A story of reconciliation in Rwanda
Cyanika Catholic church should have been a place of refuge but when the slaughter engulfed Rwanda in April 1994 not even places of worship were safe.
When attacks against Tutsi people in nearby villages started on April 7, Marie Mukagasana and her husband, Hadimana, gathered their two small children, Athanasie (5) and Clarisse (3), and went to the church.
Thousands had arrived ahead of them, and as the days went by the grounds of Cyanika church continued to fill. They were hungry and lacked even the most basic of facilities but at least they thought they were safe.
Tragically, they were wrong.
On April 21, armed militia arrived at the church. They knocked down the wall and began indiscriminately killing the people inside. Approximately 30,000 people were killed over the course of a 12-hour attack in the church and its surrounding grounds.
“I put my hand in some of the blood that was all around me,” says Marie. “I covered my face in blood and lay down on the floor. I took a bed sheet and I covered us to wait for death. That is the last memory I have with my children.”
Marie was knocked unconscious but miraculously survived the attack. Tragically, however, her husband and two young girls were killed.
Among the milita members taking part in the attack that night was Juvenal Mudenge. Today, Juvenal struggles to come to terms with what he did that day.
“I can’t find words to describe what it was like,” he says. “I was like an animal. I knew many of the people that were killed that day because we were neighbours. Our objective was to kill people so you could not think about whether you knew them or not. The objective was to exterminate them.”
Remarkably, today, 20 years after the horrific attack on Cyanika church, Marie and Juvenal can be seen together, helping each other on their farms and taking part in community activities.
This unlikely friendship is the result of the work of the Commission for Justice and Peace, a church-run partner organisation of Trócaire’s in Rwanda. In order to rebuild the community, the commission began hosting workshops for genocide survivors and perpetrators who had shown remorse and who had agreed to publicly confess to their crimes. These workshops were funded by the Irish public through donations to Trócaire.
Forgiveness is an important teaching of the Church. Even so, given the brutal experiences of people like Marie, it is difficult to fathom how they could find the inner strength to forgive. Remarkably, that is what they have done.
Like many survivors of the genocide, Marie says that she was initially filled with resentment and hatred towards the people who had carried out the attacks. Over time, however, she realised that the only way to rebuild Rwanda from the rubble of the genocide was to put the past behind them and move on together.
“I ended up agreeing that we can’t reverse things,” she says. “I found it important to forgive and reconcile. It was very hard at the start but eventually we could meet each other and hug and talk. I realised that the killers regretted what had happened and that made it possible for us to live together.”
By confessing to his crimes, Juvenal sought forgiveness from the community and from people like Marie who had lost family members.
“I kept praying to God that he would give me the strength,” says Juvenal. “I felt shame for what I had done. I was traumatised because of what I had done. I still feel the consequences. Sometimes I cry and feel traumatised as if something has hit me. When it happens I sit or lie down for a while.”
Today, he is thankful that the survivors have forgiven him for what he did. When asked how he views the forgiveness shown towards him, he describes it as “a miracle”.
Stories like these are now heard across Rwanda, where the people are moving on from the past and putting the bitter ethnic divide behind them.
Marie is hopeful for a better future for Rwanda. She says that this is entirely down to the work of the Commission for Justice and Peace, who have enabled the people of the area to rebuild their lives and move on from the past.
“We are very hopeful and optimistic about the future,” she says. “For us, the only real problem is just poverty. But otherwise, the meetings we have about peace and reconciliation make me think things will be better. I hope for a Rwanda without any more genocide or any more war; a Rwanda with peace.”
Éamonn Meehan is the Executive Director of Trócaire