Hotel Rwanda

Four years ago I went with a group of other missionaries and our interns to Rwanda. Much has changed there since the genocide, the subject of the recent movie, HOTEL RWANDA, starring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo. The genocide was perhaps the worst we will see in our lifetime, unless we continue to sit idly when genocide happens in places like the Darfur region of Sudan. Prevent Hotel Darfur.

Song from HOTEL RWANDA Soundtrack: Million Voices

My cousin and former teammate in Jinja, Uganda, Clint Davis, is traveling to Uganda this week and will from there drive again to Rwanda with a group of missionaries and Ugandans interested in ongoing missions to Rwanda. Please pray for their journey and write notes to him on this blog.

Required reading on Rwanda is Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda. In 2000, I filed the following story for Christianity Today. Because of other pressing stories and factors out of my control, the piece was not published. I offer it now as a way to help us become more aware of the atrocities in Rwanda and have provided links above to help us contact others and government officials who can act now.

Will Justice Roll in Rwanda?

by Greg Taylor
August 18, 2000

KIGALI, RWANDA–Six years after the Rwanda genocide, they are still counting the dead.

In front of the Ntarama Catholic Church, 40 kilometers southeast of Kigali, local leaders take a census of genocide deaths from 1990 to 1994.

Outside the church in which 5,000 Rwandese genocide victims were killed, Byusa Eustache, a local official, sits with villagers to count the total number of genocide victims in his village. Villagers sit with large ledger cards where they are writing names of neighbors they saw slaughtered by Interahamwe (‘those who work together,’ the Hutu militia’s solidarity in killing) and the Hutu government Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) soldiers. The counting is a part of the national ‘10-day’ census that began in July and likely will continue until the end of the year.

Eustache asks an old woman about her family and neighbors who died between 1990 and 1994. He asks her why she thinks they were killed. Was it because of their ethnic group? Their ideology? For being a sympathizer of the rebels? For resembling a Tutsi or marrying a Tutsi? For being a friend of a Tutsi or for hiding a Tutsi?

No amount of questioning, however, will make sense of why 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in Rwanda in 1994. But an international panel, commissioned by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), has recently published a 318-page report which attempts to make sense of who was to blame for the genocide. In the most sweeping investigation of the Rwanda genocide, the panel blames not only the Hutu Interahamwe and FAR soldiers for killing but also blames the United Nations Security Council, the United States, France, and the Catholic Church for not intervening during the 90-day massacre in 1994. The genocide within Rwanda ended when the Tutsi-led Rwandan People’s Front army seized control of the country in May 1994.

The OAU panel has urged the UN to back its call for reparations owed by the international community. Rwanda is not holding its breath while waiting for the money. “Rwanda hasn’t actually been pushing for reparations,” says one official in the president’s office. Apologies have come slowly from various groups. President Clinton and UN head Kafi Annan have been very apologetic. But some Rwandese think apologies may be the extent of what genocide victims’ families will receive. “Where would the money come from?” says Justin Rudasingwa, 45, a repatriated Rwandan who grew up in Uganda.

The Catholic Church, in an official celebration of one hundred years in Rwanda in July was apologetic for bishops who went astray and who aided the Interahamwe militias in the genocide. The Catholic and Episcopal churches both were criticized by the international panel for failing to use “their unique moral position among the overwhelmingly Christian population to denounce ethnic hatred and human rights abuses,” according to the report. Most Rwandese are Catholic.

With many church cemeteries doubling as war memorials, the memory of the genocide and the church’s role in it will not soon fade. And family members of genocide victims, meanwhile, are determined that the genocide stays in view of those who try to diminish its impact on Rwanda. Within a few meters of the census takers at Ntarama, in the church grounds, Dantsira Nyirabazugu, 47, and Rutanganda Pasifigi, 46, welcome visitors to gaze through broken places in the church brick walls and see the mass of bones and skulls left since the day of the massacre six years ago which killed 5,000 in Ntarama.

In Rwanda’s history of ethnic violence since 1959, many had found refuge inside church walls. That ended in 1994. Hutu militia and FAR troops threw in grenades to kill the hundreds of huddled women and children inside the church. Skulls, clothing with bones still inside them, pots, suitcases, and books are strewn across the pews. Inside the church smells like a bat-infested cave. There is a skull on the table next to a cross in the front of the church. In another shelter hundreds of skulls are lined up in rows, and many skulls have fractures or slashes across them from machete blows. Many are children’s skulls.

