Grief carried for, and lessons learned, in Rwanda

(A word of warning: you might find some of the images disturbing, so if you are affected by images, you might not want to read this blog. Also, this post is long, but because both experiences reflect the latter part of my trip in Rwanda, it felt right to share them in one post.)

 

We walked through the church in silence as our guide explained how 10 000 people were killed. Their clothes were mute testimonies crying out loudly against the injustice that was perpetrated in a place where they had fled for sanctuary.

Clothing of victims in the church

Clothing of victims in the church

Baptismal font stained with the blood of victims

Baptismal font stained with the blood of victims

Altar adorned with blood stained cloth and jewellry of victims and examples of weapons used by perpetrators

Altar adorned with blood stained cloth and jewellry of victims and examples of weapons used by perpetrators

As we stood in the one section of the church, I quietly cried as she described how the children had been killed, the walls now washed clean of their blood.

Section of the church where the children were killed

Section of the church where the children were killed

Later we stood in a place where 45 000 genocide victims were buried in mass graves. photo

Again, as I descended into one side of the grave, I cried as I looked at the bones of adults and children stacked neatly in rows on the shelves.

Window of one of the sections of the mass graves

Window of one of the sections of the mass graves

As I struggled to make sense of what had happened in this place, I though about what I had seen and experienced the previous day.

Just the day before, we visited the genocide museum. The quietness of the museum hinted at the story told there. There were little in the way of images displayed in the museum, a fact for which I was extremely grateful. But the narratives that vividly described the genocide and the events that led up to those terrible 100 days, combined with my overactive, rather vivid imagination, rendered the need for any images unnecessary.

Genocide museum in Kigali

Genocide museum in Kigali

These narratives – these words that created unspeakable worlds in my head – churned up deep pain and grief in my spirit. The narratives rang in my being as we walked through the church, as we stood in the midst of that mass grave.

I am really battling with, and trying to process, the grief and horror that lingers in my being from these two experiences. While I allow these emotions to run their course, I am also reflecting on two profound lessons that I take away from my time in Rwanda:

Lesson #1:

“How could one human being do that to another?” I agonized.

“How could an entire generation of people inflict such horror on more than a million people?”

How could they do that? This questions rings in my head all the time. And what is the conclusion I reach?

The perpetrators could do what they did, partly because they saw their victims as cockroaches. That was one of the messages that was communicated over and over again in the propaganda-saturated media.

The perpetrators could do what they did because they denied their victim’s humanity. They were able to do what they did because they were not murdering people, they were exterminating vermin. By inflating their sense of humanity, and by denying the humanity of their victims, they could do whatever was deemed necessary to their victims.

The grief was palpable for me as I sat outside the museum. After sitting quietly for a while, two young people approached my group with a request. “Would you share a message of encouragement with the future generation?” I sat and pondered on what I wanted to share with the next generation, and from deep within my spirit came a cry and a protest and a plea.

My message to the future generation #kwibuka20

My message to the future generation #kwibuka20

“You, me, every person is created in God’s image. That gives every human being dignity, making us all human.”

The cry from deep inside my being was a desperate clinging to the imago Dei, to the image of God. I asked myself, “What would have happened if that was never forgotten? How can I inflict horror on someone created in the image of God as I am?”

I believe that being created in the image of God means we are ALL human. Our worth and dignity as human beings are, in my estimation, intrinsically tied to being created in the image of God.

I am created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. That gives us equal value. It connects us and unites us into a universal family, whether we like it or not.

When I look at you, will I choose to see this imago Dei? When I look at you, will I acknowledge and honour the image of God in you? Will you acknowledge and honour the image of God in me? And if we do acknowledge and honour the imago Dei in each other, what does that mean for how we treat each other, for how we relate to each other?

As I grappled with what I read and saw in Kigali and Nyamata, Rene spoke to me about Jesus’ warning about not calling someone “Fool,” (Matthew 5:22). She explained how easy it is to dehumanise someone by negatively labelling them as an “other”. The sense that I get from the literary context of this verse is that, according to Jesus, being angry with someone, insulting someone and calling someone a fool is equivalent to murder. And in light of what my experiences in Rwanda, and the experiences of those who suffered and died in the genocide, I understand exactly why Jesus said what he did.

As I sat thought about what she said, I realized with horror how many times I have dehumanized others by labeling them as something negative. And then I realized how it is possible for someone to do unspeakable things to another human being. By labelling someone negatively, I deny that they are created in the image of God, and in so doing, strip them of their humanity and their dignity.

It was then that Misheck’s message outside the genocide museum that same day became a message not only to the future generations of Rwanda, but a message to me as well.

