Emmanuel Gatera loves Rwanda’s capital, Kigali—Rwandans pronounce the “K” with a “ch” sound. He says the progress Kigali has made since 1994 “shows just how fast the Lord can raise a nation that had hit rock bottom.”
Vicious extremism and indoctrination led genocidairesto kill at least 800,000 fellow Rwandans in the 100-day genocide that started April 7, 1994. According to Christian aid organization World Help, which has served in Rwanda for 10 years, about 300,000 children were murdered, and up to half a million women were raped.
Gatera did not experience Rwanda’s genocide himself. He was in neighboring Burundi at the time. But he has seen the genocide’s aftershocks among surviving neighbors, friends, and church members. Moreover, he and his daughter Grace lost more than 100 relatives in the horror.
Twenty years later, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the rebel army that overthrew the genocide-era government, cites three major strides the country has made: Rwanda chose to stay together; it chose self-accountability; and it chose to think about the future. Kagame has harsh detractors, but, on the surface at least, “Rwanda is almost unrecognizable,” Gatera said. As examples, he and his daughter noted progress in education, health care, foreign investments, and tourism.
Gatera enjoys introducing visitors to a local church service. The fashion and color in Rwandan church on Sunday mornings rival an opera house. Dances, songs, shouts, and cheers are all part of worship. Parishioners humble and honor their guests by seating them up front with the preacher.
“Rwandans take seriously their faith and the guests who come in the name of spirituality are adopted in the community and become one with them,” Gatera said. “If some church leaders had [not] misled our people during the 1994 genocide, I believe many of them would have protected the Tutsi. But many Hutu leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, told their people that even God has condemned Tutsi to die.”
During the genocide, some Rwandans hid in churches. Priests and supposed friends lured others. A week into the genocide, seven pastors asked their senior pastor to rescue them—along with 8,000 Rwandans trapped in a church with them. “We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families,” they wrote him. “Your intervention will be highly appreciated, the same way as the Jews were saved by Esther.” No help came.
Forgiveness has become central to recovery in Rwanda. The traditional Gacaca court has released hundreds of perpetrators of genocide by requiring public confessions, public forgiveness, and some relatively light sentencing. When I visited in 2005, Gatera introduced me to two young men who were rebuilding a house out of mud and wood on a gently sloping hillside outside of Kigali. One owned the home; the other helped to finish it. One was a genocide victim; the other was part of it. They posed for a photo together, each with an arm around the other.
Gatera said today there is an entire village where victims and genocidaires live together, helping one another after confession and forgiveness.
Many, including Gatera, cite the Rwandan church’s key role in producing reconciliation in this small central African nation. Churches provide care for orphans and widows of the genocide, and they lead commemoration prayers across the country each April. These are part of a yearly series of events called “kwibuka,” meaning “remember.”