“At first, people were stealing the bones, so the government asked us to keep the church (the way it was after the massacre),” Nyirabazugu said. During the church attack in 1994, the two keepers of the memorial had run for refuge outside the church to a nearby swamp.

“One lady gave birth in the swamp, and we named the child Moses,” Nyirabazugu said. “I still have nightmares. Some are in a psychiatric hospital because they were traumatized,” Dantsira said. Dantsira’s husband and two children were killed in the church. Rutanganda lost 18 family members. The two memorial keepers say they want the world to remember the genocide, and they intend to keep the church the way it is indefinitely.

Rev. Celestin Hategekimana, 37, remembers spending two weeks in an Episcopal church bell tower during two weeks of the most intense killing in Shyogwe village. Rev. Hategekimana’s friends, who were not threatened by Interahamwe, smuggled the pastor into the church tower and brought him food and water.

Witnesses say the former Episcopal diocese bishop, Samuel Musabyimana, told Interahamwe that they could kill anyone they wanted as long as they shed no blood on diocese land. That agreement was broken. While Hategekimana hid in the bell tower and was spared, his mother, two brothers, and three sisters were killed. His mother was thrown in a pit latrine with seven others. A memorial now marks the site.

Episcopal Rev. Hategekimana’s ministry after the genocide, on the other hand, has moved away from looking at growth and numbers. In the past, says the Hategekimana, numbers were more important to church pastors. “We have changed our evangelism to try to follow up persons and their families,” he says.

But Rwandese still face a crisis of spiritual leadership as Catholic, Episcopal, and Seventh Day Adventist church pastors have not only been blamed for cowardly acts but also for aiding Interahamwe and FAR soldiers by herding members and villagers into churches to be ambushed. In a country almost void of theological training centers, pastors are under-trained and lack respect from their parishioners. Non-mainline churches, however, are succeeding to draw huge crowds with music, messages of reconciliation and healing. The Pentecostal Church is growing rapidly in Rwanda.

One Pentecostal church faced persecution by Interahamwe and FAR soldiers but were not killed. Pastor Mathias Bimenyimana reported that more than 700 Protestants and Catholics fled to the Gakinjiro Pentecostal Church when the Interahamwe were raiding and killing Tutsi in their homes. Christians were threatened with guns to their heads. A local councilman threatened Bimenyimana for hiding RPF soldiers. His anger suddenly subsided, however, and he told Bimenyimana, “You church people are like the Red Cross. You can come to the help even of the enemy.” None were killed in the Gakinjiro Pentecostal Church from the day after President Habaryamana’s plane was shot down until the RPF captured Kigali. “We stayed together and the Lord protected us,” Bimenyimana says.

The new Archbishop of the Episcopal Church in Rwanda, Most Rev. Emmanuel Kolini, says the genocide has turned his preaching upside down and he talks more directly about sin. “Sin is in every part of our lives. It’s in our bones. We have touched it, smelled it, seen it. The genocide was because of sin. There was a spiritual genocide first, then the physical genocide came,” Most Rev. Kolini said.

Churches are preaching hope and healing. Many Rwandese, meanwhile, are ambivalent about the prospects for justice. Prisons are jammed with 130,000 persons waiting for trials. Churches and human rights organizations are pressuring Rwanda to process the minors in prisons first. But lawyers are few and courts are clogged with cases. State prosecutors have a backlog of 2,000 cases against accused planners of the genocide. Many of Rwanda’s white-collar work force were killed in 1994, leaving only a few dozen lawyers countrywide.

While the Arusha Tribunal is seeking justice by reining in suspects from outside Rwanda, the interim government in Rwanda is setting up grass-roots tribunals within the country. Many hope these locally led tribunals, called gacaca, will bring justice. This participatory judicial system relies on trusted village leaders to arbitrate disputes and hear genocide-related cases. The government hopes these gacaca courts will speed up justice and reduce friction between neighbors and communities, where survivors of the genocide and those accused of participating in the genocide live together.

For the jobless and homeless in Rwanda, justice is a luxury that has been forgotten in their struggle for survival. “My father was killed. Then his killer fled to Congo,” says a 24-year-old Rwandan woman. Asked if she wants justice for the killers in the genocide, she simply says she wants a job. “People who lost relatives and (their killers) are in jail want justice. But the immediate situation is survival,” says Dr. David Himbara, Principal Secretary to President Paul Kagame.

