Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.
Roger Winter arrived in Rwanda shortly after one of the worst genocides in modern history began unfolding in April 1994. His self-imposed task as director for the U.S. Committee for Refugees: document atrocity. Two decades later, his memories are vivid: “What you see in photographs, I see in my mind frequently. You really don’t lose it.”
This April marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide—an abominable campaign of violence that left some 800,000 victims dead in 100 days. The mass killings began when assailants shot down a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, inflaming long-standing tribal conflict. Hutu militias responded with a systematic massacre of the country’s Tutsi minority and some Hutu moderates. The machete-wielding mobs left massive numbers of widows and orphans.
As Winter traveled from village to village, he knew where to find carnage: “It was always the churches that people were massacred in.” Villagers in the predominantly Catholic country fled to churches for protection, but found themselves trapped and killed by mobs. Churches filled with bodies and hacked limbs.
In one village, Winter found razed homes but an empty church: “There was still a little offering box on the table.” But in a school building nearby, the scene was horrific: “I have in my mind to this day what they did to the children.” The scene of hacked corpses had been sitting in the heat for two weeks: “You basically had human soup. … I can’t convey how ugly it was.”
Winter didn’t work for a Christian group, but he said his Christian principles informed the grisly task of bearing witness for silent victims: “The work placed a high value on human life. … This is the kind of thing Jesus would have done.”
Theophile Rugubira has spent the last two decades trying to help Rwandans recover from the massacre. The pastor at Harvest Christian Church in Kigali says it’s been a long process of repentance and forgiveness for many church leaders who did nothing to stop or decry the violence during the genocide: “The church was silent.”
Since then, Rugubira says many church leaders have repented, and many survivors have forgiven. His own congregation includes genocide survivors and relatives of killers. It’s been a painful, but remarkable dynamic: “We recognize it’s a supernatural power. Only the Holy Spirit has that power. God can do this.”
As the genocide’s anniversary approached, Rugubira said he hoped Christians in the United States would remember the need to speak against violence and suffering in other countries around the world: “We are asking churches to remember that they are their brothers’ keepers. Don’t stay silent.”
April 6: Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira die in a plane crash. Early reports suggest extremists shot down the plane, sparking violence and marking the start of the three-month genocide.
April 7: Government forces and Hutu militia set up roadblocks and go house by house massacring Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and the 10 Belgian peacekeepers assigned to guard her. Estimated death toll on Day 1: 8,000.
April 8: The Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) strikes offensively in an attempt to halt the genocide and rescue 600 of its troops in Kigali.
April 9-10: French, Belgian, and American forces airlift their citizens out of the region. Estimated death toll by Day 4: 32,000.
April 21: The UN Security Council votes to withdraw most peacekeeping forces, leaving only 270 of 2,500 troops. Estimated death toll by Day 14: 112,000.
April 30: The UN condemns the massacre but stops short of labeling it “genocide,” a step that would have enabled the UN to act.
End of April: An estimated 250,000 Rwandans flee to Tanzania. Estimated death toll by Day 25: 200,000.
May 17: The UN votes to send 5,500 troops to Rwanda, stating that “acts of genocide may have been committed.” Arguments over who will pay for the mission delay the deployment. Estimated death toll by Day 41: 328,000.
June 22: The UN authorizes French forces to launch “Operation Turquoise,” which will attempt to establish a safe zone to provide protection for genocide victims. Estimated death toll by Day 77: 616,000.
July 4: The RPF gains control of Kigali.
July 5: French forces establish a “safe zone,” with an estimated 1 million displaced persons flowing into the zone in a matter of days.
July 13-14: An estimated 10,000 refugees per hour stream into Zaire’s border town of Goma, sparking a humanitarian crisis. Estimated death toll by Day 100: 800,000.
July 18: The RPF declares the war is over.
Nov. 8: The UN passes a resolution creating the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.