Rwandan Bishop Kambanda Reflects on the Genocide in His Country

Rwandan Bishop Kambanda Reflects on the Genocide in His Country July 15, 2014

Today, I conclude my 100 day series remembering the twentieth anniversary of Rwandan genocide. While I have not posted on each of the past 100 days, the people of Rwanda have been on my heart throughout this journey. Today, I am very happy to share a recent email interview I conducted with Bishop Antoine Kambanda of the Diocese of Kibungo. I am sharing Bishop Antoine’s remarks exactly as they were sent to me, so please be aware of the language issues and simply focus on his commentary. His is the story of many who continue to heal and rebuild in the wake of the violence in Rwanda. As our thoughts move away from the commemoration period and towards a bright future for Rwanda, please join me in prayer for those lives lost and impacted in this tragedy. #NeverAgain. To support the work of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, please consider a donation to Catholic Relief Services. LMH

Bishop Antoine Kambanda. Photo credit: Sunday Times/Stephen Rwambeho

Q: Please briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

I am Bishop Antoine KAMBANDA, Bishop of the Diocese of Kibungo in Rwanda. I was born in Rwanda in Nyamata Parish in the Archidiocese of Kigali on the 10/11/1958. I did my primary and secondary studies in Uganda and Kenya and the Major Seminary for philosophy in Kenya and theology in Rwanda. I was ordained a priest on 08/09/1990 by St. John Paul II when he visited Rwanda. I was in Rome from 1993-1999 for further studies where I got a PhD in theology. I was a formator in the minor seminary for 3 years. I was in charge of Caritas, development and justice and peace in the diocese 6 years. I was a lecturer of moral theology in the major seminary for 14 years. I was a Rector of the Major seminary for 8 years. I was appointed Bishop on the 07/05/2013 and  ordained on the 20/07/2013.

Q: If you are comfortable sharing it, please tell our readers any of your personal memories of the genocide era. How were you or your family impacted? How did your faith help you to recover from the genocide? 

The ethnic violence and conflicts in Rwanda started all the way back in 1959 when I was one year old. Rwandan community which speaks the same language, has the same culture, was arbitrary divided into rather imagined and fabricated ethnic differences that  led to a series of conflicts, violence and wars. In 1963 my family had to take refuge in Burundi and later on in Uganda where I passed my childhood. In 1975 there was some promise of peace and my family came back to Rwanda but I remained in Uganda for studies. In 1994 my family was killed in genocide. In the family we were nine: six brothers, a sister and the parents. Out of the eight members of my family who were in Rwanda only one brother survived, the rest were all killed in 1994. So out of nine members of the family (including myself who was out of the country) we are only left two. This is without talking of the wide family, that is, the ants, uncles, cousins and in-laws some of whom were entirely wiped out.

1994 was a terrible agony for all Rwandans. Those in the country lived it physically, psychologically and spiritually. For us outside the country we lived it psychologically and spiritually. It was quite painful to live it from far in Europe where I was surrounded by a rather an indifferent society that continued its normal life. I have to adapt to it in order to be able to go ahead with it in spite of my deep sorrow and suffering. I could only follow shocking images of the atrocities in Rwanda on the television and the newspapers. I felt like part of my life is also dead and indeed the dear ones who died were part of my life.

But I must say that it was faith and prayer that sustained me in that difficult period. Feeling so lonely in a world that does not care and can not know nor understand my pain and sorrow, I only sought consolation and strength in the Lord Jesus Christ who tells us “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11,28-29) I developed an intensive and deep prayer. Hours of meditation of the word of God and prayer brought me to deeper communion with God and through Him also communion with the dear ones who passed away. This gave me life courage and strength to finish my studies and accomplish my mission in Rome despite the difficult situation.

Q: How is the Catholic Church endeavoring to commemorate the twentieth year since the Rwandan genocide? 

The Catholic Church looks back in the last 20 years after the genocide and sees where the community of believers has come from. It is a long way. It is like we are coming out of deep ditch. A study was conducted by Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace on the role of the church for the reconstruction of Rwandan community in terms of  managing the conflicts, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. This study was presented to the public and it revealed an important role and contribution that  the Catholic Church has had in the reconstruction of the country. It also shows we still have a lot to do ahead. You could realize that indeed the Holy Spirit has been the guiding hand in what has been achieved.

We commemorated in a particular way for the clergy, the religious and all our pastoral agents victims of the genocide are close to the survivors for spiritual, social and economic assistance. There are some clergy and religious who were real witnesses of the gospel in the genocide and died martyrs but they were also others we regret betray the gospel of love they were supposed to stand for.

