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How to forgive in the midst of genocide

Prisoners listen during a Genocide commemoration ceremony at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, Rwanda (Getty)

Denise Uwimana derived immense courage from her faith after surviving the Rwanda killings

Plough, the publishing house of the Bruderhof Community, which organises the publication of books sympathetic to the evangelical Christian ethos of the Community, has recently brought out From Red Earth: A Rwandan Story of Healing and Forgiveness by Denise Uwimana. It is a heartrending autobiographical account by a Tutsi survivor of the 3-month killing rampage in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi tribe by the Hutu tribe in Rwanda.

But it is also much more than this. Uwimana is a Christian and the constant and underlying theme of her book is how to reconcile palpable evil with the God of love and how to forgive those who do unimaginable evil to us or our loved ones. She herself was one of the more fortunate survivors: although her husband was killed – she was never able to discover when, where or how this happened – she was not raped (and thus infected with AIDS like thousands of other Tutsi women) nor were her three small sons slaughtered – although the machete-wielding Hutus made no distinction between men, women, children and even babies.

Uwimana’s survival was due to the kindness of local Hutu friends in Bugarama where she lived, who sheltered her and others in the local health centre. As she acknowledges, courageous Hutu neighbours “risked everything to help us.” Eventually fleeing to Kigali, the capital, she begins to rebuild her life. Nonetheless the country had been shattered by the trauma of the genocide: “Wherever I walked, I saw people with eyes as vacant as my own…unable to comprehend what had happened. We would never comprehend it” she reflects. We should bear in mind that the scenes the survivors had witnessed were unforgettably appalling, such as the massacre of 73 baby boys in one village while their mothers were forced to stand by and watch.

Uwimana, from a deeply Christian family (her father had been converted by the American evangelist Billy Graham) clung to her tattered Bible even as she wrestled with thoughts of hatred and anger for the persecutors. A chance meeting with another widow, Drocella Nduwimana, who had started Solace Ministries to support the thousands of widows and orphans of the genocide, helped the author find healing from her own bitter memories. “I ended by declaring my certainty that God had saved each of us for a purpose” she states.

Now remarried to a German Christian, Uwimana spends her time, along with her husband, helping in the spiritual rebirth of her country, as well as providing material assistance to those whose livelihoods had been ruined and in continuing to accompany and support survivors, their children and grandchildren, so that revenge would not pass down the generations.

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” is the hardest prayer for Christians to put into practice, especially when they are the victims of hatred. This compelling account of how courageous Rwandan women have managed to do so, relying on prayer, fasting, daily readings from Scripture and the kind of mutual charity that we read of in the Acts of the Apostles, also reminds us Europeans of the particular religious genius of Africa and what this continent has to offer our own shrinking Christian world.