I don’t think of the genocide that happened here in Rwanda nineteen years ago every day. But it’s always in the background, surfacing when I least expect it.
A couple weeks ago, during the Jubilee mass in my community, about forty people approached the altar that had been set up in the middle of our soccer field. I assumed it was a baptism, or confirmation of adults, or just honoring some community leaders. Then I turned to my left and saw that my favorite nun, Sr. Adelinde, had tears slowly welling up in her eyes.
I asked her who the people standing in front of the altar were, and she responded simply, “Genocidaires.” Those who had committed the crime of genocide. People who had beaten, murdered, and raped their own neighbors, because of a quasi-ethnic designation refined during the colonial period in Rwanda’s history. Genocidaires. The word sounded jarring, even in Sr. Adelinde’s soft-spoken voice.
|The group of genocidaires, standing before the makeshift altar|
I looked around me, at the other people in the congregation. Some people had pursed lips. Some had faces that were completely blank and absent of any expression. And some had tears. Not tears streaming down their faces, as public crying is very much looked down upon in Rwandan culture. But tears, like Sr. Adelinde’s, building up and threatening to tumble down cheeks. I wondered how people in the audience felt. Fear? Anger? Sorrow? Bitterness? I thought of Sr. Adelinde herself, who saved thirty people during the genocide at risk to her own life. I wondered how she felt, and how I would feel, sitting in her place.
The bishop presiding over the mass gave a blessing to the group, and then everyone, the genocidaires before the altar and the crowd, cheered. Just like that, they were officially forgiven by the church and were welcome to take communion again.That image, of the crowd going crazy and the genocidaires hugging and clapping in the middle of the soccer field, is one that I will never forget.
(Edited: My parish's genocide reconciliation program, Gacaca Nkirisitu, actually made international news, check it out HERE).
Sr. Agnes had never spoken of her experiences in the genocide, or afterward, to me. During the official genocide commemoration month in April, she rarely came out of her tiny bedroom in our convent, and when she did come to get water, her face was puffy. I knew that she lived near Kibuye, where some of the worst atrocities of the genocide occurred, and that she never goes back there. I know that she has no family to visit.
|Peaceful Kibuye today|
I was at a complete and utter loss for words. The only thing that came to my mind was “Komera”, a Kinyarwanda word that means “be strong”, but is often used as a replacement for “sorry” since there’s no word for that in Kinyarwanda. I wondered how much physical pain she must have been in the past twelve years, and the extent she’s hidden both her emotional and physical injuries from others. There’s no physical therapist or psychologist in my district. Sr. Agnes has never, ever complained, and she often does manual labor in our health center’s garden, planting and weeding for hours in the hot sun.
We sat there sipping our tea, and eventually I asked how she felt on Sunday as the genocidaires were welcomed back to the Church, their sins forgiven, nineteen years after the genocide occurred. She paused, and then responded, “It is difficult. But it’s what I’ve been praying for.” She went on to explain that in the beginning, after her family and neighbors were killed in the genocide, she tried to forget. And she tried to forgive, but just didn’t know how. Then a few years later, the bus attack happened, and she was back to square one. Sr. Agnes said that for years, her only prayer, repeated over and over, was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
|My sisters <3|