Everything I knew about the Rwandan genocide I learned from the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
That is, until, following graduate school, my favorite professor let me audit one more class. What I learned was horrifying and, for a Christian who knew practically nothing about the events, humiliating.
The country was 90% Christian, which meant 90% of both the victims and the killers were Christian. And it seemed those who surely knew what was likely to happen were unprepared or unwilling to do anything about it.
I had to find out how this could have happened. Here is what I found.
Twenty-eight years ago this month, in the skies above the small African country of Rwanda, a plane was shot down, killing President Habiyarimana and all on board.
Plans were already in place, and the massacre began immediately. By July, close to one million Rwandans, mostly Tutsi Christians, had been killed by their fellow Rwandans, mostly Hutu Christians.
One-third of the murders took place on church property, often with the complicity of clergy from nearly every denomination represented.
Christianity had come to Rwanda in the late 19th century with Catholic priests known as White Fathers who followed the colonial powers. Rwanda’s leader was converted, and by 1920 the majority of the population was Christian. Eventually, missionaries of most Protestant denominations arrived.
There were periods of revival, but Christianity did not calm the rivalry that had existed for at least a century between the two major ethnic groups. Most Rwandans, 85%, are of Hutu heritage, as was President Habiyarimana, while 14% are Tutsi, and a small number are Twa.
Though Hutu and Tutsi intermarried, lived in the same villages and attended the same churches, there was intermittent conflict, often depending on whose representatives held power.
In 1932, the Belgian colonialists, who had taken over from the Germans following World War I, had affirmed the differences between the groups by requiring ID cards. Most clergy became closely aligned with the colonial powers and, after the revolution in 1959, linked themselves to the new government.
Churches became major economic forces, controlling jobs and education as well as status. Christianity, for most Rwandans, was equated with allegiance to the clergy and, through them, to whoever was in power.
Though the New Testament had been translated into the national language, Kinyarwanda, literacy was only 60%. Rwandans looked to clergy for guidance in matters of daily living. but it seems most missionaries arrived unprepared to address the Hutu-Tutsi issue. Whether this was because their sending boards were unaware of, or unconcerned with, ongoing violence is not clear.
There were exceptions. A few churches, including Pentecostals and Catholics, began to integrate social justice in their teaching. Pentecostals, following their practice, remained outside the political realm.
Between 1990 and 1991, thousands of Tutsi had been killed in various massacres. And by 1993, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a militia of mainly Tutsi refugees, had formed over the northern border with Burundi and was making its way towards the capital.
Few missionaries were fluent in Kinyarwanda, the language of radio broadcasts that, even before the plane crashed, had begun sending instructions to Hutu citizens to kill the Tutsi “traitors.”
Though it is difficult to know how closely mission boards followed these events, they would surely have had some knowledge of events that, by mid-April in 1994, required the evacuation of all foreign residents, including missionaries, via United Nations-led convoy.
One missionary, a humanitarian worker, refused to leave Kigali and, with the assistance of residents and UN force contacts, was able to secure supplies that saved several hundred orphans. For others, the decision to leave was painful as they wondered what would happen to the workers they left behind.
Some killing was by means of explosives or firearms, but most of the slaughter was the physical act by squads of Hutu citizens, the génocidaires, of hacking bodies into pieces with machetes. Mounds of body parts were not buried, but left to decay, the skulls becoming markers of the killing sites.
At the behest of militia groups, or on their own initiative, some clergy summoned members to the church with the promise of sanctuary and then left the premises to avoid the appearance of complicity.
Others, sometimes Catholics and Protestants together, have reported that they stood up to the killers, stayed together, and the Lord protected them.
No American journalists remained in Rwanda, but some major U.S. newspapers covered the events from neighboring countries or with local “stringers.”
On April 16, for example, an article in The New York Times reported the involvement of churches: “New reports of massacres emerged today from Rwanda, including an account of nearly 1,200 men, women and children shot and hacked to death in a church where they sought refuge.”
Like many Americans, I thought I was keeping up with world events, and a check of the archives shows that my local paper was reporting on Rwanda, but I was busy raising an active five-year-old, and I wasn’t paying attention.
Neither were most of my fellow Americans. Just a few months earlier, U.S. military members had been killed in Somalia in the incident that became known as “Black Hawk Down.” Media coverage reflected that we had little appetite for what we viewed as just another African tribal war.
Nor did our world leaders. On April 27, Pope John Paul II was the first to call the events in Rwanda a “genocide,” but he did not take further steps. Nor did President Clinton, as U.S. participation in a U.N. agreement intended to prevent another Holocaust would have required intervention in events determined to be “genocide.”
This word has been raised recently by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to describe events in his country, possibly in hopes that the U.S. and other nations will agree to send in NATO forces. As of this writing that seems unlikely for various reasons, including that it might raise the question as to why military force was authorized in response to genocide in a European, but not an African, nation.
Meanwhile, as anyone who saw the movie knows, UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) Commander General Roméo Dallaire waited for reinforcements and orders that never came.
The massacre continued until, on July 4, the RPF reached Kigali and took control of the government. Its commander, Paul Kagame, was appointed vice president and, in 2000, was elected president.
Large numbers of perpetrators were tried for their crimes, and some were punished. A few clergy were also tried, though others fled to countries in Africa and Europe or to the U.S. Some religious groups issued apologies for their role – most not until years later.
Missionaries from various groups have returned. At least one sending organization has begun requiring what it describes as “cross-cultural” training. ID cards have been banned. Training for clergy is now mandated by Rwandan law.
Nearly three decades later, whether you are Christian or not, there are two questions that call for answers.
First, “How can you say the majority of murderers were ‘Christian’?” That answer is simple: the 1991 Rwandan census recorded it, and there is no reason to doubt its accuracy.
Second, to those of us who paid no attention and did nothing: “If you say, ‘Look, we did not know this,’ ‘does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?’”
And the answer: “Will he not repay all according to their deeds?” (Proverbs 24:12, NRSV).
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify a sentence related to Commander General Roméo Dallaire’s actions. This article is part of a series this week calling attention to April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. The previous articles in the series are:
Why There Is No Room for Neutrality | Michael Knopf
U.S. Genocide Determination, Rohingya Muslims and the Ongoing Crisis | Scott Stearman
Russia, Ukraine and the Holodomor | Monty Self
A recent graduate of the Yale Divinity School looking forward to a career in religious journalism, she was a Good Faith Media Ernest C. Hynds Jr. Intern for the spring 2022 semester.