Last night I dreamed of rows of machetes emerging from a farmer’s field, point first, like the tips of corn stalks. I saw many machetes during my trip to Rwanda—sharpened steel used to trim back vegetation and cut paths through the thick foliage of “the land of a thousand hills.” Rwanda is also the land of a thousand views—the hills and mountains of the lush terrain provide endless scenic vistas of neatly-maintained crops.
Rwanda’s equatorial location means that seasons are defined by rainfall. The rainy season is about to peak, and with it the annual April period of national mourning—the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. God weeps from the skies.
Rwanda’s complex history—prerecorded, colonial, political, and institutional—setting the stage for tragedy, may be another window on the land of a thousand views, or perhaps, viewpoints. To visit some of the genocide memorial sites, many of them Catholic churches where men, women, and children seeking sanctuary were shot and hacked to death by the thousands, is to encounter, in the mounds of faded, bloodstained clothing and stacks of skulls and bones, a lesson we have not yet grasped. The murder of up to a million people over several months by their neighbors, fellow parishioners, family members, and leaders, cries out to heaven—and to us, wherever we live.
How could they do this? How could we do this, within the last century or so—to indigenous Americans, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians, and so many others? How can we do this?
By using real or contrived differences of race, socio-economic class, religion, lifestyle, language, or ethnicity to create communities of scapegoats, onto whom we pour the verbal venom of our fears, our hatreds, our ignorance, our insecurities. Once dehumanized and separated from “us,” the “final solution” can seem logical, necessary, patriotic.
At one parish genocide site, the Eucharist in the tabernacle was destroyed by gunfire, before the terrified members of the Body of Christ, crowded into the liturgical space, were murdered. The heroes of genocide in Rwanda are those who hid their neighbors, sometimes at the cost of their own lives; those, like Sister Felicitas Niyitegeka, who chose to die with the targeted rather than be separated from their brothers and sisters in Christ and live.
Accompaniment and solidarity were expressed in the laying down of lives. Healing and restoration linger on the horizon in Rwanda. Many of those who survived, scarred and traumatized, have not been able to speak their stories—it can be dangerous to do so. Counseling resources are inadequate.
The broken Church is trying to be a vehicle for healing and wholeness. Many significant tensions are unresolved, as seen in the most recent refugee situation involving neighboring Burundi.
How do we move forward with justice, mercy, and love, learning enough about ourselves as human beings to ensure that such crimes never happen again—anywhere? Such a perspective includes hard work, and open hearts, minds, and ears; solidarity in action. The way forward is to experience and to share God’s love— the love, as the Easter Vigil testifies each spring, that never dies. Love that sees each life as precious. Love that finds new, respectful relationships, not weapons, emerging from ground soaked with the blood of our scapegoats.
by Susan Stevenot Sullivan, director of education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.