(This post is a reflection on the ecumenical Youth Gathering sponsored by the ELCA and the Lutheran Church of Rwanda held 3/27-3/30.)
Yesterday we heard a testimony from a man who participated in the Rwandan genocide. He killed the parents of his neighbors, and now he lives with them side by side. After spending several years in jail, the government let him go on the condition that he would publicly confess his crimes and encourage others to turn themselves in. Fourteen years after the genocide, thousands of genocidiers are living in exile in the bush in Congo or hiding in Europe.
There was a lot lost from his testimony in translation. I think our translator, an orphan herself, was unable to fully repeat the words he was saying. He told us that after he was released from jail, he lived in the bush for months until his neighbors came and told him to come back. They even gave him food for his children. He was a small, sad looking man in a red flannel shirt, and while he was speaking some people got up and left the room. He was 16 when he committed these crimes. After he gave his talk he said, “raise your hand if you forgive me.” Most of the room raised their hand.
The day before this we traveled to two memorial sites. The first was a church in Ntarama that holds the remains of 5,000 people that were hiding in the church when a grenade was thrown through the wall. Their blood-stained clothes are kept in neat piles on the pews and there are rows of skulls. Some of the Rwandan girls started crying so hard they were hyperventilating, one girl vomited… So this is healing?
Just a few kilometers down the road from Ntarama is a larger site called Nyamata, one of the most famous sites of the genocide. It is a Catholic church that was run by a Belgian priest and Rwandan nuns who were later some of the first people tried for war crimes. They told the Tutsis, you can come here, you will be safe, and so 10,000 people gathered there. The altar is kept as it was, the white cloth covered in faded blood. Behind the church you can walk into the sarcophagus and look at rows and rows of skulls, many of them cracked from machete blows.
As an American, it is impossible to truly understand how Rwandans must feel seeing this. These are not my people; I am not looking at a memorial site in Washington State for a massacre that happened when I was 14 years-old. Many of the Rwandans I went with were seeing the sites for the first time. These skulls were their families. One young man told me, I lost my father, but I don’t know what happened to him, I am always looking for him everywhere I go.
These churches, like this man, are living testimonies to what took place. It is important to speak directly about what happened. Though the genocide is everywhere in this country, it is not often openly discussed. For this man to give testimony, however difficult, is to create a space where the genocide is discussed and denounced. They tell me there are no longer Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, there are only Rwandans.