Remembering Rwanda

On April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and other officials was shot down, killing everyone on board. The incident led to one of the most horrific outbreaks of genocide in history. Spurred on by government leaders, members of the Hutu majority began to slaughter their Tutsi neighbors. From early April to mid-July, an estimated 800,000 people were killed.

Samaritan's Purse responded to the humanitarian nightmare by taking care of orphans and providing medical care and clean water at a camp for 125,000 people forced to flee the violence. We are still working in Rwanda through Operation Christmas Child and our office in the United Kingdom.

The genocide in Rwanda is now a part of history. But sadly, man’s inhumanity to man continues. The current conflict in South Sudan is threatening to become genocide. Just as we were in Rwanda, Samaritan's Purse is there, providing physical relief and the hope that can only come from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Begin Reading:
Chapter 1:
The Horrors of Genocide

The Horrors of Genocide

Twenty years ago, Rwanda erupted into a firestorm of mass killing. Ken Isaacs, now the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations at Samaritan’s Purse, was among the first-responders. He reflects on what he witnessed then.

I have been a witness to four genocides, but Rwanda was the worst. It left a foul stain on my heart that will last as long as I live.

Standing on ground saturated with the blood of 800,000 murdered people was fearsome, exhausting, and devastatingly painful. Everyone who survived in Rwanda did some dying in the surviving.

Be warned that if you keep reading it should disturb you. That is my intention.

I have always found it odd that in areas of mass death, especially violent death, the birds and insects cease to make noise. That was the very first thing I noticed as I drove into Rwanda from Uganda in early May of 1994. The earth and air were silent—so overwhelmingly silent that it could not be ignored.

The fighting started on April 6 that year, when an airplane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down as it approached the country’s capital, Kigali. This act unleashed the mass killing of members of the Tutsi tribe by their ethnic rivals, the Hutu. A group of Hutus, called the Interhamwe had been preparing for the slaughter for years.

For approximately 90 days Rwanda was a bloody death ring designed for the sport of killing. Bodies were everywhere. I watched thousands of corpses poke through the mist of Rizumu Falls like quivering masses of rubber dolls moving down the river into Lake Victoria.

There was a large refugee camp just across the border in Tanzania that held about 150,000 people when I first arrived. Within days, it swelled to 500,000. Later, I saw the thousands of hoes, machetes, and hand tools that the Tanzanian military had collected as the refugees crossed the bridge. The camp contained killers trying to flee the conflict—and justice. They were drunk with evil, their eyes bloodshot with death and hatred and fear. I could not find peace in my heart among those people. Bringing our team to work here would have been a mistake.

We went instead to a small village in Rwanda named Rutare where 10,000 internally displaced people had fled. Rutare was behind the territory lines of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the military insurgency fighting against the government’s genocide. The RPF was pushing down into Kigali as the Interhamwe continued their killing day and night.

Within three weeks the population of the Rutare camp exceeded 125,000 as Tutsis fled north. We provided medical care, and by the time we left we had assumed responsibility for 930 unaccompanied minors while providing clean water and healthcare to the entire camp population.

On a Sunday morning in mid-July, I left the camp and drove to Kigali with Paul Chiles, a doctor working with Samaritan’s Purse. Although we had just met, he and I became friends for life. That happens when you walk through fires that no one else can understand. We’re still very close, but we never talk about Rwanda.

A tall, thin, eloquent woman in a RPF uniform gave permission for our team to use a house. Her name was Major Rose, and later she would become the mayor of Kigali. I still have the blue index card she wrote that became the equivalent of a lease for three years. It’s the last thing I see every day when I leave my office. It reads, “Please do not vacate this man, Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse, from this residence. He has permission to stay and use it.”

Fighting continued in the streets of Kigali with routine machine gun fire and mortar rounds. We slept on army cots and ate canned food and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). We kept away from the windows and slept below the sills. Outside, bodies were strewn in the roads and the gutters and the ditches and the fields—piles of bodies, single bodies, and pieces of bodies. There are no words to fully express the ugliness of genocide.

There were bodies in a mass grave in the front yard. It was not deep enough though, and parts would rise up out of the ground after it rained. Two nurses named Bethany Bransford and Helen Liko helped shovel, scrape, mop, and chlorinate every inch of the home to get the vast amounts of blood out.

