Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Million Mourned

It has been a somber week here in Rwanda, "Commemoration Week," during which the entire country pauses and reflects upon the outbreak of the genocide, its causes, its horrors, moving beyond, and assuring "Never Again!" The Rwandan Genocide offers some most instructive lessons in history, lessons about you and me, humanity, politics, demagoguery, racism, fear, hate radio, greed, international relations, the impotence and ineptitude of the United Nations, spiritual warfare, etc. This week of mourning is observed by all. April 7 was much like that episode of "The Twilight Zone," when bustling city life and all activity goes "still frame" and is frozen. The normally crowded streets were empty. No people. No cars. All offices, banks, and even restaurants were closed. Everything was still and quiet,... and very eerie on the 16th anniversary of the genocide that erupted in 1994. A few brief facts, observations, and reflections:

On April 7, 1994, the most furious, murderous frenzy in history erupted in Rwanda. It erupted, but it was not spontaneous. It had been long planned and orchestrated by its amoral architects, who even shot down the plane of their own President the night before to ignite mass hysteria and rage among the Hutus to accomplish their extermination of the Tutsis (and moderate Hutus).

It is important to keep in mind that this Hutu-Tutsi distinction was largely the creation of the Belgian colonists, who found it most economical and efficient to rule their colony by proxy, elevating and empowering one group to rule over the others on their behalf. However, these people groups (Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa) had lived together peacefully for centuries, speaking one language, practicing one culture and religion, and commonly intermarrying. They were not segregated people groups, and could be distinguished only with greatest effort, an activity reserved for politicians, demagogues, and self-serving evil doers. The ethnic designation printed on identity cards issued by the Belgian colonists in the 1930s was often totally arbitrary (because “who knows?”), but those arbitrary identity cards would later determine who would live and who would die.

If you are interested, you can do personal research on the Internet, watch the many films and documentaries on the subject, or read some of the great books. I would be happy to guide you, if you wish. But for now, allow me to offer just a few more facts and observations:

One million people were slaughtered in 100 days. That is 10,000 people each day, for 100 days. But we must not think in terms of A genocide, A mass killing. A real person, made in the image of God, with hopes and dreams and fears, who was loved by someone, was murdered. Somebody’s child. Somebody’s mother or brother or sister or dearest friend was viciously slaughtered,… and then it happened again, and again, and again, and again,… until it happened a million times. To appreciate the gravity, you must take that lurid story in today’s newspaper about a murder in your community, and multiply that by 1 million.

Most people were either hacked to death by machetes (provided courtesy of  the complicit French government), or were brutally clubbed with farm implements or clubs with a long protruding nail. Very few were shot, as it was thought that such “cockroaches” were not worth the expense of a bullet. Accordingly, some Tutsis paid their killers for the kind mercy of being shot to death, rather than being hacked or bludgeoned.

We know that there are few limits to man’s inhumanity to man, but there are limits beyond which even the most jaded must find it incomprehensible. Imagine pastors and priests slaughtering their own parishioners. Imagine medical doctors slaughtering their own patients. Imagine college professors slaughtering their own students. Imagine a group of 10-year-old boys who played their entire lives together as best friends, decapitating one of their best buddies and then playing soccer with their friend's head. Or the gang raping a neighborhood girl, and somewhere in the process finding it amusing to “skin her alive” and then ultimately impaling her on a pole  through the vaginal canal on out through the back of her neck. (Sorry, but this is the broken world in which we live.)

Savage Africans? I am presumably surrounded by perpetrators of the genocide every day. They are my friends and my partners in the work that we do. They seem no different than me. I must realize that I too could be such a perpetrator, and that “There is no man on death row who has committed a crime as heinous as I am capable of perpetrating.” I should also keep in mind the common response of many of the genocidaires: “I do not know what came over me. It was as if a cold darkness overtook me. I do not know what happened. I cannot explain it.” It is as if the spiritual warfare that is forever raging behind the veil in the spiritual realm  (although we generally neglect to recognize it), suddenly erupted through the veil into our material reality to be observed with all its grotesque ugliness.

Many people took refuge in local churches that were presumed to be “safe harbors,” as they had been during previous times of violent chaos. Who could enter the House of God and commit murder? In fact, many thousands were slaughtered in their churches. Above is pictured the blood soaked clothes of those who perished inside Nyamata Church, and the blood soaked altar upon which some were killed.

Just as there are deniers of the Holocaust, there are deniers of the Rwandan genocide. It is difficult to respect their absurd claims as one stands before a mountain of bones, or studies the record of newspaper articles and radio broadcasts in which the  genocidal former government called upon the nation to “Do your civic duty and kill all Tutsi.” If there was no genocide, what happened to those 1,000,000 civilians? If not genocide, why were hundreds of thousands of Tutsi women, children, and babies slaughtered?

A study conducted by UNICEF determined that 99.9% of all Rwandan children witnessed  genocide-related violence; 90.6% believed they would die; 79.6% experienced genocide-related death in their family; 57.7% witnessed killings or injuries by machete; 31.4% witnessed rape or sexual assault. It is commonly observed that Rwanda has some mental health challenges.

The Rwandan genocide was the darkest hour the history of the United Nations, which proved to be shamefully inept and cowardly. Quite literally, the UN stood between killers and their intended victims, until it realized that “this might get dangerous,” so the UN troops were withdrawn and thousands were slaughtered before the UN troop carriers were even out of sight.

Some of my blogposts, particularly some of  my earliest ones, reveal that I struggle with issues of “my personal responsibility,” particularly when someone suggests that I am doing noble work here in Africa (when I am painfully aware of my gross inadequacies and the inadequacy of  my feeble efforts). In my own personal observation of this Commemoration Week and the Rwandan Genocide, I traveled to Murambi and reflected at the genocide memorial there. The stench of death remains in my nostrils, and a certain line in a poignant video continues to haunt me.

I urge you to watch a YouTube video entitled Massacre at Murambi.

Please let it load completely, watch it, and do not shield yourself from its full force and impact. May we dare to care. 

In closing, I offer a more hopeful note. Rwanda will “Never Forget!”, but nor will it remain mired in the problems of its past. Mindful of its past, Rwanda presses forward with an audacious vision which includes the elimination of ethnic distinctions, economic development, alleviation of poverty, gender equality (the only country in the world in which women constitute a majority of Members of Parliament), and justice balanced with forgiveness and reconciliation. The forgiveness and reconciliation seen in Rwanda is astonishing and incomprehensible (compare with Middle East and Ireland), except in terms of spiritual warfare. The enemy wreaked havoc for 100 days, but is and shall be ultimately defeated.