RUGANGO, Rwanda — Farmer Habarurema Bosco did not feel like a human anymore after losing all of his family in the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi minority that saw the loss of about 1 million lives.
He and his family were hunted like animals by the Hutu ethnic majority, incited by the government and extremist propaganda spewed over the radio and through newspapers. Even religious leaders were utilized to spread the message of hate.
As the only survivor from a family of 40, he lost all hope for the future. At the time, he didn’t have faith in Christ. He resorted to doing drugs and drinking alcohol to ease his pain and make him feel more human.
But thankfully, a man of God shared the Word of God with him and prayed for him and his salvation. As a result, Bosco joined a Pentecostal church. It was there he learned that all humans are made in the image of God.
Today, Bosco, whom God has blessed with a wife and six kids to keep his family line going, is helping his neighbors in Rwanda’s southern province to transform their hearts and forgive those who trespassed against them and their families.
“The first miracle that happened in my life is being transformed from that life to this kind of Christian life,” Bosco told reporters from the United States who visited him and his friends in the village of Rugango. The press trip was sponsored by the evangelical humanitarian charity World Vision U.S.
“Now I praise God that saved me and because I will be able to live in peace with other members. My heart now is free and God is living in me. As God has saved me, I want to share that love with others and I will teach them to pray because it is from praying that I lived again.”
Although Bosco is Pentecostal, he is an integral part of a program run by the Catholic parish of Rugango that began in 2017 training and equipping genocide survivors and perpetrators of all Christian walks to put their pasts aside and work together in an attempt to create more economic empowerment for their impoverished farming community.
In August of that year, the church began months of training for 84 genocide survivors and perpetrators to truly forgive and be forgiven from the bottom on their hearts. But there is more to it than just forgiveness.
Every Sunday, the class gathered for four hours. It was led by a community reconciliation facilitator and the parish priest.
The key to this group, called “Peace Warriors,” is for those participating to go beyond repenting and forgiving and be truly reconciled to create a new way to support themselves and their loved ones.
“From that mindset change is a genuine mindset change process,” Mukankrange Vestine, the community facilitator for the program who herself lost 14 family members in the genocide, explained.
“Genocide victims, they have lost their [loved ones]. They do not have husband and they do not have children. So physically, they are not ready to work alone. They still need people to work with. Only people to work with are those neighbors who were against them during the genocide. So now what you are doing is calling on people to come support them and go on together for the rest of their lives.”
In Rwanda, about 20 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty and 44 percent are living in moderate poverty. Malnutrition for children can reach up to 38 percent.
Thanks to the international evangelical humanitarian charity World Vision and church leaders, this community in Rugango is being taught the importance of not being dependent upon handouts.
This group of 84, which is the first of many groups that the Rugango parish plans to train and equip with the power of radical forgiveness, is now involved in a beekeeping enterprise that they hope will one day produce enough profit to help all families involved.
So far, the community is taking care of 39 beehives located in the woods on the parish property. After training, all 84 members of the group play some role in maintaining the hives. But since the hives are relatively new, the group has not yet been able to harvest the honey. But they are patiently and optimistically waiting to reap the reward.
A second group of about 86 Rugango genocide survivors and perpetrators, which has not yet been named, began its training and classes last year following the end of the first session. Although that group has not yet figured out what their economic empowerment endeavor will be, they are working with the country’s largest humanitarian organization, World Vision Rwanda, to figure that out.
“Our motto is the mind, the heart and the pocket. We start with the mind, which changes the heart,” said Aimable Nsengiyumva, the leader of World Vision’s efforts in the Southern Province. “When the mind is changed, the heart changes. When the heart is changed, [so should] the pocket. ”
I know what I did was sin
Among the genocide perpetrators involved in the “Peace Warriors” group is a man named Boniface. Boniface stood up and admitted to reporters that he was among the Hutus incited to carry out heinous crimes against their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, who they were driven to believe were the enemy of the state.
“The fifth commandment among the Ten Commandments of God says that you will never kill a human being,” he explained. “I know that God has created a human being in His image. I know that killing a human being is like putting a finger in the eye of God. I was told that when I killed the image of God, I have killed myself.”
Before the genocide in 1990, a propaganda newspaper promoted something called “the Hutu Ten Commandments.” It was basically a list of commandments that incited the Hutus’ hatred of the Tutsis saying that those who supported or befriended Tutsis would be considered traitors.
But such a document conflicts with the real teachings of the Gospel. Boniface decided to humble himself before God and ask God and the one he wronged for forgiveness from the bottom of his heart.
“[I] pray that I will never sin again against my God,” he said. “I can’t say that I am a perfect person today but that sin of killing the image of God, I pray that sin will never happen again in my life. I am ready to follow those spiritual leaders that God … gave us.”
‘So many people were killed in our churches’
On top of the Rwandan government’s initiative to let many genocide perpetrators out of jail in order for them to go to their communities to seek forgiveness through local Gacaca courts, the Catholic Church leaders in Rwanda launched their own initiative for people to go beyond the forgiveness given to them by the local jurisdictions.
The church desired to promote true forgiveness at more than just the societal level. The church wanted reconciliation at the personal level between individuals to ensure that they are reconnected.
Leaders of the church selected community reconciliation facilitators within the churches. The leaders were trained and given orientation to help facilitate that process in their communities.
Along with facilitator Vestine, parish priest Jean Bosco played a central role in helping educate the victims and perpetrators in Rugango about what the Bible actually says.