We focused on restoring the Central Hospital of Kigali, a 600-bed facility that had been looted, sacked, and used for a massacre. Our 30 American and Canadian staff began cleaning the facility of the evidence of the murders. The morgue was full of bodies heaved into a small room.

Staffing the hospital was an incredible challenge as the doctors, nurses, and support staff had either been murdered or had run away. As people started venturing back into Kigali, many would come to us looking for work. In time, we hired trained medical professionals and worked closely to help the new Ministry of Health stand up with quality staff in their ranks.

Every person I met had a story. Genocide survivors always do.

Rwandan people tend to be somewhat private, but if you asked them how they survived, what happened, or did their family make it, they would quickly open up.

One woman had seven children, and she had not seen her husband since the killing started. She knew he was dead. She had been called to a weekly house group meeting in her community. The chief of the group forced her to dig a grave. At the threat of killing all of her family, he forced her to decide which child she would throw in the hole and bury. Every week after that, she was forced to select another child to bury or see all of them murdered at once.

This emotional torture destroyed her will and mind. By the time she had one child left, she had no strength left. When I met her in late 1994 she acted like a zombie. Her face was disfigured from machete wounds.

I do not have words to describe how witnessing genocide has permanently affected who I am and how I see the world. People want to believe that genocide happens in other places or in rare instances. That’s not true. Mass murder, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity—whatever you choose to call it—convince me of the dark side of the heart of man. It can happen anywhere given the right circumstances.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton visited Kigali. He apologized to the Rwandan people for failing them—for acting too slowly, doing too little.

Politicians and academics like to talk about how much we’ve learned from the latest atrocity. There’s nothing left for us to learn about mass murder. We know what it is. We continue to see it unfold in places like Sudan, where the government is waging war against its own citizens.

We’re beginning to see it in South Sudan, where violence that erupted between rival factions in December threatened to become an all-out civil war. Just as we were in Rwanda 20 years ago, Samaritan's Purse is working there now, helping victims displaced by the fighting.

I’ve seen too much to believe in the hyperbolic rhetoric of "Never Again." Putting an end to genocide is not an academic exercise. Evil can only be resisted by the resolute will to stand against it.

Continue Reading:
Chapter 2:
A Genocide Remembered

A Genocide Remembered

A survivor of the Rwandan genocide returns home to show forgiveness to the people who killed his family.
Originally Published: June 7, 2013

Alex Nsengimana paused inside a room of the Children’s Memorial section at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Sunlight streamed through a door that opened onto a terrace overlooking a rose garden planted in remembrance of nearly one million people who were killed in Rwanda’s countrywide wave of ethnic cleansing during the spring of 1994. Photos of murdered children hung from clothespins and rustled softly in the wind, a gentle breeze that those young faces no longer feel.

"I could have been one of them. And if I live my life with bitterness and unforgiveness, I’m not giving them justice. I’m just wasting my life."

“I look into their eyes and read what they wanted to be when they grew up,” Alex said through his tears. “This is why. I could have been one of them. And if I live my life with bitterness and unforgiveness, I’m not giving them justice. I’m just wasting my life.”

Alex has journeyed through a series of providential events in his 24 years, including receiving a shoebox gift through Operation Christmas Child, that brought him to a strong faith in God and gave him the desire to return to Rwanda to plant a church and minister to the people who killed his family 19 years ago. He left his home in 2003 to study in the U.S. and graduated in May from Crossroads College in Rochester, Minn., with a degree in Pastoral Leadership. He plans to move back to Rwanda in the upcoming years.

In March, he embarked on the first step of his journey home when he visited the village where he grew up. He went to distribute shoebox gifts to children and offer forgiveness, in person, to his uncle’s murderer—a man who was his neighbor and friend.

His time spent at the genocide memorial in the children’s exhibit, titled “Tomorrow Lost,” was especially poignant. Shiny plaques underneath photos summed up a handful of facts about each of the children: their favorite toys, food and drink, person, and things they loved to do. The bottom line of each plaque shakes and unsettles the reader. They list “cause of death” with each method more horrible than the last: “Bullet to the head. Grenade thrown in the shower. Clubbed to death. Hacked by a machete.”

