Thursday, July 14, 2011

And the Pope sent a rosary.

Sunday, July 10

Today continued our weekend of thought-provoking memorial sites and harsh reminders of the reality of the genocide. Today also forced me to really think about the Catholic Church and its role in the genocide, which was disappointing at best and condemnable at worst. As one of the few Catholics on the trip, it was enlightening to hear what my friends (some of whom are atheist) thought of my institution's behavior.

Nyamata Church

Once again, we drove outside Kigali to see the memorial site at Nyamata Church. Pictures were not allowed, but a Google image search brings up plenty of photographs. During the genocide, more Tutsis were killed in churches than in any other place. Over 2,500 people died inside Nyamata Church alone. The gate to the church is still missing bars where the Hutu genocidaires deactivated an explosive to get inside. With only one door, the church trapped everyone who was hiding inside. The genocidaires threw grenades into the packed church and then finished the living off one by one with machetes, as they still had no way to escape.

Today, the pews inside the church are piled high with clothes from the victims, which were removed from the excavated bodies for inclusion in the memorial site. Narrow beams of light from the bullet and shrapnel holes in the ceiling dot the floor. Our tour guide pointed out blood spatters on the back wall, where the Hutus swung infants by their legs to crush their skulls against the brick. Perhaps the most eerie image of all was an intact statue of the Virgin Mary perched midway up the wall, holding her rosary and looking down over the catastrophe.

Speaking of a rosary, the rosary the Pope sent after the genocide is also on display in Nyamata Church. That rosary is the only thing the Pope sent to the people of Rwanda after the genocide. (I'm especially disappointed in this because Pope John Paul II was a pretty cool guy, especially as far as tolerance and progressiveness in the Catholic Church is concerned.)

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

Outside the church is a grave site for an Italian woman who had regularly helped protect the Tutsi before the genocide. Many people don't know this, but massacres of Tutsis began occurring in Rwanda in 1959 - not 1994. Because churches had previously been safe havens for Tutsis to hide in during earlier conflicts, they thought they would be safe in places of worship again. Unfortunately, the woman was shot on her doorstep by Hutu extremists in 1992, so she was no longer able to provide assistance to the Tutsi of that area during the genocide. As we observed a moment of silence, a church in the distance began singing, quietly but audibly. I was reminded of my experience at Murambi the day before.

Finally, we visited the mass graves behind the church. You can actually walk down into the graves, where the skulls, femurs and other bones are laid out on their own shelves. The skulls had clear gashes and breaks in them where they were crushed with machetes, and the amount of bones laid side by side was sickening. Again, I noticed the purple and white religious clothing hanging at the base of the staircase into the grave, a harsh contrast for a Christian like myself to reconcile with the bodies laid beside them. (More on that at the end of this post.)

Survivors/Genocidaires Co-Op

We had originally planned to visit the nearby Ntarama Church as well, where an estimated 5,000 Tutsi were murdered. However, the group elected to skip the second memorial and instead head to a neighborhood where Tutsi survivors and Hutu genocidaires live as neighbors. This was especially interesting to me because it was the first time I got to hear a genocidaire share his (or her) side of the story.

I first began to seriously wonder about the Hutu perspective and motivations when I watched Beyond the Gates for one of our pre-trip classroom sessions. In the film, there is a young Hutu man who works at a school that later becomes a refuge for Tutsi villagers. When the president's plane is shot down, a British teacher who works at the school asks the man what is going on. He responds that the Tutsi are going to take over the government again and turn all the Hutu into their servants. It made me curious to see what other reasons the Hutu had for attempting a complete extermination of their Tutsi countrymen.

At the co-op, a genocidaire named Matthew gave us three reasons for his participation in the genocide (he killed six members of a local pastor's family, burned some Tutsi homes and stole their livestock):

1. The encouragement of the local leadership. (Remember that the genocide in Rwanda was state-sponsored.)
2. He said he did not hesitate to follow their commands because he had been told all his life that Tutsis were his only enemies. They were wealthy and had lots of cows and property, while the Hutu were poor. He believed if he took the Tutsis' property, he would be relieved from poverty and never have to go hungry again.
3. The government threatened that if a Hutu did not participate, he would be killed himself.

I can't say I find that to be a satisfying justification for what happened - I don't think any reasoning would be adequate - but I also realize I have never been in his position. I'm curious to know, what do you think about his response?

After the genocide, Matthew spent nine years in prison for his crimes. He was then asked to reconcile with the pastor whose family he had murdered, and the church set up this co-op for survivors and genocidaires to live together. Today, they claim their children grow up not caring whether they are Hutu or Tutsi. I hope for the children's sake that their parents are right, and not just using "reconciliation" as a facade for lingering animosity. The kids were pretty cute, though, and they loved getting their picture taken:

Post-Genocide Faith

At the co-op, we were also able to hear from a survivor, Jacqueline, who is mentioned in this recent article from the BBC. (I recommend you read it if post-genocide society is interesting to you at all.) One member of our group asked her how she was able to keep her faith even after her family was murdered in a local church, and how she was able to reconcile with the killers living next door. She answered with two Biblical examples that most Christians are familiar with:

1. The story of Zacchaeus, who waited in a tree to see Jesus until Jesus asked him to come down and be with him. Jacqueline said she needed Jesus to invite her back to Him in order for her to forgive her family's killers.
2. When Jesus was on the cross, He was able to forgive His killers, saying: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)

Disclaimer: The rest of this post is pretty personal. If you feel uncomfortable discussing religion or have your own very strong religious beliefs, don't feel obligated to continue reading.

It was extremely moving to hear how a woman who had lost so much could still keep her faith. I am fortunate to have never had my faith tested in that way, but I would hope that if I suffered as she did, I would be able to find something in Christianity to hold on to. As Catholics, we believe in free will, and I personally believe in individual responsibility. I know God did not kill those Tutsi; the genocidaires did. Yes, God could have stopped it, but I don't think that's His role in the world. At the risk of sounding too "Bible-pusher"-y, I will say that we are not meant to understand everything that happens in this world. I do wish the Catholic Church as an institution would have done more to prevent or at least speak against the genocide as it was occurring, but there are a lot of things the Church does that I don't necessarily agree with. I believe any church, like any human institution, is fallible just as humans are. It doesn't mean I believe in the existence of God any less or have any less reason to appreciate all the wonderful things He does do for this world. It just means I have to work harder to understand why this happened and what the message is intended to be.

I'm usually not very vocal about my faith; I don't typically discuss religion beyond an educational/informative perspective because I know it's a very sensitive topic, and I believe people should be able to practice whichever faith gives their life purpose (within proper boundaries, of course). But this trip has forced me to think about difficult questions such as: What kind of God would let this happen? Where was Jesus when the Tutsi needed him? And so on and so forth.

The experience I had today was quite a contrast to a conversation I had with a fellow intern in Atlanta just last month. I hadn't mentioned it in my blog yet, but it has really stuck with me, so I'll mention it now. This particular young woman has an extremely strong faith in God, and Jesus really is an integral part of her everyday life. I asked her about it one day because I get the feeling that type of visible faith is more prominent in the Southern culture. She answered me in this way:

When you first get a boyfriend, all you want to do is talk about him. When I think about Jesus and how awesome He is, I can't help but want to talk about Him, too.

When I think about this friend's strong sense of faith, it reminds me how much I admire all the Rwandan people today who can continue to worship - sometimes even in the churches that failed to protect their families and friends - despite all the tragedy they have experienced. I truly hope that everyone who is affected by the genocide (or a similar hardship) has found a way to cope, whether that is through religion or something else, and that they can lead a content, healthy life despite their past.

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