacted 6 years previously, some people whom I was meeting for the first time seemed to struggle with the notion that I as a white person had been part of the liberation struggle in South Africa. There was also a tendency from questioners to assume that the South Africa struggle and our Truth commission were simple and straightforward affairs unlike their own situation which they knew to have levels of complexity. This position emanated from superficial understanding and lack of knowledge about the South African situation and not knowing that views on our commission continues to be contested ground.

Sometimes there can be a mistaken belief that the outsider can provide solutions to complex national challenges. However we can share from our own context and speak of the lessons we have learnt. Perhaps sometimes the outsider can express solidarity and support which may fan the flickers of hope. 
The present generation of leaders faces many unenviable challenges which would be wrong to make judgments on from the armchair.

The Executive Secretary of the Commission told me how she did not sleep for a week at the time when many prisoners were released fearing violence either from the community or from the prisoners, which fortunately did not happen. She expressed very keen interest in the possibility of future cooperation between the Institute, the Commission and World Vision during a subsequent visit.

We met with recently appointed South African Ambassador to Kigali, Ezra Sigwela who has a background within the struggle, and in the ecumenical movement. Although less than a hundred days in Rwanda, the Ambassador spoke of how striking it is to him, that he is in a traumatised nation. We spoke a little about the binational commission between our two countries which is also intended to include a contribution by civil society. Perhaps it would be possible to involve our government in supporting a future initiative.

On Friday the 10th, I was invited to address the weekly devotions of the world vision staff in Kigali for one hour. Two and a half hours later we had to cut short the debate as I was late for another engagement. I had reflected on isssues of remembering, forgetting and of forgiveness.

As I had in 1998, we met with AVEGA staff and about 30 members, a national association of widows of the genocide, numbering some 25000. A week or two previously I had listened to a presentation in South Africa from a Rwandese woman speaking about gang rape which happened during the genocide. Hundreds of women are already known to be HIV positive as a consequence and there were also children born from rape. The organisation has not yet come up with a concrete strategy to provide appropriate support and counselling to these children. AVEGA also expressed great interest in participating in future healing of memories workshops.

As I had concluded during my previous visit a central question is how to prevent the genocide of tomorrow. In our own humble and modest way, I have no doubt that the Institute makes a contribution in this regard.

On the final day of our week in Kigali we went to the Kigali Memorial Centre which is the burial site for more than two hundred and fifty thousand people killed in Kigali Province. It also houses a permanent exhibition which shows the process leading to the genocide, the genocide itself and the aftermath. Particularly heart wrenching are the stories of child victims and survivors. Another exhibition of other recent and past genocides reminds us that genocide challenges us all as a human family. The role of churches in the genocide brings both shame and guilt to all of us who belong to the faith community. Although less than one percent, the stories of how Moslem Rwandese protected each other across ethnic lines is also salutary for Christians.

It is clear that for many Hutus who were not themselves driven by ethnic hatred the choices, were either to kill or be killed. Those who refused to cooperate were killed. Vast numbers of people have blood on their hands.

For survivors of the genocide, who are often left with no or very few living relatives, every normal family occasion or anniversary has within it deep sadness.

I believe that the journey of healing will take more than one generation. New and innovative methods as well as tried and tested ones will need to be tried as Rwandese and their friends travel together towards healing and wholeness.

Whilst it is easy to be overwhelmed and feel despair there are many Rwandese of different ethnic backgrounds who are signs of hope through their courageous and compassionate lives. Juliette is a genocide survivor whom I met on both visits. She promised God that if she survived she would care for orphans, both Hutu and Tutsi. Julia cared for 300 orphans until such time as the government began to give some assistance when the number under her care decreased. There is hope for Rwanda.

Fr Michael Lapsley,SSM
Friday, 17 September 2004