Rwandan Bishop John Rucyahana says “wonderful things” have been happening in his homeland since it was torn apart by genocide in 1994. Thirteen years ago, ethnic tensions culminated in a slaughter by Hutu death squads of more than a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. To tell his version of the mass killings, Rucyahana has written a book, entitled The Bishop of Rwanda: Finding Forgiveness Amidst a Pile of Bones. The bishop describes the genocide as a “blessing” from God. He says the aftermath of the horror has united the different ethnic groups in Rwanda, and there’s a new spirit of hope and reconciliation in the country. Rucyahana’s book tells how he escaped Rwanda during the genocide, only to return a few years later on a mission to heal a divided and traumatized nation. In the second part of a series on new African authors, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on the bishop and his book.
Ten years ago, in a small town in the southern United States, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana and his wife, Harriet, were seated on a park bench. They were trying to relax, but the terror that they’d fled in Rwanda three years earlier wasn’t permitting any peace of mind. The memories seared them to a far greater degree than the South Carolina sun. And the United States didn’t feel like home. They were depressed, frustrated and lost. Then, recalls Rucyahana, a shaggy dog bounded into their vision. Panting with pleasure, the hound began playfully chasing birds. The winged creatures did not seem particularly perturbed by the canine’s attention, and a harmless game of chase ensued.
“When I saw this scene, with this big smiling dog chasing lazy birds, something just clicked in my mind,” says the Bishop.
“I turned to Harriet and I told her: If these animals, who should be natural enemies, can play with one another, why can’t we Rwandans learn to play with one another? And we both started crying and it was at that moment that we decided to return to Rwanda.”
Up until this point, says Rucyahana, he and his wife had been wracked by “indecision” and “inability to forgive” those in Rwanda who had slaughtered their friends and family.
“It is very difficult to forgive mothers who held children by the feet and banged them on trees and walls until they were dead. There were mothers, breastfeeding their own children, and they killed the babies of the Tutsi women by holding them by the legs and pounding them on the ground. Harriet, in particular, found it very difficult to forgive this. But we made a decision to stop holding on to anger and bitterness,” the man who Rwandans affectionately call “Bishop John” told VOA.
Rucyahana describes his book as “salve for the world,” to be used as a guide to reconciliation by warring factions all over the world.
“If Rwandans can reconcile, anyone can!” he says.
International human rights groups say Rucyahana is largely responsible for creating a new movement of hope in his country.
“I believe that God blessed Rwanda through the genocide, because this horror has brought the different ethnic groups together like never before. We are a new nation, cleansed in blood,” he says.
As Rwanda’s Anglican Bishop, Rucyahana ministers to killers in prisons, builds schools and houses, finds homes for orphans and negotiates peace between feuding groups. And now, he writes.
His mission, he says, is to help his people to heal their “spiritual” scars.
“There are so many real tears, and so much great guilt, that our ministry is like preaching hope from the top of a pile of bones, from the top of a mountain of mutilated bodies. With this book I want to show God’s hand in the miracle of recovery in Rwanda.”
But Rucyahana was “truly inspired” to write “The Bishop of Rwanda” by a desire to reflect the “untold story” of the church’s role in the genocide.
“To whom do the people turn for hope, when they have been betrayed by the very ones who claimed to represent God’s love? During the genocide, there were pastors who killed people in their congregations, priests who bulldozed their churches on top of the people who were hiding in them, pleading for mercy. There were ministers who lured people in their congregations to their deaths, with the promise of protection. Can you imagine the pain and the hopelessness that is generated by this?”
But at the same time, says Rucyahana, he was motivated to take up his pen by his “fatigue” at reading headlines describing Rwanda as the “country that God forgot” and listening to “skeptics” who blame God for the tragedy.
In his book, the Bishop writes: “Where was God when a million innocent people were being butchered? Where was God when priests and pastors helped massacre the people in their churches? I will tell you where God was. He was alongside the victims lying on the cold stone floor of the cathedrals. He was comforting a dying child, he was crying at the altar. But he was also saving lives. Many were saved by miracles. God does not flee when evil takes over a nation. He speaks to those who are still listening, he eases the pain of the suffering, and he saves those who can be saved.”
God has given man free will to serve good or evil, Rucyahana argues, and it is humanity – not God – that is ultimately responsible for the horrors of Rwanda. His book highlights the “international complicity” that allowed one of the worst atrocities in history to unfold.
“The hopelessness of Rwanda and the genocide is not a mistake of Rwanda alone – it’s a mistake of the United Nations, it’s a mistake of all countries in power. People who could have stopped the genocide let it go (on). My book actually is telling the world: The immorality of letting the genocide take shape is not the responsibility of Rwanda alone. I’m not writing about Rwanda, I’m writing about the corruption of humanity.”
