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    photo of Rwandan farm fields under a stormy sky

    Forgiving Judas

    The Patient Work of Reconciliation

    Denise Uwimana

    March 9, 2021
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    The infamous genocide against the Tutsi of 1994 was not Rwanda’s first outbreak of “ethnic” violence. Fueled by Belgian colonists, who pulled out of the Central East African country in 1959, long-simmering resentments and competition for power between Hutu and Tutsi repeatedly broke into bloodshed. In this excerpt from her book From Red Earth, genocide survivor Denise Uwimana tells the story of Antoine Rutayisire, who was born in 1958 and lived through each of these periods.

    “Gravel in your shoe will hinder you as much as boulders in your path. Besides the man who shot my father, I have to forgive the guy who shoves in front of me to take the last seat on the bus. Forgiving is a way of life.”

    That’s how I first heard Dr. Antoine Rutayisire, a member of our Rwanda’s Unity and Reconciliation Commission, on the radio, in 2003. When he became a friend, a few years later, I was touched by his humility. He has equal respect for all people, no matter their rank or background.

    As an evangelist in the late 1990s, Antoine visited prisons across Rwanda, where more than 120,000 men were serving time for their role in the genocide.

    While speaking in a Kigali prison, Antoine noticed one inmate who seemed particularly agitated. When Antoine finished his talk, the man leapt to his feet.

    “Are you saying Jesus’ blood can wash away all sins?” he probed. He was trembling.

    “Yes,” Antoine replied.

    “Then let me tell you what I did.” Faltering at first, then speaking firmly, the man detailed all his heinous acts. A thousand fellow prisoners listened in silence. “The faces of these people I killed come back to haunt my nights,” the man cried when he was done. “Since 1994, I have never slept in peace. I have hated myself and wished I were dead.”

    Then he straightened his shoulders, a look of assurance coming into his eyes. “But let the authorities do what they want with me,” he declared. “Today, by telling all this, I have found peace.”

    After this man sat down, others stood up – one after another, for four hours – to expose their crimes and express the guilt that tortured them.

    Experiences like this gave Antoine courage to keep going, in spite of opposition from survivors who were furious that he was reaching out to killers.

    “What you are doing is betrayal,” a widow raved. “How dare you give hope to murderers?”

    Antoine understood. “It’s incredibly hard to let go of your right to justice or revenge,” he said. “But I have witnessed so much repentance, forgiveness, and healing that I believe redemption is coming to our land.”

    Antoine Rutayisire

    Antoine Rutayisire

    Antoine grew up in a Tutsi family in Ntete, a small village on Lake Muhazi. His father owned a store, two fishing boats, and some land where the family grew crops and grazed their cattle. In his own words:

    My first memories are happy ones. There was a lot of laughter in our family. I don’t ever recall a sharp word between my parents, and they only scolded us kids when we overstepped their boundaries.

    Dad regularly biked sixty-five miles to Uganda for the goods he sold in his store. While he was away, Mother entertained us in the evenings with songs and stories. Dad always brought back some treat for us, so I would watch eagerly for his return.

    Before I was even five years old, in the early 1960s, however, our life changed. Gone were the enjoyable evenings. We had to extinguish our lamp and the fire on our hearth, so we wouldn’t attract attention, Dad explained. We ate early and went to bed in silence.

    My brother told me that the flames reddening the horizon some nights were burning buildings. By day, helicopters clattered across the sky. Rumor spread among us children that their gigantic blades cut people’s heads off; whenever we heard their approach, we ran to hide, taking special care to cover our necks.

    One day, our neighbor’s house was burned to the ground, and he was beaten. My brother and I watched from a distance. When the vandals left, one swung his club in our direction, shouting, “Your turn tomorrow!”

    The next day when we boys brought the calves home at noon, we found our parents tense and silent. Mother had barely served lunch when a whistle shrilled at the gate, followed by yells and pounding feet as villagers swarmed into our compound. Dad walked out to meet them. The next moment he was on the ground, our neighbors hitting him with clubs and hammers.

    Some of the men came right inside. One snatched our food and threw it out the door. Another knocked our mugs of milk off the table. Clinging to Mother, we dashed outside and huddled in a corner of the compound.

    Dad lay bleeding and motionless while people scurried in and out, choosing what to take and breaking what they did not want. In minutes, our home was a wreck.

