In April of 1994, after decades of tension between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups, the assassination of Rwanda’s Hutu president sparked the massacre of an estimated 800,000 people in a Hutu attempt to wipe out the minority Tutsi population. The genocide began in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali and quickly spread within the country, forcing millions to flee as refugees to neighboring countries.
The genocide ended 100 days later in July when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) took over Kigali. They remain the political party in power today.
Three World Vision staff members who spent time in Rwanda during and just after the genocide give their testimonies—stories of unbelief at the inhumanity, but also of how the 20-year transition to peace and forgiveness is “beyond human comprehension.”
John Schenk, videographer
My first visit to Rwanda was in late 1993. I was gathering stories to help raise awareness of the Burundi refugees fleeing north into Rwanda. This exodus was a precursor to what would erupt in Rwanda in April, 1994. Frankly, we had little time and saw nothing that would prepare us for the extent of what was to come: the slaughter of 800,000 people in just 100 days.
There are many lessons for humanity in this genocide, but the cost of delay must stand among those at the top of any list. It was not until 21 days after the killing began that the United Nations convened an emergency session on Saturday, April 30, to address the mass murder in Rwanda. This happened the morning after news channels around the world were saturated with video images of the bodies of hundreds of Tutsis who had been massacred at a church.
The video provided to the media was the footage I shot with World Vision.
Rwanda for me was a place of unbelief. Unbelief as we drove for hours through villages without sign of human existence, just doors ajar and furniture and clothing in the yards. No people. At least not until we got to a missionary hospital where we saw the first victims, mostly children moaning in pain, hands and forearms livid with defense wounds and heads gashed to the bone. Besides the brave staff, it was mostly children caring for children, none of them looking more than 10.
It was unbelief when we arrived at the church less than a mile away where, rounding a turn in the road, the smell warned us of what we were about to see—the unbelievable: hundreds of men, women, and children lying in grotesque positions on the ground, between the pews, and jammed into small rooms.
Rwanda has navigated a treacherous path from the worst of what human beings can inflict on one another to forgiveness, reconciliation, and repair. The Rwandan government has sought to heal rather than exact revenge. It has elevated the status of its women because the genocide left so many widows.
Doing good and right things really means ceaseless struggle. Jesus never concealed that from us. It means a struggle for nations, and for the rest of us. 24/7 media coverage has made us all witnesses.
My unbelief persists as millions die, as millions are savaged and enslaved, as now millions of refugees flee and are turned away.
Rwanda persists in the Congo, Nigeria, Syria, etc. Red lines are being drawn every day. They are the size and shape of tank tracks and bomb craters running red with blood.
We can truly find hope in what Rwanda has accomplished. And it can be done in other places as it appears may be happening now in Myanmar. My thought and recommendation is each person pick a place, a pin on a map, and dedicate their prayers and tangible efforts to that one place of pain.
Jon Warren, photographer
When the first reports trickled out about Rwandans flooding into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1994, I was a freelance photojournalist. An aid agency sent me to document the growing crisis. I was completely unprepared for what I found.
The scene that I faced on arrival at the border area was straight out of hell. A million refugees spread out on a volcanic plain, many without shelter. People were fetching water from a lake that had dead bodies floating in it and cholera raged through the camps. Bodies rolled up in woven rugs or shawls lined the road for disposal. My first day I focused my lens on someone trying to cook in the middle of a jumble of people sitting on the ground. When I tried to step a little closer, I realized that the person at my feet was dead.
I came upon a group of new refugees who had just crossed the border. Some had deep machete cuts. A girl told me through an interpreter that as she hid in the bushes, she had watched her whole family slaughtered.
I had covered natural disasters before and the consequences of wars. This time people who called themselves Christians were killing each other, killing people they knew, with their own hands. I felt like God had abandoned us and given up on the world.
Reluctantly, I continued going back to the camps year after year until they were closed. My first World Vision assignment inside Rwanda was in 1996. On that trip I witnessed more horror and injustice, but I also found a glimmer of hope: World Vision’s major emphasis, besides addressing immediate needs, was peace and reconciliation. Slowly, one drop at a time, a flood of forgiveness and repentance swept over Rwanda.
God hadn’t given up on Rwanda, and neither had faithful, dedicated World Vision staff and volunteers. Today, people on both sides of the conflict work together, go to church together, and have children who are best friends.
It is a miracle beyond human comprehension.
So when I visit the Syrian refugees now, as I did most recently last month, and hear their stories of suffering, I remember Rwanda and have hope that God will again work a miracle. Through us.
Randy Strash, former World Vision staff
When I arrived in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, in July of 1994, it was only about a week or so after the RPF had taken over the city. The place was a ghost town—in more ways than one. The streets were deserted except for the burned-out cars parked here and there at odd angles, and nothing was working. No hotels or stores or gas stations were open for business; there was no electricity, no working phones, no running water.
My most poignant memory from that time is of a young man wandering across the school grounds where I had pitched my tent. He was holding a little cassette player, listening to Christmas carols. In July. “Peace on earth, good will to men.” He was clinging to hope like a drowning man clings to a twig. I just had to cry. “Lord, can reconciliation ever happen here?” I asked.
Within a couple of weeks, Kigali began returning to life. Except for the pock-marked buildings and bullet-riddled street signs, it soon looked like any other African city. On the surface, anyway. The faraway stares told a very different story. I learned not to interrupt.
I never went back. My job had me traveling to West Africa, mostly, which was just as well, since I had no desire to reawaken the memories of despair and palpable fear from those days in Kigali. But I would buttonhole anyone returning from an assignment in Rwanda to find out how things were going there. Two reports in particular gave me courage and hope.
One report was that President Kagame had abolished the practice of including tribal affiliation on driver licenses and identity cards, and was requiring every school in the country to emphasize their unity as a people going back to pre-colonial times. He had also instituted a leadership academy for men and women from both tribes who were committed to bringing the benefits of development to every corner of the country.
The second report had to do with the superb work of various nongovernmental organizations, World Vision included, in promoting reconciliation and recovery at the community and household levels—especially in the thousands of households headed by children orphaned in the genocide.
Today, Rwanda is a different place than it was 22 years ago when John, Jon, and Randy were there during this crisis. Where there was conflict, today there is peace. Where there was despair, today there is hope. Where there was fear, today there is forgiveness and reconciliation. And where there was poverty, now in part through World Vision community development and child sponsorship work, there is a brighter future for children and families.
There is darkness in the world, but there is light, too. Given time and God’s healing love, that light can shine through. Together, we can be greater than the conflict and poverty that darken our world, and stories of transformation that are beyond our comprehension demonstrate that a better future is possible.