Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
The night his comrades set out to rape, ravage and kill, he wasn’t there.
And for that, he was punished.
Not a punishment of pain or deprivation, but one of loneliness. That night, the militia men distributed the poisonous weight of their heavy hatred on each other’s shoulders, making the load a little easier for each of them. Together, they could bear the weight of any guilt, shame or hesitation. But alone, their task weighed heavier. So because he was not there, they made him go alone.
Evil had been lurking in the shadows for years, infecting Rwanda and its people with toxic thoughts and hateful words, turning ordinary men into malicious murderers bent on exterminating an entire population. Ordinary people. Neighbors, wives and friends.
And just at the right moment, after years of systemic sadism and segregation, after convincing the world that there’s nothing to see here, evil snaps, and those poisoned hearts turn to their machetes.
On April 6, 1994, the evil burst from the shadows. Rwandan President Habyarimana was shot down as his plane flew over Kigali, the capital city. It was the spark needed to ignite a blaze between the two prominent ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis for Habyarimana’s death, and a fire soon engulfed the country. One hundred days attempting to exterminate the Tutsis, called “cockroaches” by public radio broadcasters in Rwanda. Gangs of ordinary Hutu men formed everywhere to get the job done more efficiently. More disturbingly.
On that night in April, under the cover of darkness, Theoneste Bizmana crept slowly and alone. No other shoulders to share the weight of his mission. No other poisonous whispers to encourage the 25-year-old Hutu to do what he had set out to do.
Find that Tutsi, the 13-year-old cockroach, and finish him.
Theoneste hadn’t been able to do it. And maybe his gang of fellow Hutus knew that, which is why they showed up soon after he arrived at the young boy’s house. If weak Theoneste couldn’t handle the job, they would do it themselves.
In 1994, Rwandans were not Rwandans. They were Hutus, Tutsis and Twas. All it took was one glance at the mandatory identity cards each of them carried to make the proper distinction.
Hundreds of years of tension, segregation and hatred turned to a bloody massacre almost overnight. When the plane carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down, ordinary citizens, neighbors and friends who called themselves Hutus donned their new identities of genocidaires. The genocide against the Tutsis wasn’t even labeled a “genocide” until years later, when the world finally rose from its slumber and decided that 1 million people were worth paying attention to.
Genocide. Extermination. Death to all Tutsis.
Neighbors turned on neighbors. Extremist men who called themselves Hutus ravaged and burned the homes of Tutsi men who farmed the same land, but not before raping and slicing their women and children who lived inside. Some even killed their own Tutsi wives for fear of being killed themselves. Women who called themselves Hutus shunned the terrified Tutsi families who showed up at their doors, begging for refuge and rest. Christian ministers and Catholic priests encouraged their congregations that it was God’s will for the Tutsi to die.
It was not all Hutu men, not all Hutu women, not all Catholic priests and not all congregations. Not all, but some, and some was enough. One million mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. Future farmers, scientists, teachers, friends. Present lives. Present humans.
But humanity’s call is harder to hear when public radio stations are urging average citizens to turn their farming tools into murder weapons to ensure the deed is done. To congregate each morning, singing “Hallelujah” choruses to whatever god they believed would commend such cowardice. To squeeze the life from every Tutsi home and drive them to the swamps in terror. To strip them of humanity and make them live like dogs.
To murder the 13-year-old boy with his entire life in front of him.
That night, those Hutu men struggled under the weight of the stones they stuffed into the collar of the shirt the Tutsi boy was wearing. A transfer of guilt, hatred and pain onto the shoulders of a 13-year-old boy who should have been sleeping soundly with his brothers and sisters, instead of fighting for his life in the river they tossed him into. He should have been playing, splashing, living in the river Nyabarongo. Instead, he was thrashing, choking, sinking in their death trap.
Theoneste hadn’t been able to do it alone. But surrounded now by his comrades, whatever shame or regret he had felt before was replaced by a feeling of community, togetherness, unity for a cause. Any hesitation he had felt on his way to the boy’s house that night was swept away with the river. The fear of losing his own life was too great, so he became a murderer. Just like the rest of them.
But that night, the river had different plans for the 13-year-old boy. The rushing water loosened those stones from his shirt collar and carried him for five long, chilly, lonely hours. Though his hands were bound behind his back, the river kept him afloat, it wouldn’t let him sink.
And when the river finally spit him out near Kigali, 13-year-old Christophe Ndayambaje heaved his shoulders, sore and free, out of the water and dragged his soaking, exhausted body to the nearest tree. He scraped and shook until those ropes broke. And then he ran.
Christophe’s bonds were broken that night, but the shackles on his soul were the kind that come from being wounded beyond repair. Christophe survived the genocide against the Tutsi. Today, his country forbids the use of that label. No one is Hutu, no one is Tutsi, no one is Twa.
We are all Rwandans.
And today, all Rwandans have a story. If they don’t feel the pain of actual memories, they feel the pain of their parents, grandparents, friends and relatives who were old enough to see their country snap. But not old enough to understand.
They wonder: Is anyone ever old enough for that?
Survivors like Christophe went on living, but never able to shake the heavy weight of the pain wrought by their Hutu neighbors who had turned into murderers.
So how is it that Christophe came to call Theoneste his brother?
It wasn’t because of kuchacha, the government-sanctioned courts that obliged perpetrators to stand before their communities, their victims, and explicitly describe the crimes they committed in 1994. The exact way they mutilated and murdered human beings. The exact place they left their bodies for dead. It was meant to help bring perpetrators and victims back together to help them heal, but it was just a bandaid. Christophe still avoided Theoneste in town after kuchacha. His blood still boiled when he saw the man who had tried to kill him as a teenager.
