The darkness and the light
Having turned off the tarmac road from Kigali some miles back, we were now bumping along a rough track, dodging pot holes where possible, finding them with a violent jolt where we didn’t. Many of the ‘roads’ in Rwanda are like this, tracks of red grit which must be all but impassable after heavy rain. There were 12 of us in the van, including our driver. A sense of silent dread hangs over us as we prepare to visit our second genocide memorial of the day. These memorials are scattered throughout communities like war memorials in Scotland. Each community with a tale of horror to tell, and an understandable compulsion to ensure no one forgets. Unlike our own memorials, these sites are not in memory of those who fell in distant, foreign lands. These are located on the very spot of the most appalling barbarity, where neighbour rose up against neighbour in a long-planned slaughter, when, between April and June 1994, over one million people were killed.
We arrived in the village of Nyamata, and our van took a right turn towards a church compound where I noticed a primary school next to a very new, and very large, Roman Catholic Church. The new place of worship was built as a replacement for the old church, now become a genocide memorial, and next to which we have now parked.
Twenty years ago, vast numbers sought refuge in and around this church as they were pursued by their assailants amidst the worst of the genocide. It was thought that a church would be respected as a place of sanctuary. They were wrong; tragically wrong. 11,000 were killed in and around the church and a further 48,000 in the surrounding area.
We gather at the entrance to this old church, preserved as a snapshot in time, no longer a place of worship, but a place to be confronted with what human beings can do to one another when wickedness stirs uncontrolled hatred. An attractive young woman is seated behind a desk, wearing the deep blue of a security guard, a gun resting on her lap. Such personnel are found at all such sites. We present her with a Bible in her own language, a gift she is delighted to receive. It is explained that we are not permitted to take her photograph.
The guide then arrives and draws our attention to the iron bar doors, original to the church. They are like the great iron doors which close Central station in Glasgow, except smaller and less ornate. The bottom of the right hand door has been blasted away, the result of the grenade hurled to force it open and allow the killers access to those who were desperately huddled in fear within. Inside the church the shrapnel damage to the roof is apparent, the evidence of grenades tossed mercilessly among the vast crowd within these very walls. Small shafts of light penetrate the gloom through these small fragmentary holes.
The benches on which people sat as they worshipped, week by week, for many years are now covered in the clothing of the murdered, in mute reminder of ordinary lives cut short in a time of terror and unspeakable violence. We are told in graphic detail how many were killed. Suffice to say the fortunate enjoyed a quick death, others, especially women, were tortured to death in an evil orgy of hatred.
It is a relief to exit the building into the sunlight, and away from the horrific images painted by my imagination. We walk round the side of the building where is found the grave of an Italian Nun, Tonia Locatelli, who served here for over 20 years, seeking through that time to alert the world to the relentless killing and mistreatment of Tutsis in the periodic violence that prepared for, and led up to, the 1994 genocide. For her courage in seeking to shelter and speak up for the persecuted, the authorities had her shot in 1992. Her courage deserves to be remembered, an example of standing for what is right, when all around you is going wrong.
We then come to the mass graves, the last resting place of 48,000 human beings. We walk down steps into an underground vault, corridors of shelves carrying countless bones. They are still discovering remains in the area, and these are brought to this site, where they can join those of others, as a stark reminder of what took place. Row upon row, pile upon pile, of bones; all that remains of thousands of precious lives, families, a whole community.
Our visit all but complete, we return to the front of the church and are told that the security guard is keen to speak to us. She wants us to know how she has longed for a Bible in her own language, and how wonderful it is that we should arrive unexpectedly to give her one. She may well have recently become a Christian, it is unclear in the exchange. But she is desperate for us to appreciate not only her delight, but how clearly she sees the appropriateness of being given a Bible in such a place as this, for the Bible tells the story of the One, Jesus Christ, who is the Light who alone overcomes the darkness, evidence for which darkness is all around us in this memorial. Her insight is profound. In a place which must look to some as one of bleak hopelessness, she is animated in her insistence that this is the Book which brings hope, for it brings us to Christ.
During our time in Rwanda we were following some of the projects supported by the Bible Society of Rwanda. There is trauma counselling and Bible studies which promote forgiveness and reconciliation, and therefore the rebuilding of communities fractured by the divisions of the genocide – how do you get victims to live alongside the families of perpetrators, except through the forgiving love of Christ?
There was Good Samaritan work, where, through Bible teaching, people learn to support one another in communities, meeting each other’s needs.
Rwanda is a country which, even after 20 years, is carrying the scars of the genocide. Anyone in their mid-twenties or older has nightmarish memories, and likely to have family members they lost. Marcellin lost his wife and one of his children and 98 of his wider family, and spent weeks being pursued because his name was on a death list. He was with us at the memorial and wept, his grief as raw today as it was 20 years ago. Here is an example of the transforming power of the Gospel: he works as a volunteer, promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. Think on this – he goes into the prisons to work with those imprisoned for genocide crimes. He shares the Good News of Christ, and the forgiveness that is available in Christ, with those who were numbered alongside those who killed his beloved wife and child and who all but wiped his family from the earth.
Marcellin says there is no hope for Rwanda unless we learn to forgive.
The same Christ, who is the hope for Rwanda, is equally the only hope for Scotland; for Dalry, for you and for me. Let’s resolve to share that Good News with all the energy we can muster.