Genocide. An ugly name for a much uglier atrocity going back to at least Old Testament times. Coined in 1944 by author Raphael Lemkin to help the world comprehend the Holocaust of Hitler’s Germany, the word “genocide” has come to be defined as any systematic effort to destroy a people group, in whole or in part, based on that group’s perceived racial, ethnic, national, religious, political or cultural identity.
Every genocide victim has a story. But only the few who survive have the opportunity to tell that story.
Denise Uwimana is such a survivor. She tells her incredible story, as well as those of others, in From Red Earth: A Rwandan Story of Healing and Forgiveness.
Though a minor part of the book, the story really begins in 1884 when a 10,000-square-mile section of upland central Africa, then a native-governed kingdom, was forcibly added to colonial German East Africa in a deal among the European powers. In 1916, Belgium was assigned the territory and continued exporting what was produced while generally keeping the native population impoverished.
The colony had primarily two people groups, Hutu (the larger) and Tutsi. Though thought to have similar histories, the colonists deemed Tutsi culture superior. Tutsi children were given greater access to Western education, which led to greater opportunities in business ownership and government service — as well as growing Hutu resentment.
In 1962, a Hutu-instigated revolt won independence as the Republic of Rwanda, with a government hostile from the start to the minority Tutsi. Uwimana’s parents, both Tutsi and committed Christians, soon fled to neighboring Burundi, where she was born in 1964.
The family remained in exile but moved several times due to political unrest. In 1985 Uwimana visited relatives in the Rwandan town of Bugarama and decided to seek employment at a Chinese-run cement plant there. Her application was rejected, and she was told bluntly by an official that as a Tutsi she would not be hired.
While in Bugarama she met Charles, a Tutsi geologist employed by the cement company. They married in 1987, anticipating a long life together. By 1994, the family included two sons with another child on the way. But disaster was rapidly approaching.
First, Charles, long a valuable employee, was arrested and imprisoned for nothing more, it seemed, than being Tutsi. Upon finally being released, the company, under government pressure, terminated his employment in favor of his Hutu assistant.
It was decided he might have a better chance of finding work in the capital city of Kigali, visiting his family whenever possible. As the tensions in Rwanda worsened, he began journeying to and from Bugarama only at night, hoping to avoid roving murderous gangs.
On April 7, Uwimana awoke to learn that Rwanda’s Hutu president had been assassinated when his plane was struck by a ground-to-air missile, assumed launched by Tutsi liberation forces along the Ugandan border. (Investigations later strongly pointed to Hutu radicals seeking to ignite genocide against the Tutsi.)
Uwimana’s descriptions of the ensuing 100 days of horror cannot be adequately summarized here. But the following words would surely be part of any such attempt: hate, threats, fear, dread, terror, mobs, guns, machetes, clubs, curses, screams, moans, mass murder, blood-lust, rape, decapitation, infanticide, carnage, bodies rotting in the streets, burial pits, hopelessness, despair.
Somehow, in the midst of the chaos, as people were dying all around and her house was being torn apart, Uwimana birthed a healthy daughter. And, somehow, she and her children survived, miraculously spared, time after time, week after week, from certain death. Three months passed. Each morning she awoke, certain it would be her last. Finally, it was over.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. The 25 years since are an equally miraculous story of how she struggled to deal with the immense emotions of loss (even now, she has no idea what happened to Charles), anger, revenge, depression, post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and so much more.
Along the way, she asks of God all the “why” questions that plague hurting Christians. Through it all, somehow, her faith endures. Healing begins. The Spirit whispers, “Forgive.”
Slowly, she begins to try. Other widows, also working toward forgiveness, are discovered. They join together, and the work of forgiving and reconciliation begins. And continues — a miraculous story itself.
Uwimana’s children are grown. She has remarried. (Readers will be surprised to whom.) She remains active in Iriba Shalom International, an organization that supports survivors of genocide as they work to heal and forgive.
Uwimana has an amazing story. Her life is an amazing story, one that should be especially of interest to those who value forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
Anabaptists, for instance.
Delmar Yoder lives in Decatur, Ga.
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