Theoneste Bizimana was a Catholic, and that kind of apology wasn’t going to cut it.
Catholic. Christian. A follower of Jesus Christ. The same Christ who died for his people’s sins, forgave the ones who nailed him to a cross and said “Love your neighbor as yourself. Do good to those who hurt you.”
Catholic. Christian. A follower of ministers who convinced their congregations that it was Christ’s will for the Tutsi to die. It was Christ’s will for innocent 13-year-olds to be tossed into rivers. It was Christ’s will to exterminate a people.
“I realize now that I wasn’t a true Christian,” Theoneste said. “If someone can convince you to kill, then you are not a Christian.”
But how did he get there?
When Theoneste walked through the Nyamata Memorial Church in 2017, he was greeted by dusty, torn-up shoes. White, blood-stained blouses. Blue denim jeans. A tiny yellow sweater. All piled on the pews in the bullet-ridden church with the iron gates, obliterated by grenades and machine gun fire in 1994. The still-standing altar decorated with withering Tutsi identification cards, crumbling rosaries, rusty machetes. The Virgin Mother, bright blue and still standing, arms stretched toward the brokenness at her feet.
The remains of a two-day massacre in 1994, when nearly 10,000 Tutsis fled to the church in search of refuge from the murderers.
The clothes, the skulls and the bones. In the basement of the Nyamata Memorial, the rows and rows of skulls haunt onlookers with their empty gazes. Outside, people can enter the mass graves and attempt to identify what’s left of their family members and friends. If they’re lucky, they can figure out a name from the bones.
The Nyamata Parish Memorial is one of six churches that help people feel the weight of the pain inflicted on so many innocent lives. Christophe lost his mother in this church. He goes to this church to remember her. His two younger brothers. His sister. His aunts. His uncles. Their wives and children. All lost during the genocide that Christophe survived.
A visit to this parish is one of the requirements for Catholics in the reconciliation program in Nyamata, the capitol of the Bugesera District in the Eastern Province of Rwanda.
Father Emmanuel Nsengiyumva leads the six- to nine-month program that brings ex-perpetrators and their victims together to learn about forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.
“The target is not just to pass through (the program),” Nsengiyumva said. “You have to free people. Free the individuals, families and community.”
That freedom comes in stages, starting with the ex-perpetrators’ acknowledgement of the wrong they committed and the pain they caused.
“We use the two keys,” Nsengiyumva said. “In order to free the perpetrator, the victim has to use the key of giving forgiveness. But in order to free a victim, the perpetrator also has to use his key.”
They come to terms with the evilness of their thoughts, words, actions and omissions. They call upon their God to shine his light on their broken pasts. And when they start to come to terms with their own humanness, they call upon their victims.
When Theoneste arrived at Christophe’s house the second time, Christophe was confused. He was older now, a husband with a family. The survivor had started his new life.
But now Theoneste Bizimana was walking toward him again, the same way he had so many years ago. This time, though, he came bearing soda. Sugary, bubbly drinks in glass bottles to share with Christophe and his family.
He was there to ask forgiveness from the man he tried to kill. The 13-year-old boy, all grown up. But Christophe had already granted this pardon during kuchacha.
“What more forgiveness do you need?” he asked.
“The church has been helping me,” Theoneste said. “They asked me to come back.”
He had seen the depth of his sins and he knew that Christophe was still hurting. He had seen the way Christophe avoided him in town, the way his body grew tense. If he wanted to receive the sacraments as a Catholic again, Theoneste had to come back and confess his guilt again, like he did during kuchaha. But this time, he was asking for himself.
So he brought the soda, a Rwandan tradition and his own sort of Communion. He brought his promise to help Christophe with anything he needed. This time, he brought his heart, the key that Christophe needed to open his door to healing.
“When I looked at Theoneste, the way he asked forgiveness, I saw that he asked forgiveness from the heart,” Christophe said. “So I gave him forgiveness from the heart.”
And there was the key that Theoneste needed. Now, the two men would walk through the door of healing together, as brothers.
Christophe stood with his hand on Theoneste’s back in the church, which now was bursting with people. Nearly 3,000 families, friends, ministers and government officials had gathered to celebrate the reintegration of Theonetse and 248 other perpetrators into the Catholic church.
After Theoneste reconciled with Christophe, the two men began to build a friendship. Christophe was invited into the reconciliation program with other victims. Together, they learned to address their own wounds. To open their hearts to the men and women whose sins had changed their lives forever.
But at some point, Christophe said he had to realize that forgiveness was a gift from God. Teachers could teach about it all they wanted, but the mystery of forgiveness is beyond human understanding.
“You cannot stay there,” he said. “You need to find a way to live.”
He prayed to the God who kept him alive in that river so many years ago. To the God who showed him that hope can come from the darkest of times. To the God who so loved the world that he sent his only son to die for his murderers on a cross.
Soon, Christophe will even become a Catholic himself. He wasn’t expecting to find the mercy, peace and healing through the church of his murderer. But when he found those things, he found a way to live.
“I now feel free,” Christophe said.
His daughter is too young now, but he’ll share his story with her someday. He’ll remember his mother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, and he’ll make sure she knows where she came from. But he’ll also make sure she knows the meaning of mercy and how it led him to freedom.
That freedom allowed him to stand beside his brother, Theoneste, as he entered back into the church. It allowed him to build a relationship with the man who almost was his murderer. The man who now tells his sons that it is better to be killed than to kill. The man who now carries a holy card in his pocket that reads, “Jesus, I trust in you,” and actually believes it.
“They are brave, they are strong,” the parish pries said. “In fact, they are living.”