This April you’ll hear a lot about Rwanda’s Genocide Against the Tutsi. Social media will bombard you with the fact that today, April 7, marks twenty years since evil unleashed its terror on the Land of a Thousand Hills. Twenty years since world powers watched in silence, arguing over semantics and weighing the benefits of intervening in a tiny African nation that contributed little to global interests.
Perhaps you grieve this chapter in history, but you’re tired of hearing about it. Perhaps, like me, you want to stand up and shout, “ENOUGH! There is so much more to these people – this nation – than their history!”
Indeed, the 1994 Genocide is Rwanda’s Single Chapter, one that has defined it in the eyes of the world. And how could it not? A million people dead in 100 days. Hundreds of thousands orphaned, raped, and maimed. There is no forgetting such horror, nor should we allow it to be forgotten.
But there is more – much more – to Rwanda’s story. And the chapters before and after 1994 are no less significant.
No Present Without the Past
In 2009, when Tim and I decided to adopt from Rwanda, I resisted learning about the Genocide. I read one book, watched one documentary, and called it quits.
Then I visited Rwanda. I fell in love. And I didn’t want to be ignorant anymore.
I studied the nation – her land and people – and eventually chose Rwanda as the backdrop for a novel. Because I was tired of seeing the land I love defined by genocide, I planned to bypass Rwanda’s dark history and portray its present beauty instead.
For a year, I fumbled for adequate words to capture that beauty.
Eventually I sought the advice of a writing mentor. “Rwanda is not just your setting,” she told me. “She’s a character. And the Genocide is part of who she is. You can’t ignore it.”
She encouraged me to immerse myself in the reality of Rwanda’s past and write from a place as near to the heart of a genocide survivor as this middle-class suburban housewife could ever be.
I came home and cried, terrified of the task ahead. How could I pretend to understand the thoughts of a character whose family had been slaughtered by her own neighbors? Surely I would misrepresent her, steal even more of her dignity through my ignorance.
Yet I knew my mentor was right. My novel was about beauty birthed in brokenness. That’s why Rwanda was the perfect setting.
I had to go back to 1994.
Sinking Into the Story
Ironically, this revelation came in April, Rwanda’s annual month of mourning. I spent the next three months, approximately the duration of the genocide, immersed in research.
Nightmares haunted my sleep. My belly twisted each time the mailman delivered another book or documentary. I avoided socializing, unable to endure small talk when my mind sagged beneath the weight of my chosen task.
Years later, I’m still researching. Still writing. Still wary of causing harm through ignorance or pride. But I don’t regret the learning curve, because it’s transformed Rwanda’s Single Chapter into an epic story. And like all epic stories, Rwanda’s includes both good and evil.
The 1994 Genocide isn’t Rwanda’s Chapter 1. Many chapters preceded it, building tension and resentment to the point of bloodshed. But if the Genocide is the first chapter you’ve heard of Rwanda, allow me to add Chapters 2 and 3.
CHAPTER 2: God Still Works Miracles
After the Genocide, the Rwandan prisons and court system were inadequate to deal with all the perpetrators. This led to periodic mass releases of prisoners beginning in 2003.
The federal government established local “Gacaca” courts (meaning “justice on the grass”) to try and sentence these prisoners. At Gacaca, community members gathered to give testimony for or against the accused. In many cases these were the moments in which victims finally learned the true fates of their loved ones.
I watched hours of Gacaca footage. Murderers confessing. Survivors wailing. I haven’t found the courage to watch it again.
Most perpetrators were excused with time served or sentenced to community service. The government strongly encouraged reconciliation, but whether or not it occurred, this system of justice required victims to live side-by-side with their attackers.
If anyone claims God’s miracle-working days are over, point them to Rwanda. Show them the widow carrying a cup of water to the man who killed her baby while it was still strapped to her back. Watch that same man build a home for the widow, replacing that which he once pillaged and burned.
Hear his words of repentance, her words of grace.
See forgiveness heal souls and sprout new life.
CHAPTER 3: The Fight Isn’t Over
As much as I love reading stories of reconciliation, my research has also revealed other stories – tales of those who feel pressured to speak forgiveness even when they don’t feel it. They proclaim reconciliation because their government has demanded it, but they live in fear and bitterness while those who caused their suffering return to normal life with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
I don’t share this to mar the beauty of true reconciliation – which I believe is prevalent – but to avoid crafting another Single Chapter: that of a Rwanda that is fully healed and free of the past.
The truth is not so simple. We look at the Holocaust or the Genocide and proclaim, “Never again!” But history has a habit of repeating itself, often in disguise. Let us be vigilant.
And let us recognize that Rwanda’s story is not unique. The 1994 Genocide wasn’t the first, nor the last. At this very moment atrocious evils are unfolding around the world. Genocide. Sex Trafficking. Rape and abuse. Observance of Rwanda’s dark days means nothing if we turn a blind eye to the injustices around us.
Today I pray for Rwanda’s continued healing, and for mercy to triumph where dark chapters are even now unfolding on this earth.
Will you join me?