In 1994, one million Rwandans were killed in the span of three months. Killed not by a bomb or weapon of mass destruction, but by a million weapons of small destruction, garden tools mostly. Killed not so much by an army, like the genocide of WW2, but neighbor turning against neighbor.
This is a hard fact to ignore, even fourteen years after the Rwandan genocide, as you walk the streets of Kigali. You find yourself mentally subtracting fourteen years from the age of each person you meet, thinking of the atrocities they witnessed as a child, or worse, the atrocities they may have committed. For a country with a population of only eight million, the death of one million at the hands of their neighbors means nobody was unaffected. Everybody who survived lost somebody, if not their whole family. Many personally witnessed rape or murder at close range. Most had their lives threatened. And fourteen years later you can still feel the tension and pain people are carrying.
One Rwandese youth I visited with after church told me “Nobody trusts each other. They may smile when they meet you, but as soon as you go they stop smiling and consider you their enemy.” He had fled Rwanda as a four year old, grew up in Kenya, and recently returned to Rwanda. He told me how he wished he could go back to Kenya, where people were friendly and he had friends. “I have no friends here. You can’t have friends without trust.”
Ethnic and tribal tensions
But even Kenya is not exempt from ethnic hatred. Back in January this year, when some Kenyans were erecting roadblocks and checking IDs, turning against each other with machetes, and burning down churches full of people, the comparison to Rwanda was often invoked. It was shocking at the time, but not completely unforeseen. Throughout the continent, tribal tension is present but often invisible, under the surface, and pushed down. But when the opportunity presents itself and the flame of anger is lit, terrible things like this can happen.
So as I walked the streets of Kigali, I found myself asking, “where does that kind of hatred come from? How can these people possess that level of animosity that would make them turn against and kill their neighbor they’ve known all their life?”
As I considered this, I realized we all carry this capacity within us. Scary to think, but true… there’s not much that separates me from them.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.” Matt 5:21-22
My sin has earned the same penalty as the man who cut down his neighbor in the middle of the night. We both earned eternal separation from God. Mercifully, my debt has been paid and I won’t have to pay that eternal price, although my sins still earn me my share of consequences. The people of Rwanda will be dealing with their consequences for a long, long time.
The church in Rwanda
We were in Rwanda to produce a video about a bible college, the Rwandan Institute of Evangelical Theology. This college was created by the evangelical churches of Rwanda after the genocide, to train pastors who can help heal the nation and mature its believers. It’s the only evangelical bible college in the country who accepts students from any denomination, and the students there come from all backgrounds and experiences.
We interviewed one student at the college who was pastoring a church in 1994 and had to fend off wave after wave of militia coming to kill the hundreds of people seeking shelter there.
We also interviewed other students who were pastors in 1994 but knew little of the Bible, or what a life transformed by Christ looked like. It wasn’t a surprise to them that the people doing these terrible things were people in their churches, because much of Rwandan society was superficially religious. Now these pastors have recognized this and are students of theology, building congregations who know and follow Christ.
In a church in Nyamata, I stood in a crypt filled with the skulls and femurs of the ten thousand people who were killed there. The bloodstains are still on the walls, and the clothing of the victims that fills the benches of the church still carries the stench of death and decay. It was overwhelming, not just the sight and smell, but surrounding myself with something so terrible.
As hard as it was to take in, I’m glad I was able to experience that, to get a greater sense of the kind of evil that lives in the hearts of man. To get a greater sense of the battle we are engaged in, which is mostly unseen but occasionally has visible manifestations like the Rwandan genocide. Surrounded by those bones, visualizing the magnitude of what had happened there, I had a real sense of Satan’s involvement. The organizational effort to rally a million people to turn against their neighbor has his fingerprints all over it.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Eph 6:12-13
And fortunately for us,
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the [king] and the vast army with him, for there is a greater power with us than with him. With him is only the arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles.” 2 Chr 32:7-8
The truth in those verses makes me encouraged, and not surprised (though greatly saddened) when I think of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. It also makes me want to do the best I can in producing this video to support this small, strategic bible college. That’s my part in the battle against the powers in this dark world.