Our collective messages for the future generations of Rwanda

Our collective messages for the future generations of Rwanda

“We all have capacity for evil and good. Choose good.”

Yes, the perpetrators of the genocide did terrible things. But I too carry that potential, you carry that potential. They dehumanized their victims, and were therefore capable of, and did inflict, horrors on their fellow Rwandans. I have dehumanized people by labeling them as “other” than me, and denied them their dignity and justice.

It is that scary. It is that easy.

Lesson #2

We stood silently in the midst of the mass graves at Nyamata. I looked around, observing how quiet that space was. I struggled with the emotions churning inside me. I struggled to make sense of how such horror could have occurred in a church. I struggled to comprehend the depth of the terror of the people who were buried in that place. And then I looked at our guide who stood in the sun just past the graves.

She wore a bright pink dress, a dress that outlined her beautiful pregnant belly. I walked up to her, gently laid my hand on her swelling tummy, and quietly asked when baby was due. She smiled shyly, and told me baby was coming soon. She grinned as she told me this is her second baby, and proceeded to proudly show me a picture of her older daughter on her cell phone. I smiled with her, in awe of the her resilience in the midst of such pain.

What made the life that she carried even more amazing was that her family is among the dead buried in the mass graves at Nyamata.

Our guide's bouquet honouring her family that were killed in the genocide and are buried in the mass graves at Nyamata

Our guide’s bouquet honouring her family that were killed in the genocide and are buried in the mass graves at Nyamata

As I pondered the enormity of what that it mean for her to tell the story of Nyamata to travellers visiting the memorial, I sensed God saying to me, “Death does not win. The life she is carrying proclaims in this place of death, that death does not have the final word.”

I have been struggling to process the emotions related to these experiences. Just yesterday, a friend lovingly pointed out that I appear to be carrying secondary trauma related to these experiences. Somehow, I am carrying quite a bit of grief for the people of Rwanda, and this grief is fuelling anger towards God.

I cannot make sense of how God could have allowed such horrors to happen. I cannot comprehend why, in spite of his power, mercy and love, God did not prevent it from happening. I am trying to understand what it means that God loves us and yet there is so much pain in this world. It is something I have been grappling with for a long time, and my time in Rwanda has brought it to the fore again.

But as I grapple to make sense of God, …as I struggle to hold the paradox of an infinitely powerful God who loves us deeply and our ability – given to us by him – to choose good or evil, I hold on to the image of this beautiful pregnant woman who stood in the midst of so much death.

I choose to cling to the hope that, even if I don’t understand and might never understand, resurrection will come, that death will NOT have the final say.

Will you pray with me?

Will you pray for East Africa, for the people of Rwanda who are still trying to process their own grief?

Will you help me process by sharing your thoughts about the two lessons and the emotions I am experiencing?

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7 thoughts on “Grief carried for, and lessons learned, in Rwanda

  1. Claire J De Boer June 19, 2014 at 6:23 pm Reply

    So so hard to read, Nicole. I feel the same way when I think about the Holocaust, always taking on the pain and becoming mad at God. It’s just so hard for us to fathom that such events could have taken place. But I think you are right—for man to do this to his fellow men, he must be brain-washed into believing they are less than human. It’s the Christian message turned on its head. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminding us of this awful sequence of events—may we never forget those men, women and children that died.

  2. Lacea June 19, 2014 at 9:26 pm Reply

    My friend I am without words – still because it cuts deep into my spirit and I no that things like this was never Gods intent. We are all God’s creation and should love and respect all in that way. Thanks for sharing even if words cannot describe your true emotions.

    • findingandowningmyvoice June 19, 2014 at 9:34 pm Reply

      This was such a difficult post to write. So I deeply appreciate you presence with me in this space of grief.

  3. Lucia June 19, 2014 at 10:06 pm Reply

    Thank you. It’s really hard to read about this but it’s also very necessary. We still need to learn that we can never deny anyone’s humanity, no matter what. I wish we could talk about genocide as a thing of the past, and it’s so hard to think about the fact that it’s still happening right now. However, I have hope that we’re learning and that we will be able to heal and learn from this so it stops happening.

    • findingandowningmyvoice June 19, 2014 at 11:09 pm Reply

      Hi Lucia. The grief is still strong, and I’m only a witness. It’s hard to fathom how people in that country carry on living. But they do, and that choice to live gives me hope 🙂
      Thank you for entering into this hard place with me.

  4. […] with my Amahoro brothers and sisters about Christ in Conflict. A few days prior to this trip, I was in Kigali, Rwanda, working as part of a team to contextualise theological reflection material for the African […]

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