Warning: this post contains disturbing subject matter. But it’s important subject matter, so you should read it.
“We live in a world of which we so easily could despair. When we look back, we see a past littered with the debris of ruined communities, of careful plans to kill entire people groups.” — Kigali Memorial Centre.
I’ve studied a lot about genocide and war. I’ve been to Dachau concentration camp in Germany, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the site of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, and three Holocaust memorials in Washington DC, Detroit, and Jerusalem. All of these places were difficult, with graphic reminders of the evil that seems to know no bounds. It can occur in any culture, any society, any country, any part of history. I knew a lot about the Rwandan genocide and the complex history leading up to it, but nothing could have prepared me for the horrors that I saw and stories I read about at the memorial sites.
Even the bare facts of the genocide are horrific: in 1994, Hutu extremist militia incited most members of the Hutu population to systematically murder over 800,000 Tutsis in a period of 100 days, marking the most efficient mass murdering spree since the Nazi’s Final Solution in the Holocaust. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the tiny battalion of UN forces in Rwanda during the genocide, reckons that no more than 5,000 trained troops would have been enough to prevent the genocide. Incidentally, 5,000 were the number of troops that were used to evacuate the expat population from Rwanda in the early days of the genocide. Once the white people were safe, the UN considered its responsibility in Rwanda done.
As difficult as it was, I knew that trips to the genocide memorials had to be part of our visit in Rwanda. In the morning we went to two churches just south of Kigali where Tutsis had sought sanctuary. One church alone was the refuge of over 10,000 Tutsis, all of whom were killed. The place was deathly quiet. We saw rows of bones and skulls stacked high, many marked with evidence of machete cuts to the head.
Yet what I found most disturbing were the piles of clothes strewn across the church floor, rafters, pews, and altar. I can’t quite figure out why this was the hardest thing for me to stomach… I think that the sight of a skull or bones doesn’t fit into my realm of human existence. They’re just pieces of the human body invisible to the eye. But clothes are a very tangible part of human life, and the sight of them reminded me vividly that each person who died there was a real person…a young girl wearing her school uniform, an old grandmother wearing a traditional African print dress, a young man wearing his favorite sports team’s jersey, or a distinguished gentleman with his precious fedora hat.
What also made these churches particularly difficult was just the fact that they were churches. I scribbled a quick prayer into my journal “God, if they weren’t safe here, then where?” The graphic murders at the churches were testimony to the very essence of evil that exists within a humanity that has set itself so fiercely against God.
I know this is depressing, particularly at Christmastime. It’s probably not something you want to be thinking about on Christmas Eve. I feel the same way. But I believe it’s important for us to know, to reflect, to mourn on these facts. And I think reflecting on this sadness can bring an even greater depth of rejoicing during Christmas. On the way back from the churches, I found myself listening over and over to this song by Selah. Here are a portion of the lyrics:
“One day voices that lie will all be silent. One day, all who deny, will finally believe. One day death will retreat, and raise its white flag, and one day, Love will defeat the strongest enemy.”
In a bittersweet way, visiting these memorials reminded me that Christmas is more than just the happy story of a warm cuddly baby born in a miraculous way. The glorious birth of Jesus marked the beginning of something new, of God’s kingdom here on earth – where one day, death will be no more, where Love rules and conquers all. It’s not here fully here yet, and so the world continues to rebel and groan with sin and evil. But it is coming!!! And so for now, we hope, we pray, we love, and we rejoice that that one day, Jesus will wipe every tear from every eye. And we can take heart, because he has already overcome this world!
“And we know that the suffering of these present times are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Amen. Come quickly, Lord!