    One assailant rushed our corner, brandishing his spiked club over our heads, a malicious gleam in his eye. But another grabbed his arm, shouting, “Don’t do it! Children’s blood is bad luck.”

    Then they left with their loot.

    Mother hurried to Dad. His head had been struck with a hammer. His face was swollen, his body covered with welts and gashes. But he was breathing. Mother started cleaning his cuts. When Dad finally opened his eyes, she helped him into the house, where he stayed in bed for weeks.

    From being an affluent family, we had become poor in one hour.

    We children eventually started playing again, and Dad returned to business. A baby brother was added to our family. Mother resumed her singing and storytelling.

    Yet seeds of hatred had taken root in my heart. In my mind’s eye, I still saw the neighbors throwing out our food and milk. Every time I passed the man who had threatened us with his club, I saw him as on that fateful day.

    “When I grow up,” I promised myself, “I will kill him – or one of his children.”

    Then frightening rumors started circulating again. This time, people were saying that inyenzi (cockroaches, a derogatory term for Tutsi) had invaded from the north, and everyone was warned against infiltrators. My older brother had started school by now, and he told me Tutsi like us were being killed – just for being Tutsi – and that many were fleeing Rwanda.

    When I woke one morning, Dad was gone – on his way, I assumed, to buy store supplies. The next day, and every day after, I stood in the road, watching and waiting, wanting to be the first to welcome him home.

    Mother’s lullabies for our baby brother were sorrowful. She became unpredictable – brooding one day, annoyed the next. I blamed Dad, who was taking too long coming home.

    Mother started waking us before daybreak, scolding us out of bed with, “Why can’t you act like men?” She put my eight-year-old brother in charge of the cows. I was six and hauled water and firewood, cleaned the compound, and helped with milking.

    September came, and Mother took me to school for the first time. Other parents were enrolling their children, and I proudly joined the line in my new khaki uniform. At the registration table, a teacher was asking routine questions.

    “Name of child?” he droned, when I stepped forward.

    “Antoine Rutayisire,” Mother replied.

    “Year of birth?”

    “1958.”

    “Name of father?”

    “Karasira Petero Claver.”

    “Status, living?”

    Mother hesitated, looked at me, then said, “No, dead.”

    Dead? My father is dead? No – my father is not dead! He’s gone to Uganda to get things, and he’s coming back any day now . . .

    In all the weeks since he had left, I had never imagined that Dad was dead. But Mother had said the words, publicly. I stood as if turned to stone. Then I started to sob. Mother hurried me home through the pastures, avoiding the road.

    Karasira Petero Claver. My father. Dead. He will not come back. I will never see him again . . .

    I still woke early and did my chores, but I was crying all the time. I would run home from school, brushing away my tears, hoping my classmates thought it was sweat. Nothing could stem those tears; they kept coming even when I’d reached the age when most do not cry.

    Mother never told us children how our father died, but we found out from others. In December 1963, Tutsi exiles had formed an army to invade Rwanda. In retaliation, the Hutu government rounded up influential Tutsi throughout the country. They were taken to prison and later shot.

    People say that time heals all wounds, but that’s not true. I dreamed of the day I’d be strong enough to do something big, something that could hurt these Hutu so badly that they would weep as many tears as I had.

    Antoine was eight the first time he joined the ten-mile trek to Kiziguro Catholic Church. He was impressed. “God must be very rich and great,” he mused. “If he has such a grand house down here, it must be something else, above the sky.”

    His thoughts were interrupted by a bell, and the congregation rose. Children in white led a majestically robed priest, swinging a censer, down the aisle. A choir began to sing from a balcony, the sound seeming to come from heaven.

    Antoine went home that day determined to become a priest. The next time he took the cows to pasture, he climbed an anthill, stretching his arms to bless an imaginary congregation. In 1970, twelve-year-old Antoine traveled alone across the country by bus, to enter junior seminary – the first step toward fulfilling his ambition.

    In 1973, however, Hutu students from a nearby academy joined Hutu seminarians in an attempt to drive out the Tutsi students. Armed soldiers had to be called in and assigned to each class to prevent violence, and the bishop visited to chide these future priests. There was apparent calm after he left, but the Hutu students were seething at their failure to oust the Tutsi, and their Tutsi classmates were equally angry.

    Antoine was now firmly convinced that all Hutu were bad. And by the time he graduated from junior seminary, disillusioned with religion, he had quit his idea of becoming a priest.