“So many people were killed in our churches. So as a church, it was shocking and astonishing to see that,” Bosco said. “People no longer respected places of worship and that was where more people were being killed. So as faith leaders, we decided to think of a way that we can help lead the country in a different direction because we had lost so many of our brothers and sisters.
“That is why we thought about bringing Christians together and how they can bring together those who are perpetrators and those who are victims to join them together with the Word of God. So we took the Word of God to prisons and to communities where victims and survivors were. We took the Word of God everywhere.”
It took about 23 years for the Rugango parish to establish reconciliation classes and groups like “Peace Warriors.” Bosco said that is because the hearts of Rwandans were “really broken.”
“Something of the genocide magnitude is not something that you can just wake up from and say, ‘Hey, let’s forgive and ask for forgiveness.’ It took a while,” Vestine noted. “They needed sufficient time for [healing] to take place and for people to believe that it was possible to forgive and ask for forgiveness.”
Those walls must fall
The Catholic Church is not the only denomination trying to foster reconciliation and unity.
On Sunday, Pastor Daniel Ledema, an evangelical pastor who was guest preaching at an Anglican Church in the outskirts of the capital Kigali in the town of Kacyiru, preached on the importance of walls being broken down so that unity in the body of Christ as demanded throughout the Bible can take place.
In a message that was very relevant in the context of the country he lives in and the genocide that occurred nearly 25 years ago in which Christians slaughtered other Christians, Ledema told the faithful gathered for the two-hour 8 a.m. service that it was Christ who made the gentiles and Jews one body.
When people come to Christ, they become part of one family that is brought together in Christ’s sacrifice, he stressed.
“Unity is hard work,” he declared during the English service. “I want you to reflect on how you see other people who are Christians. Do you have a problem?”
In most cases when people have a problem with their nuclear family members, they try to work it out. The same should be true for brothers and sisters in Christ, he noted.
“[There are walls people are building] but when one truly comes to Christ, Christ breaks those walls down. When you come to Christ, those walls must fall,” he said. “What Christ has done through His flesh and through His body, being crucified and put to death, [He] died for your sins. … We are all [Christians] because Christ died for our sins.”
During the service, a congregant took the stage to issue a prayer for other countries where division and conflict are rampant, such as Kenya and Yemen.
Unity, togetherness and oneness
Unity and reconciliation is not just a goal for the Church, it has also been a national goal set by the Rwandan government under the control of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and widely popular President Paul Kagame, who has been in office since he took power in 2000.
The RPF is responsible for helping to bring the genocide to an end when it won the Rwandan Civil War in July 1994.
To ensure that such a crime never happens again, Rwanda has opened several genocide memorials and museums that are visited by Rwandan school children every year. It shows them the horrors of the crimes committed against Christians by Christians so that the future generation is educated enough to reject any potential extremist ideology.
At the memorials are the mass graves of hundreds of thousands of victims. Some of the memorials show the smashed skulls and bones of victims. One even allows visitors to walk into rooms where nothing stands in the way of them and dozens upon dozens of preserved corpses. The smell of limestone and death is unforgettable for anyone who dares to walk in those rooms.
Denying the genocide is also a crime in Rwanda that is punishable by years’ imprisonment.
Many Rwandans will tell visitors who ask that there is “no more Hutu and Tutsi,” a social identity construct that was maintained in the country as a byproduct of European colonization.
“The motto for our country is unity, togetherness and oneness,” Jean Bosco, the Rugango priest, explained. “Because there was one mission to reunite Rwandans and build the country, it was easy for the government and the church to come together to make that a reality.”
While Rwanda was 90 percent Christian when the genocide happened, Christianity has continued to grow. Today, about 95 percent of the country is considered Christian, most of them being Catholic. The genocide led people to Christ through the realization that God protected them or the realization that their sins can be forgiven through Christ.
Unlike some of its African neighbors, there is no hostility to faith exhibited by the government, says World Relief Rwanda Program Manager Ananias Sentozi.
Even though the government made headlines and received heat for shutting down thousands of churches and mosques last year after passing a law regulating churches and requiring that pastors receive theology degrees, Sentozi believes the government is the victim of “misrepresentation” in the media.
“The Rwandan government does not interfere with faith and church’s work in this country,” Sentozi told the journalists gathered at the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, an institution known from the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” “I know there has been kind of misinterpretation of what happened early last year I think in February when the government decided to close a number of churches that were not fulfilling their requirements.”
“Some of those [churches] were in the households of people. Some of those were just gathering under tents. Some didn’t have wash facilities, there was no car parking, there was no sound management systems. There was no water. There were not any minimum requirement of bringing people together,” Sentozi, who has worked with World Vision Rwanda for 19 years, added.
“The government said that we are not closing but these facilities they are using are not appropriate for such a service. Some would just bring sound system and put there and they don’t care about the communities that come to them. So the government said, ‘No, find a way of getting your own place.’ The government of Rwanda does not interfere with faith development at all.”
Although people were shocked at the beginning when the law was instituted, Sentozi believes that in the end, many people today are celebrating the law.
“Because now in church, you find it looks nice and they manage their sounds and have basic facilities like wash, water, a toilet. You could imagine if you go to one of our churches, the highest population are the children and the shortest service here will take two to three hours. You can imagine gathering children for three hours in a place that doesn’t have water with no toilet. What could be the effect? I think there have been good improvement and we appreciate the decision of the government.”