Lessons from Rwanda

It is 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda saw the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days. Twice the size of Northern Ireland, Rwanda has seven times the population and is Africa’s most densely populated country.

Born in a refugee camp in Burundi, Emmanuel Murangira went on to become successful in business. But the genocide in Rwada changed the course of his life. Today, he helps the church in Rwanda to relieve poverty and to build peace as the Tearfund representative in the region. At New Horizon, Emmanuel shared his journey from horror and hatred to hope and healing. Read his powerful story below:

Emmanuel Small
Emmanuel Murangira – photo by Dave Gibson Photography

Most of you will know about the genocide from the film Hotel Rwanda. Those are the images that you have in your mind. But the problems in Rwanda did not just start in 1994. The conflict goes back many years. It is a long history of separation, of people changing from their traditional way of life into a stratification of society that would favour one people over another.

The violence began in 1959. My parents left Rwanda in the third wave of displacement and I was born in a refugee camp in Burundi. Immediately afterwards my father was arrested.   He was a preacher, a businessman and a political activist. My mother had to run away from Burundi to Tanzania when I was just a week old. She strapped me on her back and travelled 80km on foot.

So I grew up in Tanzania. People may not realise that the people who live around Lake Victoria have the same Hutu and Tutsi conflicts so at the age of 10, my parents sent me to Kenya to go to school in an effort to avoid the discrimination. But in Kenya I was known as a refugee and that label was humiliating. It feels like you have a contagious disease.

Eventually I graduated from university and started work. Because of the way I grew up I came to hate anyone called a Hutu because I thought they were responsible for everything had had gone wrong in my life. I felt angry and bitter.

At that time, the rest of my extended family (my uncles and aunties, my grandmother and my cousins) were all living in Rwanda. During the 1994 genocide 102 of my relatives were killed!

While the genocide was going on, people were telephoning us and telling us what was happening. But it is still impossible to imagine what it was like. The human mind is not made to conjure such horrific images.

It was a scene from hell.

Kigali was liberated on July 4 and I arrived there on July 8. There were bodies strewn all over the place, just lying in the streets and the dogs were devouring them. I have never seen so many dead bodies. If you were not killed by the militia, you could be mauled by dogs had become used to eating human flesh.

I knew my relatives were dead so my hatred increased. I was intent on looking for any survivors. So I went to a place where the rebel army was and they pointed me to a holding cell. One of the perpetrators of genocide knew of one three year old child who had survived – the only one of her family of eight children.

I found her and I took her back to Nairobi. Rachel was three years old and she could not speak. The horror had frozen her mind. Eventually, she began to speak when she was six years old. Soon afterwards we returned to Rwanda and I began to learn the truth of what had happened to her. She still had all those images in her head.

When she was 12, they started a court system to try the perpetrators of genocide. Rachel had to attend the court. The man who was giving evidence was the man who had rescued her. But she also recognised him as one of those who had participated in killing her parents. He had picked her out of the bodies and taken her to an orphanage.

When Rachel came back from the trial, she was totally shaken. She went to church on the Sunday and when she came back she said to me, “I think I need to forgive that man who killed my mother because if I don’t forgive him I will think about him forever and I don’t want to do that. I need to forgive him.”

I was very angry and confused at the same time. But she was adamant and I couldn’t stop her. It wasn’t a crime for her to forgive.

I was a Christian and the next morning in my devotions I was reading Matthew 6: 14 – 15 and it says, “Forgive one another because if you don’t forgive one another your Father in heaven won’t forgive you.”

I began to debate with my self. This was not something I wanted to do. All along I had believed that God could condone my unforgiveness because he knew what I had suffered. I felt I had a right to be angry and He knew why. But the Bible was telling me something different.

In my heart I realised, if Rachel who is 12 years old can forgive, who am I not to forgive?

Until that point, I had started to think about revenge. I would be lying if I told you that killing did not cross my mind. The encounter I had with Christ as I read those verses in Matthew 6 was the defining moment in my life. That drove me to start thinking about forgiveness.

Forgiveness brings healing. As I forgave, I was completely healed of my hatred. This was when I finally began to belong to my country. I had been a refugee. I wanted a country but when I arrived in Rwanda, I didn’t have that sense of belonging. After I had forgiven, I discovered the value of having an identity, a country that I could call my own. I discover that God can transform your life.

He can change your life but it begins with you recognising His grace. It starts with God’s forgiveness.

This was just beginning. That was when I started thinking, “How do I work with others to reconcile our communities?” I have been actively involved in the work of the church trying to get people together in dialogue and it has worked.

Forgiving is not an easy thing. But who said God wants us to do the easy things? The Bible tells us that what is impossible with men is possible with God. I have seen it. I have lived it. I have experienced it.

The last six years I have worked with Tearfund, we have invested a lot in reconciliation and forgiveness in Rwanda. Forgiveness does not mean doing away with justice.

But we understand that unless we are actively working for reconciliation, it won’t happen. We don’t do this because it is easy but because that is the essence of our beings as Christians.

Part of the problem or part of the solution?

Some church leaders participated in the genocide but others church leaders lost their lives defending members of their congregation. Later on the church had to reconcile people, otherwise people would go to church but they were not talking to each other. The church lost its meaning. People discovered that it is the prerogative of the church to help people to be reconciled.

I don’t have a magic bullet. The church needs to fulfil its biblical mandate to reconcile people – whether it is in Rwanda or Northern Ireland. If the church fails to do that it has failed in its mission. God starts with reconciling us to Himself.