Comprehending genocide: Rwanda, 20 years later

Flag_of_Rwanda_svgTen years ago, I was haunted by the movie Hotel Rwanda, which I saw in theaters with my high school Model U.N. group. Now, I am on my way to Rwanda, on a trip with Catholic Relief Services to observe the country 20 years after the genocide that killed some 800,000 people in just 100 days.

I have spent months preparing for this trip – learning about the country and the genocide, reading accounts of survivors and the U.N. peacekeeping team that witnessed their mission unravel before their eyes. I have spent time praying and reflecting on the gravity of what happened in the country and the things that I will see and experience.

But despite this preparation, I still don’t feel ready. And I’m realizing that no amount of preparation could make me truly ready. The brutality of the murders, the suffering of the survivors, the indifference of the world – these things are hard to comprehend.

It’s hard to prepare yourself to come face-to-face with this level of sin and evil, which is still devastating to so many people two decades later.

According to one source that I read, 90 percent of the children who survived the genocide witnessed the slaughter of a loved one. Another source recounted how the genocidaires would attack churches where groups of frightened Tutsis had taken refuge, sending in children as young as 10 years old with machetes to kill the other defenseless children they found inside.

As much as I try, I cannot fathom the pain and suffering these people have experienced. I cannot imagine the horror of watching your loved ones be killed or the shock and disgust of seeing the piles of dead bodies on the side of the road.

Nor can I comprehend the guilt and regret of those who were involved in the killings. While the leaders of the genocide were calculated and intentional in their thirst for blood, a significant part of the massacre was carried out by average Rwandans, killing their neighbors and colleagues –some were mere children coerced into participating, others were adults caught up in the frenzy of intoxicating hatred surrounding them. After coming to their senses, they have had to live each day of the past two decades with the shame of their actions hovering over them.

I cannot imagine what those 100 days were like for the people of Rwanda, and I cannot imagine what the last 20 years have been like, or the difficult work of healing that remains.

What I do know is that forgiveness is possible for the people of Rwanda, and it is necessary. But it is difficult to look into the eyes of your neighbors and forgive them for murdering your loved ones. And it is difficult to look at yourself every day in the mirror and remember the horror that you inflicted on other people in a moment of madness.

Helping to aid in the process of healing and reconciliation is Catholic Relief Services. The Catholic Church teaches us that we can forgive despite the great wrongs that are committed against us – just as Christ forgave his tormentors as he hung on the cross dying. A great example of this is Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan woman who survived the genocide and afterwards forgave those who had brutally killed her parents and siblings. Her story is recounted in the internationally acclaimed book, Left to Tell, which offers a powerful witness to the redemptive love of Christ and how it must serve as the foundation in addressing the challenging and often complex problems in our modern world, in Rwanda and beyond.