The genocidal Rwandan massacres still cast a long shadow in this small African country. But the unstinting hard work of committed priests like Fr Emmanuel Nsengiyumva has been invaluable in helping the survivors’ deep psychological scars to heal.
Few events in recent history burned their way into the public mind more than the terrible events of 22 years ago. In the space of just 100 days, around a million Rwandan men, women and children were massacred with guns, machetes, farm implements and bare hands.
The causes can be traced to tribal enmities that have their roots way back in the colonial period. Since 1994 there has been a remarkable transformation in Rwandan life. Testimony to its people, Rwanda is now, in sub-Saharan African terms, a peaceful country, relatively progressive and corruption free.
Yet underneath the surface the scars of war remain. Many of those who witnessed the atrocities find it impossible to deal with the trauma, condemned to a living death of hatred, misery and despair.
Typical of this is the story of married couple Edouard and Immaculée. When the killings began, they fled into the mountains that surround the parish of Nyamata. Many members of their families did the same but returned, reasoning that the sanctity of the village church would protect them.
It was not to be. Perpetrators surrounded the church and, finding the doors barred, broke through the walls, throwing grenades inside before entering and brutally despatching the survivors with guns and machetes.
To this day the old church stands as a heartbreakingly poignant memorial to the dead: the matted, bloodstained clothing of the victims left piled onto the pews; the bodies of the victims buried in the adjoining churchyard. In total, the parish lost a staggering 10,000 people before the killing stopped.
Today, the new church stands partly completed, thanks to the generosity of Catholics throughout the world and is, once again, a vital hub for the community. However, there is still more work to be done, estimated at around US $85,000. As Fr Emmanuel says, ‘The construction of a new church will be a symbol of the resurrection of hope, resurrection of love, resurrection of faith, resurrection of unity and, in short, of the resurrection of life.’
With the strength of their faith and the unstinting help of their parish priest, Fr Emmanuel, survivors are slowly coming to terms with their memories, learning to forgive, as those who committed these crimes repent as a first step towards forgiveness and redemption. With the anniversary of the genocide, 7 April, falling near Easter each year, Fr Emmanuel’s experience is that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus has particular relevance to the Rwandan people, and that it is only through forgiveness that broken hearts can be healed.
He is no stranger himself to horror or grief. Born in Kigali, the capital city, he was the fifth son in a family of six children. At 18 years old he was mid-way through his studies when the systematic slaughter began. Fr Emmanuel lost two of his brothers and knows well the deep emotional wounds of his people: ‘Your relatives, your mother, your father, your brothers, are not only killed but they torture them in front of you. Some of them would die in two days… two days of agony… I felt the wounds of my community, as a Rwandan growing up in that horrific atmosphere, sharing the pain and misery of my compatriots’.
To us in the west, it would seem almost unimaginable to have to deal with memories like these, let alone forgive those who carried out such acts. But for Rwanda to function, that’s exactly what must happen. After the genocides, many perpetrators were brought to trial and imprisoned. Having served their time in prison, many of these prisoners are now being released back into the very communities they brutalised. The task of people like Fr Emmanuel is not just to help the survivors to heal but to offer a path of forgiveness to the former killers.
As Fr Emmanuel says; ‘Perpetrators will be healed completely, and ready to reconcile deeply, only if they ask for forgiveness truthfully from the victims whom they know and live with daily. On the other hand, the survivors will be completely healed and reconciled only if they forgive sincerely. It is a ‘Two Keys’ process as the survivors have the key of forgiving and perpetrators have the key of asking for forgiveness’.
The Catholic Church began dealing with emergency cases during the immediate aftermath of the genocide, offering sessions on forgiveness and reconciliation for individuals and communities. As the years pass the Church continues to carry out more systematic, deep reconciliation, leading to complete forgiveness and healing.
Nyamata is one of four parishes pioneering the bringing together of both sides. This is done with six months of intensive pastoral care with the perpetrators entering a state of broken communion with the Church where they cannot receive any sacrament. This helps them to understand the level of destruction caused by their acts.
Amongst the survivors it is easier for some to forgive than others. Edouard has felt strong enough to speak publicly, forgiving those who killed his family. He explains, ‘The Church has helped us to be strong, the priests have tried to bring our community together’. His wife, Immaculée, still struggles, even after twenty-two years. However, there is always hope. As Fr Emmanuel puts it; ‘The Church has been a sign of hope and a pillar of recovery of all devastated values during genocide. It was, and is always, the force of living anew’.
The work of Catholic churches throughout the world in places of sorrow and strife is essential. As the Pope’s official charity for overseas mission, Missio works to answer the call to love God and to love our neighbour by bringing the hope of the Gospel throughout the world.