Can broken relationships be restored – even two decades after the genocide? 

Twenty-nine-year-old Denise Uwimana, a Tutsi, was housing seven relatives and friends along with her two sons, aged four and one-and-a-half. Nine months pregnant, she expected her baby’s arrival any day. Her husband, Charles, was working some thirty-five miles away. On the afternoon of April 16, 1994, militants broke into her home and attacked five inhabitants, leaving them to bleed to death. Remarkably, Denise and her children were spared. Several hours later she went into labor and delivered her third son.

Denise and her sons survived the genocide against immense odds. Many of her relatives, though, were killed. So was her husband – she still does not know how or when his death occurred.

In spite of this loss, Denise chose to forgive the perpetrators of the genocide and work for reconciliation in her country. She later married Wolfgang Reinhardt, a German theologian and aid coordinator, and founded Iriba Shalom International, a nonprofit organization that provides spiritual and material support to genocide survivors.

Plough: Denise, choosing the way of reconciliation after what you experienced must have been difficult. Was there anything in your upbringing that prepared you for this?

Denise Uwimana: I was born into a Christian refugee family. In 1962, my parents fled from Rwanda to Burundi, and later to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because of political unrest caused by radical Hutus who wanted to kill Tutsis. I grew up mostly in the Congo.

As a family, we had a special and treasured tradition: after dinner each night, we would meet and discuss all we had experienced that day. We sang worship songs, my father read a Bible story, and we talked about any misunderstandings that had arisen between us during the day. We forgave one another, exchanged prayer requests, and prayed together. Every morning we children woke up early and ran to our parents’ bedroom, where we knelt before their bed, prayed together, and got their blessing for the day.

My parents gave us a solid education in the Christian faith. In my adolescence, I knew what sin was and how to protect myself so as to not be involved in things contrary to my beliefs.

We had a neighbor who loved me and the other village children very much. One day, she became ill with meningitis and was taken to the hospital, where she died one week later. We children were very shocked and cried many tears for her. I started thinking more about the end of life, asking myself where I would go if I would die. While mourning for her, we started meeting in her house for prayer. This prayer meeting grew, and we started confessing our sins and seeking Jesus. It was a kind of revival. Our pastor observed that the number of youth and children meeting together was growing and assigned a church elder to care for us.

Denise, (left) and Charles, (back row third from left) visiting Denise’s parents in the Congo in August 1993. This is the only photo Denise has showing her, Charles, and their two young sons (front row).

Had you faced discrimination as a Tutsi before the genocide?

When I was twenty-one years old, friends invited me to visit them in Bugarama, a town in southwest Rwanda. They hoped to help me find a job at CIMERWA, a large cement-manufacturing plant there.

One day, I was walking along the road when the prefect (préfet) of the regional authority drove by in his white pickup. He stopped his car and arrested me on the pretext that I didn’t have the correct papers. When he searched my handbag and found a photograph of a friend who had invited me to apply for a job at CIMERWA, he accused me of coming to spy on the company. He took me to the mayor, hoping to convince him to send me to a nearby prison, but he would not.

Dissatisfied, the prefect then took me to an immigration office near the border. He told the Rwandan officials there that I was a refugee Tutsi from the Congo seeking employment in Rwanda. He knew that I had become friends with Charles, the man I later married, and he knew that Charles was helping me find a job at CIMERWA. After some discussion, they decided not to send me to prison but instead to fine me and expel me from Rwanda. On the receipt for the fine, the prefect stated the official reason for my punishment was that I was inzererezi, a Rwandan term for a vagrant woman or lowlife. The officials heaped verbal abuse on me. The next day, the prefect followed me to the Congo border crossing. “You will never get a job in Rwanda. There is no chance for Tutsis in Rwanda,” he shouted after me.

This experience made me hate Rwanda. I did not want to hear anything more about the country. If my housemate tuned the radio to Rwandan news or music, I turned it off. Every time I looked at the receipt for the fine, I got into a rage, and fear and hatred toward Hutus rose up in my heart. I suffered from nightmares. My family realized that I was deeply affected. “That evil man, the prefect, broke her heart,” they said.

I kept praying that God would heal my wounds and help me to forgive. One day, as I was staring yet again at the receipt from the prefect, an inner voice seemed to say, “As long as you keep that piece of paper, you will never forgive him. You should get rid of it.” I tore up the receipt and forgave the prefect and the immigration officials. After some months, I got a letter from friends in Rwanda telling me that the prefect regretted his unjust behavior toward me, admitted I was innocent, and asked them to find me and apologize on his behalf. He even met Charles and reconciled with him. In the end, I did get a job with CIMERWA and moved back to Rwanda.

In the months before April 1994, were there warning signs that something like the genocide might be coming?

As has occurred before other genocides, the media carried out a contemptuous propaganda campaign. Already in 1990, the Kangura newspaper published “The Ten Commandments of the Hutu” which denounced every Hutu who married a Tutsi woman as a traitor, branded Tutsis as being dishonest in business dealings, demanded Hutu dominance of higher education, and required that only Hutus should hold strategically important offices or serve in the Rwandan armed forces. Most inhuman was the eighth of these commandments, which stated, “Hutus must cease to have pity for the Tutsi.” The radio station RTLM incessantly broadcasted the message that Tutsis are cockroaches and snakes; this station later orchestrated the massacres. Once a group of people is dehumanized in this way, it becomes easy to kill them.

Rwanda is the African country with the largest percentage of Christians. How does that fact square with genocide?

Long before the genocide, Rwanda’s church leaders were mostly silent toward or supportive of the ideology of Hutu superiority. Members of all churches spread divisive propaganda and were even actively involved in the killings. When a cardinal from Rome visited Rwanda, he asked the church leaders he was meeting with, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” One leader answered, “Yes it is.”

Sadly, Christian education in Rwanda did not teach a mature and critical attitude to govern­ment based on the standards of the gospel, but rather emphasized blind obedience toward those in power. Whatever the leaders in power commanded was supposed to be carried out. There was no tradition of Christian resistance, even if the powers of state and church demanded something completely contrary to the will of God as shown in the Bible.