By Matt Morrison
Rwandans have a saying, “God does his work throughout the world by day, and comes home to Rwanda at night.”
With just one visit, it’s easy to understand why they have so much pride in their land. From its pristine lakes to towering Virunga mountains, there is so much beauty to behold. But to the outside world, it’s hard to see past the decades-old images of slain bodies by the thousands, lying in ditches along dirt roads and in open fields, that once flooded the news. As gorgeous as the landscape may be, Rwanda is a country still healing from tragedy.
THREE HEARTBREAKING MONTHS
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down while making its descent in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, killing all on board. It was the final blow in a growing tension between Hutus and Tutsis that dates back over a century. Unknown to much of the country, leaders within the Hutu-majority government were already planning an elaborate scheme to purge Rwanda of the Tutsi people.
On April 7, the morning after the crash, killings were reported all over the country. From the capital, all the way to the smallest villages, Hutus picked up machetes and began slaughtering Tutsis. For months, neighbors turned on one another, slaying each other’s families and using rape as a weapon of war.
By July 15, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were dead, accounting for 20% of the total population. When the dust finally settled, over 70% of Tutsis had been killed. The mass raping of women led to a massive spike in HIV cases. Children were left orphaned. Infrastructure across Rwanda was destroyed and the economy came to a halt.
With so much death and destruction, how could the country move forward? How could a husband and father look into his neighbor’s eyes, knowing the man next door had raped his wife and killed his children? With so many perpetrators, government leaders struggled to deliver justice. Close knit communities all over Rwanda faced irreparable wounds and the country itself required a form of social healing unseen since World War II.
As arrested the perpetrators, they faced a monumental task. By 1996, the courts estimated it would take over 100 years to prosecute the 130,000 individuals already imprisoned. Traditional judicial measures simply could not handle the magnitude of the crimes. Furthermore, decades of imprisonment would not heal the social and spiritual wounds sustained across the country.
In response to the crisis, the Rwandan National Assembly adopted new laws that broke genocidal crimes into four categories, ranging from minor property damage to acts of cruelty and homicide. Lower-ranked crimes were deferred to long-held community tribunals known as gacacas, a term deriving from the word umugaca in Kinyarwanda, meaning “a plant so soft to sit on that people prefer to gather on it.”
This grassroots system dates back to the 17th century, emphasizing a form of transitional justice that promotes restoration over retribution. The tribunals were legitimized by the government, allowing individual communities to administer justice among themselves. Ten years after the massacre, thousands of untried prisoners were released back to their villages to stand trial.
By confessing their crimes and publicly confronting their victims’ families with the truth, perpetrators were offered greatly reduced or commuted sentences. Through the process, victims were encouraged to forgive and reconcile with their family’s killers and defendants were offered opportunities to make things right.
Families received closure for the first time, aided by the very people who killed their loved ones. Over a decade later, men, women, and children had the first opportunity to locate the bodies of their fathers, mothers, and spouses, giving them proper burial.
A NEW RWANDA
Today, only a fraction of the original 130,000 prisoners remain locked up. Meanwhile, it has many publications have detailed how Christians go out of their way to serve the perpetrators still serving time. One organization, Prison Fellowship Rwanda, continues to work in the prisons with genocide inmates. Of their 35 volunteer chaplains, 15 lost family members to the genocide, yet lovingly serve the ones who contributed to their deaths.
Over 20 years since the atrocities, Rwanda is a very different country. Aside from rebuilding its infrastructure and economy, it is a much more united state. The Hutu/Tutsi division is no longer recognized by the government and communities have experienced healing from their willingness to perform a single, uncommon act – forgive.
While it will take generations before Rwandans are able to fully move on, the blood-stained land displays a much richer beauty than ever seen before. Over the past ten years, e3 Partners has launched over 4,000 new churches in Rwanda. Recently, 16 Christian small groups were established in Burundi refugee camps along the border while one team is actively planting churches at a rate of one a month.
Through the power of forgiveness, God is uniting this beautiful country and advancing his Gospel among the people. Click here to learn more and join the work.