It has been 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, when Hutu extremists murdered at least 800,000 Tutsis over the course of 100 days. Women, men, infants, and children were assaulted with grenades and machine guns, cut down with machetes, beheaded, or burned alive. Denise Uwimana, who lost her husband to the genocide (and gave birth to a third son as the slaughter reached her home), has made it her life’s mission to provide material and spiritual assistance to fellow survivors and promote reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis—in part through the organization she founded, Iriba Shalom International. Bethany Hoang, an author and advisor with International Justice Mission, spoke with Uwimana about her memoir, From Red Earth: A Rwandan Story of Healing and Forgiveness.
How did you hold on to hope during those 100 days, as you feared for your life and your children’s lives?
Being a believer did not spare me from tribulation, but my faith in Jesus remained firm. He showed me that he is with us in every situation, up to the final minute of life. I saw this in Oscar, a Tutsi and friend of my family, who prayed for me before the Hutu paramilitary killed him.
During the worst of the genocide, I thought God loved only the Hutu, because Tutsis were killed like flies, and no one raised their voice in our defense. I was disappointed at how church leaders were involved directly or indirectly in the killing.
My prayer life became a quarrel with God. I reminded God of the promise he makes in Psalm 118, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans” (v. 8). I told him, “I don’t have anyone to help me. I will see if your word is true and how I will survive among the killers.” God kept his promises, and I survived, not because I was better or because I prayed a lot but by his grace.
In the years following, how did you find the strength to serve and pursue relationships with other survivors?
Before I met other widows, I thought I had suffered more than others. Then I learned of women who had been raped or infected by HIV/AIDS. There were widows who lost all their children and orphans who lost at least one parent. We organized to support each other, sharing what little we had.
In 1999 I moved to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where my love for other traumatized widows and orphans grew. In every home I visited, I saw how their faces shone with joy because someone whom they trusted took time to listen.
After I remarried, I moved from Rwanda to Europe, but my heart kept burning for survivors. When I returned to visit my mother-in-law, who lost eight sons, I had the opportunity to hear other widows’ stories. During one visit, two widows brought me to where their baby boys, among 73 infant boys, were killed in front of their eyes. I spent the whole night weeping and wondering how I could help. Then an inner voice said, “Just love them! Show them I am God. I still love them, and they will be my witnesses. Please don’t let them die in grief.”
Most of the widows and orphans did not want to attend any church again, as the church had lost its credibility through the genocide. But I was convinced that each of us had survived for a purpose: to encourage others who had suffered the same horrors and bring forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation to our society.
You share candidly about your anger at the Hutu people. How have you learned to forgive, and what spiritual practices have most sustained you in this long pursuit of reconciliation?
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that I forget what happened. I remember, but I have no more resentment. As human beings, we need new strength from God to overcome feelings of resentment and revenge.
After my work, I would kneel beside my bed and talk with God. I reproached him for not intervening to stop the killing. In my anger, I told him everything: my fear, hopelessness, and anger. During that time, he revealed something important: “Denise, you survived by grace. Give that grace to others! Forgive your pastor who betrayed his flock, the congregation that abandoned you, the killers who murdered your loved ones. If they harden their hearts and refuse to repent, that is my business. Your task is to help them become human again.”
I said, “No, I can’t forgive them! They are not human beings anymore. They are worse than animals.” I did not like the way churches demanded survivors to forgive, while they took no steps to apologize. But God reminded me, through his Word, that even killers could confess their sins and repent.
When the first Hutu refugees returned to Rwanda from the Congo, they had nothing. I organized, with others, to give them food and clothes. A young Hutu woman came to my home, begging for something to eat. I was amazed. I hurried into my bedroom and knelt by my bed to pray: “Is it possible that this woman dares come here? Has she forgotten what they have done against us?” Then I remembered Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I listened to God and obeyed what he taught me. I also asked forgiveness for my own anger and hate.
You describe the importance of community in the aftermath of the genocide. What difference has it made to realize you are not alone?
Everyone who had lost loved ones longed for someone to trust. We discovered that bearing one another’s burdens is the first step from isolation to healing. When I started meeting with other widows, I was reminded of a cooking fire: When smoldering sticks are scattered, they smoke and go out. But if they’re brought together, they flare into flame.
My dear 92-year-old mother-in-law made the same discovery, saying, “When I’m alone, I think only of myself. But when I help someone else, I too am helped.” She is the one who got survivors in her village to stop depending on alcohol and then donated her land for a community center, saying, “I want those who killed, also, to become human again. In this place, they too will learn to love.”
I must underscore that Jesus was at the heart of our togetherness. To get together without him would not have helped. Many people in this world get together in a wrong spirit, inciting each other to hatred. It was through turning to Jesus, listening to each other in his presence, that we started to find comfort—even though we still had many questions for God.
What do you wish followers of Jesus had done during those 100 days of slaughter? And what should Christians around the world understand about the Rwandan genocide today?
Christians all over the world should have put pressure on the United Nations to intervene, to protect the victims and stop the genocide. Christians in Rwanda should have opposed government policies of division, hate, and discrimination. Unfortunately, hate and division had spread among Christians in Rwanda even before the genocide.
Today, we need to understand that the genocide did not come overnight; it was long prepared by dehumanizing propaganda and discrimination against one population group, the Tutsi. We must be attentive to discrimination against any minority, like Jews or refugees. And we should obey God’s command in James 1:27, “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
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