Imagine traveling back in time to the late 1950s and ascending into the heavens, then looking down upon the tiny heart of Africa known as Rwanda. If we could do that, you would see a host of tiny lights flickering faintly across the countryside.
For the record, those are not campfires. They are the embers of a cultural, tribal wildfire that will eventually sweep across the nation. As the conflagration spreads, many families will separate, scattering in every direction and hoping somehow to survive and meet again one day.
This inferno of evil will be fueled for decades by the combustible ingredients of colonialism and identity politics. Thus, it will only be a matter of time until the nation finds itself in a firestorm of hatred.
If we look closely enough, we might even see the wordless sorrow of a father standing on a mountain in Uganda looking south at the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” This is the place where his children once played freely, a tiny country of 10,169 square miles – and it is now flowing with rivers of blood.
In 1994, this simmering genocide became a horrific 100-day killing spree. Over a million Tutsis and those who sympathized with them will have been murdered by their Hutu neighbors. The hatred of a few through intimidation and fear will grow murderous mobs.
The fire had spread.
Dehumanization is always an initial component of genocide. It is also the lethal ingredient that flourishes in the hearts of those who choose terror to orchestrate four planes to become human missiles on September 11, 2001.
What lessons may we learn from Rwanda as they commemorate the twenty-seventh year of the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis, and we commemorate our own painful date in history?
For the survivors who lost loved ones to these despicable acts, perhaps the most challenging yet practical questions begin with the word how. How is it possible to go on with life in the aftermath of such evil? How can such trauma and grief be healed or at least helped?
While every death is devastating, for the surviving loved ones of those who die due to the violent acts of others, the trauma is overwhelming. In addition to all the usual sadness and grief, survivors often feel a messy mixture of rage, hatred, the desire for vengeance and despair.
Most batter themselves endlessly with a barrage of “what ifs.” What if he or she had taken the earlier or later train? What if I had not asked them to come home a day early? What if I had told them I loved them one more time as they raced out the door? What if… what if… what if. Such haunting questions can consume those who are grieving the loss of a loved one by violence. The taking of a single life often claims multiple lives.
That is not all. When the unspeakable happens to a friend or neighbor, most people try to step gingerly around the grief. At the most obvious level, this is because we do not know what to say. What is there to say? We surely do not want to add pain to anyone’s suffering. But perhaps there is also a subconscious fear that, if we get too close, such monstrous things may invade our own lives. The questions keep coming. Is it possible for hearts shattered by violent death to find healing? Is there any way for a bit of beauty to come out of tragedy? Can love conquer hate? Can peace replace the fretful rage of a vengeful heart? Is it possible that, even though a violent death cannot be erased or undone, it might somehow be redeemed?
If we want to give senseless violence the power to continue claiming victims – murdering the hope, the joy, the futures of all the living – we must grapple with these questions.
The beginning of my understanding of how good can come from a bad, tragic, or unexpected death came from a genocide survivor in Rwanda. His name was Blessed.
When I first met Blessed, I immediately noticed the scar above his left eyebrow, and I instantly recognized its shape. It was like a crescent moon set in the darkness of the night. It was the shape of a machete that had been stretched by years of growth from child to adult man. I never ask questions when I see the scars of violence. I do not want to draw attention to memories shrouded in fear. I simply said, “I love your name.” In a place where so much pain, horror and inhumanity took place, names like Blessed, Promise, Peace, and Grace were prevalent. A horrific history of genocide that was not forgotten but was replaced with names of life, hope and healing.
Blessed was like so many others – he had a story to share. We were walking as we talked, the country’s stunning beauty stretched out before us. He began with the words, “I love my country, and I love my president. I am blessed to live here, and mostly I am blessed that I am alive.”
“I love your nation, too,” I said. “And I’m also blessed to have so many friends here. I love the feeling I get when I step off the plane. For me, it is like coming to my home away from home. This is a place of blessing, and you are Blessed.”
He smiled and said, “My auntie gave me that name when I survived the attack. At first, they thought I was dead. My parents did not survive the genocide. Only my sister and I did.” Changing the subject, he said joyfully, “I am an uncle now! My mother and father would be so happy to know this. My auntie laughs all the time that little Queen is just like my mother was as a young girl. Even though she is only four, she is always trying to be the mother to others.”
We paused as a passing motorcycle kicked up some dust. “How is your auntie?” I inquired. “Is she in good health?”
“She is very good. She works all day digging. One day I will be able to help her not work so hard. That is my dream. Of course, I have many dreams now that I live in a country where dreams are possible. This was not true a few years ago.”
“What do you believe has helped your country?” I asked.
“Oh, definitely my president, our stable government and being able to get an education. All these things – but mostly love. We have learned how to love again.”
“How?” I asked softly. “How did you learn to love again?”
He stopped and looked at me, “You must begin with forgiveness.”
“How do you learn to forgive those who have hurt you so much?” I asked, thinking of all he had lost.
“I cannot speak for others, but for me, there was no alternative. I could not live my life until I forgave those who caused death.”
I am sure Blessed’s parents would be so proud of him. Through the miracle and mystery of forgiveness, he has found the ability to love rather than hate. Out of unspeakable evil, unexpected good has arisen: a generation of children with names like Grace and Peace and Blessed who are agents of love that want to overcome evil with forgiveness.
During the last twelve years serving with Africa New Life Ministries, I can testify to the power of forgiveness. I travel to and from the country on a regular basis to do medical work and now serve as Chair of the Board for this remarkable ministry. Rwandans are loving, strong, beautiful, and – yes – even unified. I consider many of them family. I have been taught so much from their universities of experience. Many speak often of the astonishing good that has resulted from their terrible history.
They have experienced the stunning truth of forgiveness and have demonstrated that showing mercy to enemies is more powerful than trying to subjugate them or return evil with evil. The people of Rwanda have come to value each other as all humans should value one another, with “agaciro,” or dignity.
Now, if we were somehow able to ascend into space and look down upon this heart of Africa, we would not see dangerous fires of animosity. Instead, we would see a nation fitting the description given centuries ago by the Jewish prophet Isaiah. We would see a people wearing “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” It is wondrous, mysterious, and miraculous to see flourishing in a place that so recently suffered the atrocities of genocide. Remembrance. Forgiveness. Resilience. Strength. Agaciro. Beauty for Ashes.
Yes, we have much to learn from Rwanda as we commemorate the twentieth year since September 11th, 2001, and the lives lost on that date and since. Forgiveness forges the path to healing and when we are healed, our hearts will be at peace.
“Let us forgive each other—only then will we live in peace.”
 The Holy Bible, Isaiah 61:3.