The terror of 1994 resurfaces, gruesomely and incontrovertibly, in Rwanda on a regular basis, says the Bishop: “We’re still finding bodies buried in pits, dumped in rivers, chopped in pieces. But my goal with this book is to tell an amazing, uplifting story. It is the story of the new Rwanda, a country that has turned to God and which God is blessing.”
But no matter how much he tries to concentrate on hope, Rucyahana cannot avoid the horror. He says it’s “alive” inside him – and although they’re no longer “festering,” the memories still burn as bright as they did on that day in the park in South Carolina.
“My 16-year-old niece, whom I dearly loved, was raped and killed in a torturous, horrible way…. They cut all the flesh from her shoulder; they peeled all the flesh up to the wrist – both arms. And after they did that, they gang-raped her. And after raping her, they chopped off her neck…. I am not preaching from an isolated pulpit, oblivious to pain. I know pain,” the Bishop whispers.
He admits to “wrestling” with his personal trauma, being angry with the killers and “lusting” for revenge. But he has forced himself to “rise above” this.
“If I didn’t repent, that anger was going to eat me like acid and I would not be effective, so I had to repent in order to live and help others to live,” Rucyahana says.
“In Rwanda, we are not looking at forgiveness and reconciliation as a matter of an academic, philosophical exercise. It’s real tears! It’s the nucleus of who we are. Our nation is being rebuilt with tears. It’s not a joke. And we owe the world that truth.”
The bishop has arranged meetings between self-confessed murderers and the relatives of the people they butchered. In the “presence of God,” he has watched them embrace, and their reconciliation has provided “meat” to his personal journey to forgiveness.
“I could never go to a single prison to preach without the power of God. Without God, I would hate such killers with all my heart. But with God, I can truly say that I love them.”
Rucyahana says Rwanda’s quest for truth and redemption is still in its “early stages.” He puts the number of people killed in the genocide at 1,117,000 – out of a population of only 8,000,000.
“Out of the almost seven million people who were left, only 120 were arrested. But that is a fraction of those who killed. Are you telling me 120 people killed more than a million others? There are a great many killers who’ve never been caught. And those who did not kill, helped others to kill, by pointing out the victims, and leading the killers to their hiding places, and watching their friends of many years being brutally murdered.”
The bishop says colonization “undoubtedly” played a role in the genocide. In 1959, three years before Rwanda became independent of Belgium, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi king. The colonizers had always favored the Tutsi minority, and so the seeds of hatred had been sown. In the decades after independence and leading up to the genocide, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were killed and more fled into exile. It was the children of the exiles who later formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which began a civil war in 1990.
Rucyahana’s message is one of forgiveness, but he remains embittered by the actions of Belgium and France. Belgium, he says, bears a direct responsibility for the genocide, having for decades as colonial ruler fomented ethnic hatred. France, a country that once had close ties with Rwanda, should also accept part of the blame, according to Rucyahana.
President Paul Kagame has accused France of arming and supporting the Hutu death squads, a charge that France denies. Last year Rwanda and France broke diplomatic ties with each other.
The bishop feels there’s a need for both France and Belgium to “repent” for helping to “set the scene” for the slaughter.
“I wish they had…asked for forgiveness. That would have been enough contribution to help us rebuild our own nation,” Rucyahana says.
Yet development is happening in Rwanda, despite the lack of support from the country’s former colonial powers. In 1994, there was one university in Rwanda; now there are 15. Airports are under construction. The telecommunications sector is being revamped.
Visitors to Rwanda have been amazed at the cleanliness of the country when compared to the filth that’s endemic in many other African nations.
“Recently, a man asked me: Why is it that your country is getting so clean? I said: We have been the dirtiest, ever. The stink was too much to our hearts, so we had to be clean!” Rucyahana says.
The future, says the Bishop, makes him “smile.”
“Rwanda is being united and being reconciled; all the policies that divided people are completely abolished in our new constitution. People are working together. Today, the pain is still real, as you read in (my) book – but the effort, the determination and the will of the people is to be one.”
He feels that the government is dedicated to reconciliation. As evidence of this, he cites the abolishment of a law that all personal documents – like passports, driving permits and college diplomas – in Rwanda reflect whether a person is a member of the Hutu, Tutsi or Twa groups. But ultimately, Rucyahana says, reconciliation is not up to the president and his officials; it’s in the hands of all Rwandans.
“We don’t have to be the friend of Kagame, we have to be the friend of ourselves,” he says. And then he fingers the cross around his neck, and adds: “And of God.”