Jobs are not the only hurdle for Rwandese. With many returnees from political and ethnic exile, Rwanda is a tossed salad of groups. Young boys with one or both legs blown off by a land mine walk the streets of Kigali on crutches among young and well-dressed urbanite transplants from Uganda—Rwandese whose parents left after ethnic violence started in 1959 in Rwanda. Three million refugees have returned to Rwanda since 1994, according to a government report. Genocide victims and planners live side by side.

Rwanda’s population has swollen since 1994 when the Hutu-led government’s ban on exiled Rwandese was lifted. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandese born outside Rwanda are streaming back to Rwanda. But land is scarce. When Hutu abandoned their land in the headlong flight toward Congo in 1994, returning Tutsi refugees from the Diaspora found abandoned land and houses and squatted on that land. But the government’s official policy is to return that land to its original owners.

“This is a double slap in the face for victims,” says Himbara. Many genocide victims are being left homeless, but Habitat for Humanity, UNHCR, and dozens more aid groups are building resettlement homes, called imidugudu, for returning refugees and those being kicked off of land they had claimed after the Hutu flight. Youth and women associations are also building resettlements. But there are not enough land and houses to go around. The population is growing 3.5 percent annually. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

“Before 1994 the official government policy was that anyone who left was not welcomed back. That was changed in May 1994 and all the refugees returned quickly, except for those in camps (Hutu refugees and Interahamwe militias). They were held up until 1996 when they returned, and that’s why the northern Rwanda is destabilized,” says Himbara. “The biggest challenge is to get all these (groups) to interact.”

Some believe, however, that the task of getting Rwandese to reconcile is impossible. Memorials are scattered throughout the country in churches, along roadsides. Some Rwandese say they don’t like to visit the memorials because they bring back the bitterness and hatred in their hearts toward the killers. A Baptist missionary in Kigali believes another genocide is imminent. Many of the Hutu killers who fled surrounded by a cover of women and children refugees, continue to get support by the Congolese government.

A banner outside the Catholic Church in Nyamata says, “We’re still remembering.” Twenty thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered in the Nyamata church in 1994. Blood still stains the walls. The statue of Jesus was hacked with machetes, according to Rwema Epimaque, 50, because the likeness of Jesus resembled a Tutsi.

“People came here seeking refuge. They thought since it was the house of God they wouldn’t be killed,” Epimaque said. Behind the church is are two underground catacombs where thousands of bones and skulls have been arranged on shelves. Most visitors cannot bear to enter.

In the basement of the Nyamata church is a memorial display with a wooden casket inside. The body in the casket, villagers say, is that of a 25-year-old woman who died after being raped by Hutu militia and FAR soldiers. Her husband was restrained and made to watch while they brutalized her. They killed her by forcing a sharp stick through her vagina. Then they threw her body in a pit with hundreds of other bodies. Villagers believe that her body did not decay. Witnesses say her body was found three years after the attack, her baby still in her arms. The body was on display until recently it was placed in a casket that was sealed.

Before the genocide of 1994, the Arusha Peace Accords were making progress. Ex-President Juvenal Habyarimana was returning from another round of talks in Arusha, Tanzania when his plane was shot down, sparking the slaughter of thousands of Rwandese a day for three months, beginning in April 1994.

What had started before the genocide has now been taken up again. A resolution was passed at the peace talks in 1993 to form a Unity and Reconciliation Commission (URC), but this was not formed until 1999. The purpose of the commission is to promote unity among the people of Rwanda. “People who lost their families are still bitter. We believe there must be a moment of healing and that moment will come,” says Oswald Rutimburana, Research and Communications Director of the URC. “We are hopeful. Though many criticize what we are doing, they don’t have any other answers. The see reconciliation as the only option.”

The URC views what happened in Rwanda as intentional, rather than accidental. The Hutu-led majority government planned the genocide. But the genocide was not achieved by politics alone, but also insidious hatred and sin says Rutimburana. “That’s why we have partnerships with churches.” Rutimburana is a Christian who came to Rwanda after the genocide with a large aid organization. After spending several years in rural Rwanda counseling with victims of the genocide, Rutimburana went to work for the newly formed URC.