    Pursuing liberal arts instead, at the National University of Rwanda, Antoine graduated as valedictorian in 1983. Life seemed full of promise. Set on becoming a distinguished professor, he started researching for a future doctoral thesis.

    “Lord, bless the neighbor who threatened me with a club, bless his wife, bless his farm. Bless the mayor who ordered my father shot, bless his sons and his daughters.”

    His plans were dashed, however, when he heard he had been assigned instead to an out-of-the-way secondary school. Making an appointment with the Director of Higher Education, he pleaded his case, presenting accolades from the university and trying to find out what had gone awry.

    “I thought you were smart,” the director interrupted. “Don’t you understand that you will never join the university faculty?”

    Yes, Antoine did understand. He was Tutsi.

    Familiar rage boiled up, and his eyes filled with the hated tears. 1963, his father; 1973, his friends; 1983, his career . . . He was sick of being a second-class citizen, decade after decade.

    With no choice in the matter, he started teaching at Rulindo Girls High School, so remote that the bus ascended its dusty road only once a week.

    Disgusted with his lot in life, Antoine isolated himself from his colleagues. In his boredom, he began reading the Bible. He found that it intrigued him – particularly God’s aversion to injustice, which he met in both Old and New Testaments – and challenged him to find something to live for.

    Antoine had to admit he was not living for anything. He was just drifting resentfully through his days. As he read the Bible, cover to cover, he realized he was discovering a standard to live by. From now on, he determined, he would call right what the Bible calls right, and call wrong what it calls wrong.

    One evening, while working his way through the Gospels, Antoine was gripped by the story of Jesus journeying toward death. He felt himself pulled into the drama:

    Singing hosannas, I join the joyous welcoming throng. As the crowd disperses, euphoria fades; only twelve disciples remain with the Master, and I listen in on their conversation. Their mood, in an upper room, becomes somber.

    One of their number departs. The others move outdoors to a dark garden. Here Jesus prays, alone, beneath the trees.

    Suddenly Judas is back, with a torch-bearing mob. They are not chanting “Hosanna” this time, but “Get him! Get him! Don’t let him escape!”

    Jesus is attacked with hammers and clubs. They’re dragging him away. I follow.

    Only now, it’s my father, surrounded by thugs, and I am six years old again. My passion mounts with every step. By the time we reach Golgotha, I’m beside myself. These Hutu! How long will they do this to innocent people?

    Antoine continued reading, but something had happened to him. He could not distance himself from this story. And when Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” Antoine cried, “No! No, no, no! Lord, how dare you intercede for these people? You fed them, you healed them, and here they are, yelling ‘Crucify!’ – repaying evil for good. You should curse them!”

    Antoine couldn’t bear it. He absolutely disagreed with Jesus. “Forget it, God,” he said, putting down the book. He went out for a walk. “Lord, surely you do not expect me to forgive the Hutu for killing my father. I will follow you – always, everywhere – but I take a detour here. I cannot forgive them.”

    Antoine grappled for two weeks. Finally he took a day off work to resolve his problem. Opening to the New Testament, he read every passage on how to treat one’s enemies. He was convicted: for a Christian, forgiving is not an option; it’s a command.

    “Forgiving is not a favor I grant my enemies – it’s a remedy for my own soul.”

    Antoine wrote a list of individuals he hated – each of the neighbors who had beaten his father, the mayor who had ordered him killed, Hutu classmates of 1973, the Education Ministry director, and many more. He decided to forgive these people, to “bless those who persecute you,” as Jesus had said.

    Yet when he tried to do it, his heart still rebelled, screaming, “No, curse them!”

    Antoine simply could not take this step. He gave up trying. Defeated, he slumped to the floor where he’d been kneeling beside his bed.

    As he dozed off, too discouraged to rouse himself, a vivid picture formed in his mind, and with it, a sharp realization: Jesus had said “Father, forgive them” while crude metal spikes were being driven through his hands and feet, his whipped-raw back pressed to rough-splintered wood, long thorns piercing his forehead, his mind and soul tormented, his body racked with fever and pain, naked, before a jeering mob.

    Antoine’s resistance melted. Wide awake now, and weeping, he prayed, “Lord, bless the neighbor who threatened me with a club, bless his wife, bless his farm. Bless the mayor who ordered my father shot, bless his sons and his daughters . . .”

