The Catholic Church Bears Guilt for the Horrors of the Rwandan Genocide

By: Alissa Orlando

March 5, 2012

Churches were the sites of mass killings during the Rwandan genocide. In previous bouts of ethnic violence, no one had gone so far as to kill in a church. But 1994 was different.

Our first church visit was to Ntarama, where 5,000 Tutsi were slaughtered. The pews were stacked with clothes. Every pew. In the back were rows and rows of human skulls stacked on whitewashed shelves. As our guide, a Tutsi survivor himself, led us towards the altar, he showed us the weapons typically used by the interahamwe, the Hutu militias who perpetrated the genocide. The machetes and clubs with nails lodged in them still had the blood of victims caked on their rusty blades. Victims’ belongings—watches, notebooks, identity cards—were stacked on the shelves as well.

In front of the alter was a fresh casket, no more than a week old, draped in a clean, white lace covering with a large purple cross in the center. Our guide informed us that even today, 17 years later, people continue to find remains of victims who spent their last days hiding in bushes and swamps.

We then went into a classroom just outside the main chapel. To make sure there were no survivors, the interahamwe lit mattresses on fire and laid them on the victims so that they were burned alive. There were still pieces of cloth stuck to mattress remains.

The last building was by far the hardest. The Tutsi men were fighting in the hills trying to fend off the Hutu militias during the genocide, so they were largely not present. This made women and children the primary targets of the génocidaires who were aiming to eliminate the next generation of Tutsis. Our guide informed us that babies were slammed against the wall until dead. One of the brick walls still had blood and even some hair.

My stomach lurched as I considered the inhumanity that was necessary to feel nothing as you felt the impact of a baby’s skull to a brick wall, as you felt the child’s blood dribble down your forearm, as you heard the chilling silence of an aborted cry. He then showed us a stick that had been used to torture women by shoving it inside them until they died. Its pointy tip was still caked with blood. Even looking at the stick sent a surge of sharp pain through my body.

We then visited Nyamata, a nearby church where 10,000 people had sought refuge before being systematically murdered. The gates had a gaping hole where four bars should have been. The interhamwe had blasted their way in using grenades supplied by the French. The debris had pierced holes in the ceiling and left a crater in the ground.

We walked in and, again, stacks and stacks of clothes littered the pews and floor. Above it all was a statue of Mother Mary with outstretched arms, similar to the statue in my host family’s church.

We were then led downstairs into an entirely white chamber. Hundreds of human skulls and leg bones were in cases. The name “Pauline” was engraved across the forehead of a skull that sat on a shelf above the others. You could tell how people were killed by looking at the skulls, many of which were violated by machete marks, club bludgeons, and bullet holes.

Beneath the bones was a woman’s coffin. She had been raped by 20 men then killed by the aforementioned sharp, 6-foot stick being shoved inside her. I found myself involuntarily begging the guide to stop his horrific story as I saw my world go black.

I have never felt that degree of empathy before, the type where I could feel physical pain shooting through my own body. But he did not stop his story. I pushed past the others and ran up the stairs. I felt like my brain was being suffocated by a plastic bag. I was crying hysterically and could not think, see, or breathe.

The woman who was tending to the garden did something that I will never forget. She wiped away my tears. I later discovered that she was a survivor of the attack. I felt so guilty and embarrassed to be crying when she had endured the torture.

In a few minutes, I collected myself and rejoined the group. We again descended into a mass grave. But now, there was no glass or distance between us and the skulls. Rows and rows of caskets, skulls, and leg bones lined either side of us along the dank tunnel.

Even though I had read of the smell of death, I did not really know what that meant until then. It was a dark, musky smell that filled my lungs. I could taste it. I recoiled as my elbow brushed a bone or lace on a coffin. It was something that I cannot unsee, cannot unsmell, and cannot unfeel.

The 1994 genocide was by no means a religious conflict. Rwanda is a homogeneous culture; all Rwandans share the common language of Kinyarwanda, and 90 percent of Rwandans are Christian. To quote Catherine Newbury, the genocide was a political phenomenon with class conflict overtones that used ethnicity as the language through which fears and ambitions were expressed.

So my question remains: how can the churches of today’s Rwanda be full every Saturday and Sunday with a community of believers? How can the culture of forgiveness and reverence retain its stronghold over the people of a nation that was governed by the devil for 100 days?

The Church institutionalized and politicized ethnicity in the colonial era, and churches themselves became a site of mass slaughter in 1994. Mary’s outstretched arms could not save a baby from being slammed to death against a brick wall. The Holy Spirit did not inspire a single one of those 20 men to show mercy on the woman whom they violently raped. And God turned his back as 800,000 corpses littered the floor of his home.

This post was meant to demonstrate the burden of guilt that the Catholic Church must bear in Rwanda. In future entries, I hope to explore the ways in which religion, responsible for so much pain in Rwanda, has helped the country and its people regain faith in themselves, their fellow Rwandans, their government, and their God.

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