“They are my fellow brothers and sisters that never got the chance to go on to fulfill those dreams,” Alex said. “And I feel like I would like to fulfill their dreams, live their dreams, so that they didn’t die in vain.”

Alex wondered why he was spared when hundreds of thousands more were not. He has come to believe that by God’s grace, his story will help to bring healing to his native land.

He was just 5 years old in the spring of 1994. But he will never forget that morning of April 6, when the plane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down. The president’s death sparked a massive wave of killings that continued countrywide for three long months and claimed the lives of Alex’s grandmother and uncle.

As he reflected on his experiences in the 19 years since that day, he returned—as always—to the theme of forgiveness that has come to permeate his very being. He realized years ago that in order to truly be free, he had to forgive the men who killed his family.

"I want to be back in Rwanda so I can share the ministry of forgiveness because that’s the only thing that has continued to heal me,” Alex said. “Christ loves them just as much as He loves me. He doesn’t love me any more, and He doesn’t love them any less."

Forgiveness is not about forgetting the wrong that was done against you, he explained, but about remembering—and in that remembering, finding healing and peace by looking back and seeing what God has done through your experience.

"You will have to go back to those unpleasant memories, but in the end you will have peace that only Christ can provide."

Continue Reading:
Chapter 3:
Christians Needed to be in the Battle

Christians Needed to be in the Battle

In an excerpt from his autobiography, Rebel with a Cause, Franklin Graham talks about how Samaritan's Purse became involved in helping victims of the Rwanda genocide.

I first visited Rwanda in May of 1994. One of Time magazine’s cover stories in April of that year read: “There are no devils left in hell. They are all in Rwanda.”

When I saw Rwanda with my own eyes for the first time, I understood why this quote from a missionary had appeared on the cover of Time. If any place on earth could resemble hell, Rwanda was it.

When the media reported that people were being butchered all over the country, I could not just stand by and do nothing. I figured if Satan was going to loose his demons, then we Christians needed to be right in the middle of the battle. In my opinion, the church needed to respond by caring for the hurting and dying in the name of Jesus.

As thousands of refugees were pouring into neighboring Tanzania, I called our team together. “Folks, we’ve got to do something. We’ve sent teams to Somalia, Sudan, and other parts of Africa in times of crises – why not do the same for Rwanda?”

Whenever we send staff into volatile areas of the world such as this, I am naturally concerned for their safety. I think to myself, Franklin, one of your team members can get killed over there. Are you prepared to handle that kind of loss?

As I thought about all of the implications in Rwanda, I was reminded of the dedication of our team. I knew the answer to my question was yes. Why? Because our people are committed to the work God has given us to do, and we all sense His prodding to help the suffering of this world. But everyone needs to understand that going to the field with Samaritan's Purse involves risk. And we face not just war, but exposure to every possible disease.

The ditches and gutters that litter this world are ugly places, filled with human tragedy. They are arenas clouded by dark spiritual warfare – evil powers that seem to lurk at every turn. We have to slip into spiritual armor as we serve the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Everyone who is a part of our team – including our volunteers – understands this principle. We are just one heartbeat away from death. We all need to be prepared to go to heaven when that time comes. I am proud of the team God has given us at Samaritan's Purse.

Not long before the war in Rwanda erupted, Samaritan's Purse had opened an office in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Knowing that war and famine would be on the increase in Africa, we wanted to build a beachhead, well stocked with supplies and medicines, from where we could move at a moment’s notice. When the war broke out in Rwanda, we were ready.

I knew we could make a difference in the lives of people who had lost their homes and loved ones. They had suffered horribly. They needed to be comforted and bandaged.

Secular organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross and other international relief groups had responded. I respect these humanitarian organizations, and they do outstanding work. But their goal is to deal with the physical needs only. Ours is to offer both physical and spiritual assistance.

I don’t ever want to miss the opportunity to share God’s love, especially with those who have been exposed to such violence. And we Christians need to continue to be on the forefront of this kind of medical ministry. The church of Jesus Christ brought modern medicine to Africa in the last century. We should continue leading the way. As the Lord said, “He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isa. 61:1).

When God allowed us to go into Rwanda during the war, little could we have imagined the opportunities that would result.