    By the time he finished, Antoine was exhausted. But he was at peace; an enormous weight had been lifted from him. In the following days, he discovered that the more he wished his offenders well, the more he was freed from the sting of their deeds. He thought, “Forgiving is not a favor I grant my enemies – it’s a remedy for my own soul.”

    photo of Rwandan farm fields under a stormy sky

    In 1990, Antoine married Penina, a former student from Rulindo Girls High School, and they settled in Kigali. I asked him how they experienced 1994 and its aftermath. He replied:

    On the morning of April 7, I switched on the radio. All I got was a classical dirge. I waited for a very long time, through this strange musical interlude. Finally, a voice came on, and with it, the sentence that changed our lives forever: “The Ministry of Defense regrets to announce that His Excellency’s plane was shot down; he and all his fellow travelers are dead . . .”

    I stepped outdoors. Our nearest neighbor was smoking beside his house. I called a morning greeting to him.

    “Haven’t you heard the news?” he snarled.

    “Yes, I just heard,” I answered.

    He cleared his throat and spat. “How could it be avoided, when enemies surround us?” His sweeping gesture included my home. Dropping his cigarette butt, he ground it beneath his heel, then went inside, slamming the door. He emerged moments later with a machete and went off down the street.

    Killing had begun throughout the city. Penina and I and our little daughter, Deborah, hunkered down in our house until we were able to steal away to nearby Amahoro Stadium, a refuge protected by United Nations peacekeepers. About 15,000 people had sought asylum there.

    Early in the morning on Tuesday, April 19, government forces started shelling the stadium. One mortar landed in the midst of some women cooking porridge for the children, and others landed in stairways where families were camped. A stampede ensued, people running, tripping, crying. When the bombardment ceased and panic subsided, thirty-five people were dead.

    The Red Cross arrived, and I helped them move the dead and wounded. When we finished, I found a corner to pray. My hands were red with blood, my mind with anger.

    That was the day I lost all confidence in the United Nations. Its battalion had run for cover, their abandoned artillery pointing at the sky like big, unused toys. They had not fired a single shot to convey that this was a protected zone. It took me years to forgive the UN and that faceless body, “the world.”

    RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] soldiers came and went, disguised as civilians. That’s how we learned that they would help any who wished to depart for a safer haven behind their lines. We would go by night, they told us, but they would not say when.

    Around nine o’clock Sunday evening, April 24, we heard movement and whispers: “Those who want to leave, now is the time.”

    My wife, daughter, and I joined five thousand Tutsi walking out of Kigali in total silence, escorted by equally silent RPF soldiers. Rain and darkness covered our flight.

    We eventually made it to the displaced persons camp in Byumba, where our family stayed in a classroom with forty other people. Ten thousand Tutsi survivors had taken refuge in Byumba; two months later, the number had doubled.

    When the country was liberated, Antoine returned to Kigali. Talking about repentance and forgiveness was tough when everyone was hurting, but he believed reconciliation was his nation’s only hope. He spoke on the radio and in gatherings, large or small, whenever opportunity arose.

    One morning, a young woman stopped him in the corridor outside his office. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m just heading out. But the project coordinator can help, if you have a problem with school fees or something.”

    He was startled when she burst into tears. “I need to talk to you,” she cried. “I need to beg your forgiveness for what my father, Gashugi, did.”

    That caught Antoine’s attention. Gashugi was the mayor he and his brothers had nicknamed “murderer of our people.” It was he who had masterminded the killing of Tutsi in Ntete.

    Antoine invited the young lady into his office. Taking a sobbing breath, she said, “My name is Immaculee. I heard your talk last week. When you mentioned where you had grown up, I realized my dad was responsible for your father’s execution.”

    “I had to find someone my father had hurt, to say how terrible I feel,” she continued. “Can you forgive our family? And would you pray for me, too? In school, other kids called me ‘the murderer’s daughter.’ Any time I make friends, sooner or later they learn who my father is – and cut me off. I need freedom from this curse!”

    Antoine called in his colleagues as witnesses. Tears filling his own eyes, he took Immaculee’s hand and started speaking forgiveness and blessings over her life and family. He felt he had found a sister.

    Through this encounter, Antoine’s message of reconciliation became personal for him. He is working for reconciliation to this day.

     

    Contributed By Denise Uwimana Denise Uwimana

    Denise Uwimana survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and later founded Iriba Shalom International, an organization that provides material and spiritual support to genocide survivors.

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