“Everyone in Rwanda is traumatized,” says Rutimburana. And he says trauma healing must come before reconciliation can happen. “Ninety-nine percent of Rwandese are Christians, they say, but 99 percent committed genocide. What kind of Christianity is that? To me, they were religious but not Christians.”

A July report by the URC says the first task of the government after the genocide is to handle emergencies and encourage the healing process. Yet UNICEF says more than 300,000 children alone are traumatized by killing or seeing their parents or family members killed. UNICEF reports that less than one percent of those children have been adequately counseled. The Rwandan government and UNICEF reunited or placed 465,000 children who were separated from their families or orphaned during the genocide. Thirty-five thousand children remain in orphanages throughout Rwanda.

Counseling children and adults is one of Rwanda’s greatest needs right now, according to Dr. Wendy Bovard of Oasis Counseling Center in Kenya. Dr. Bovard and her team have done trauma counseling with victims of the Nairobi bombing in 1998. They are also developing curriculum and plan to build a counseling center for counselors to work with Rwandese with post-traumatic stress disorders.

Episcopal Archbishop Kolini says Christian missionaries are needed in Rwanda. “We especially need teaching ministries. The door is open,” says Most Rev. Kolini. “People are thirsty for the gospel. They are looking for an answer. After 40 years of independence (from Belgium), politics has not brought an answer, so they are looking somewhere else–especially young people. They are looking for the inner heart healing,” the Archbishop said.

The door is open for missionaries and counselors to step in beside aid workers in Rwanda. Kigali is safer than Nairobi and Kampala, says George Staples, U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda. A new police force is being trained, and the government is becoming more stable under leadership of Paul Kagame, former commander of the RPF.

President Kagame says Rwandese ought to associate themselves along political, national, and rational issues rather than looking at themselves as belonging to an ethnic group. Churches, meanwhile, are pushing to be seen as one body. Christians are encouraging missionaries not to come and work with one particular ethnic group but to minister among each of them, to avoid adding more ethnic lines of demarcation to an already embattled church environment. Churches have begun singing a song that says, “Have we not one father? Have we not one faith? Have we not one calling to become one holy race? Oh let us be the generation of reconciliation and peace.”

From Butare to Kigali, Rwandese are asking “How long will justice take?” Some say a generation must pass; others say it will take two or three generations before reconciliation and justice will come; and still others say a thousand years or never. One thing is sure in this quagmire of refugees, foreign aid organizations, victims and perpetrators of genocide: justice may not be swift nor sure, but if justice ever does roll like a river through Rwanda, there will be millions who need a drink from that stream.

By Greg Taylor Posted in General

4 comments on “Hotel Rwanda

  1. I am a little speechless. First of all, the fact that this wasn’t published speaks volumes about where our country’s interest truly lies. I can’t imagine what got published instead.

    Second, thank you for sharing this message. It seems we’re only interested in genocide years after it happens (i.e. Holocaust) and then we are fascinated by it instead of hurt, repulsed, angered, and by then it is too late to be moved to action.

    I’m glad I have a place to start – thanks for posting all those links. I do also hope the movie opens some eyes instead of turning them toward the glimmer of Oscar’s red carpet. Thanks again, Greg.


  2. Greg, I have read the book by Gourevitch. I have not seen the movie yet, but hope to really soon.
    Thanks SO much for your in-depth look at this horrible tragedy, and for your research and insights. Your post was VERY imformative to anyone who is interested in Rwanda…me being one of those.

    God bless,


  3. Thank you for this post. The situation in Darfur is one I’ve been praying about for some time. It is also something I’ve been writing my congressional representatives and the president about.

    I am generally an optimist, but this and Rwanda have me skeptical. It’s been my observation that a crisis in Africa usually rates very low on the US radar. President Bush has a quote about “the bigotry of low expectations” in regard to racism in our educational system. I think our nation, as well as most other economically advantaged nations, extends that “bigotry of low expecatations” to their relations with African nations.

    I pray I’m wrong; I pray we act. I know God will with or without us.


  4. Yes, thanks, Greg for this post. Please push to get it published. This tragic situation needs to have the light of day and the light of the gospel shone on it. With the current fame of the movie, this would be a great time to publish this honest account. The movie has become one of my favorites and one of the most important I’ve ever seen. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation!


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