Today we made an early departure to Nyarubuye, a district in the province of Kibungo near the border of Tanzania. It was a four hour drive. As we drove to the remote area, many people waved to us and children had beaming smiles as they attempted to chase the van to greet us or waved from the sides of the streets.
We arrived to Nyarubuye church. It was here that a terrible massacre occurred and where we would listen to the testimony of a survivor named Ferdinand.
Before that we were guided through the ruined rectory of the church that has since become a memorial. We saw large sticks that were used to torture women and girls while raping them. We saw clothing that been collected from the victims scattered in and around the church during the massacre. We also saw sharp metal tools that were used to torture and kill. There were rows of violently destroyed skulls and piles of bones.
At the end of the room there was a Christ figure, a clay sculpture. The arms had been cut off by those who said that the image resembled a Tutsi. Similarly, the large image of Jesus at the front of the outside of the church had been shot at because the genocidaires said Jesus is a friend of Tutsis. This was all quite shocking to hear and see.
We walked past a row of latrines. There we learned that many bodies of victims had been thrown down there and it was not until last year – eighteen years after the genocide, that the bones were collected and then buried.
We made our way into the Catholic church at Nyarubuye where the massacre occurred. Ferdinand, one of very few survivors, began to share his testimony. He started by insisting that we should not feel bad that he is recounting his traumatic experiences to us, but to remember that this is medicine for him. He thanked us for coming to hear his story and urged us to share his story and the history of the genocide with our friends and families.
It is difficult to recount his two hour testimony in a few paragraphs, but I will do my best. Ferdinand told us that Hutus and Tutsis had lived peacefully in the region together and there were never any problems. However, shortly after Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvenal Habyirimana’s plane had been shot down, the genocide began and quickly escalated.
Many Tutsis in Nyarubuye fled to the church to seek refuge, but the militia quickly arrived and began slaughtering Tutsis. The militia surrounded the church and forced the Hutus and Tutsis into segregated lines.
Ferdinand was at his home but knew that his family had fled to the church and so he went to find them. As it became clear that there was an effort to exterminate Tutsis, many flocked to the church wanting to find their families, even if it meant dying with them.
Ferdinand found his wife and two of his three children. The four of them hid in a washroom in the church for two days after a member of the militia took money from Ferdinand in exchange for guarding where they were. Eventually Ferdinand became separated from his family. A Hutu friend of Ferdinand’s, however, made an attempt to do the family a favor and said to an authority that the Hutu police had insisted that Ferdinand’s wife and two children be kept safe until he came back to give further instructions.
There are many intricate details to Ferdinand’s testimony and he says that the four days that he spent escaping death seems like at least a year. During those days, his wife was raped, his son was thrown into a fire, and his daughter was smashed against a wall. It was overwhelming and heart-wrenching to listen to him tell his story, I was in awe at his resiliency and his courage. He was remarried after the genocide and had one child, but then his wife passed away. After that, he remarried again and now has five children. He lit up when speaking about his children and it was good to hear of the joy in his life that his young children bring to him.
He is an old man now he says. After the genocide, Ferdinand joined the army because he figured it would be safer to serve in the army than to live as a civilian. They told him he was too old, but he eventually persuaded them to let him join.
After hearing Ferdinand’s story while sitting on the pews in the church in which the massacre took place, there was a lot to think about. We saw children playing not far from the mass graves and thought about how many people are missing from the streets and yet how much hope there is for a peaceful future for the bright-eyed, smiley children.
Courageous people like Ferdinand offer examples of the resiliency of the human spirit. Any small sacrifices that are made during this trip are made with a tremendous perspective now. Hearing about Ferdinand’s life inspires reflection on the fragility and sanctity of life. How can we forget for a moment to be thankful for every breath?
Ferdinand’s main message to us was: “Never Again in Rwanda and Never Again Anywhere Else.” Of course we have heard “never again” before and yet genocides continue to happen. This is challenging to confront. How can we truly mean “never again”.
How will the study of genocide influence our lives on campus? Mother Teresa said, “If you want to work for world peace, go home and love your family.” How can right relationships be foundation upon which to build a consistently life-affirming culture?
In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to John and Barbra.