This year we have a special programme of joint efforts for building peace in the region that is in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are doing it also with the Anglican Church in all the three countries. It is within this programme also that we organized an ecumenic commemoration of Catholics and Anglicans from all the three countries in Kigali to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 and also to raise our voice against the genocide ideology not only in Rwanda but in the whole region.

Q: How can faith help Rwandans to move forwards to complete reconciliation?

What happened in Rwanda is beyond human capacity of understanding and to overcome this is situation is even more complicated because it left complex consequences that we will live with for generations. The genocide in Rwanda is unique. It was not committed by foreigners or strangers, it was committed by Rwandans themselves against their neighbors; people with whom they grew up together, schoolmates and classmates, teachers who taught them, catechists who prepared them for sacraments, priests and religious who evangelized them and even in-laws, cousins and uncles in ethnic mixed marriages. So after the genocide the survivors and the families of the perpetrators had to live together side by side as they could not do otherwise. It was a very complex and tense situation to deal with. So far it is with faith and prayer that we have been able to go through these years and achieve some reconciliation that has enabled the community to avoid the spiral of violence. In small christian communities people led by prayer and the word of God were able to share their stories of suffering and this has paved way for compassion and mercy such that many complicated cases of conflict have been solved and forgiveness and reconciliation has been achieved

Q: How has the Church in Rwanda made amends for any acts perpetrated by Catholics during the genocide?

On the occasion of the celebration of the jubilee of 2000 years of christianity, the church in Rwanda it coincided with the jubilee of 100 years of evangelization. So a special synod on the ethnic problem was thoroughly examined and discussed in the spirit of prayer and examination of conscience, listening to one another and sharing the stories of their suffering. Everybody is suffering, be it survivors or perpetrators of the genocide and their families, they all bear a great deal of pain and sorrow. Listening to one another without judging, only trying to understand the suffering of the other, has led to mutual compassion and understanding which not only facilitated justice but also laid foundation for reconciliation. The special courts of Gacaca also had a double purpose of rendering justice but also reconciliation. In these courts also the church played an important role in their success to bring about reconciliation. People were encouraged to confess and ask for forgiveness and also for those who were offended to forgive in order to rebuild a community of peace and brotherhood. When we celebrated the jubilee we asked God’s mercy for all the atrocities and offenses committed by the Christians.

Q: How can Catholics around the world assist Rwandans both with moving towards reconciliation and in a general sense?

First of all there are Catholics in other parts of the world who have a long experience of living their Christian life in harmony despite the differences. This is an important lesson and testimony for Rwandans. Secondly there are also others who have had shocking experiences of war and genocide whose experience and expertise can help us especially in dealing with trauma. We have so many people, especially young people, who lived such shocking and traumatizing experiences that need technics and expertise in trauma healing. There are women who were raped and on top of that have had children from this rape and now these mothers have a problem of knowing what to tell these children, when to tell them and how to tell them with breaking their hearts. There are many other complicated issues. Thirdly there is a general problem of poverty that intensifies and further complicates the situation. Particularly the survivors in general are poor and vulnerable and apart from spiritual assistance social and economic assistance is also an important part of healing.

Q: What would you like for Catholics around the world to know about the current state of the Catholic Church in your country?

In Rwanda we have a church that has come close to Christ suffering and this has raised great thirst for God and piety. The problem we have is that sects and all sorts of religious confessions, some of whom are kind of swindlers. Due to this thirst for God and salvation, when people hear any person speaking of God they will follow him. So we need formation to deepen the knowledge of the Catholic faith and since priests are never enough for evangelization we need to prepare the laity to play an important role in the work of evangelization.

Q: Do you have any additional thoughts or comments to share with our readers?

The phase of peacebuilding we have reached now is to enable the perpetrators of genocide, who have finished their sentences, to go back on their villages to live and work together with the families of the survivors. It is not an easy task but with God’s help we are managing and we shall succeed. Little by little some associations of the two categories and other ordinary christians are starting up small cooperatives for development projects, prayer groups and social groupings. Another encouraging element also is that we have been encouraging and collecting testimonies of people who helped to hide and save people during the genocide at the cost of serious risks for their own lives. In general they were Hutus or foreigners. This helps in overcoming the prejudices and creates more confidence in the people when they realize that not all Hutus were killers and in fact there are some who were really good witnesses of the gospel in difficult periods. Behind almost all the stories of the people who survived the genocide, there was a Hutu or a foreigner who played a role to have him or her saved. These are different stepping stones for the achievement of the reconciliation of the Rwandan community in general and the community of Catholic believers in particular.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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