Editor’s Note: April 7 marked the beginning of a week marking 25 years of the Rwandan genocide. We are sharing this 2004 story from our files.
By Declan Walsh
Catholic News Service
GISENYI, Rwanda (CNS) — Ten years ago, death seemed just hours away for Adria Umurangamirwa.
Ethnic genocide was under way across Rwanda. Outside the gate of the Catholic center where she lived in the northwestern town of Gisenyi, gangs of Hutu extremists were prowling the streets, looking for Tutsis to slaughter — Tutsis like her.
Umurangamirwa, a 57-year-old lay Catholic, cowered inside the walls of St. Peter’s Center with other lay women and several dozen Tutsi refugees. Up to eight people were sleeping in each room.
Every phone call with the outside world brought news of fresh massacres. They were sure their turn was next.
“Nobody knew what to do. All we knew is that we were going to die,” recalled Umurangamirwa.
But salvation was at hand, although it cost the life of a Hutu member of St. Peter’s lay community, Felicitas Niyitegeka, who helped dozens of people escape from St. Peter’s. One night she came for Umurangamirwa.
“There was a knock on my bedroom window at 2 in the morning. She said, ‘Leave your belongings and follow me quietly,'” Umurangamirwa recalled.
Under the moonless sky, Niyitegeka gathered 15 people outside in the garden, in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. After a hurried prayer, she led the terrified Tutsis through a banana plantation and toward a secret door at the back wall of the compound.
She instructed Umurangamirwa to lead the group toward the light of a distant house. They stumbled off. Reaching the far side, Umurangamirwa realized they had crossed into Zaire, now Congo. The group burst into laughter, tears and song.
Two nights later, on April 21, the Interahamwe militia arrived in St. Peter’s. They took the 32 inhabitants of St. Peter’s — including Niyitegeka — to the local cemetery, shot them, and flung their bodies into a mass grave.
Niyitegeka could have saved herself. Days earlier her brother, a colonel in the Rwandan army, had offered her safe passage out of St. Peter’s. She refused. Umurangamirwa still has the letter Niyitegeka wrote to her brother.
It reads: “Dear brother, Thank you for wanting to save me. But I cannot stay alive while leaving my 43 guests to die. I prefer to die with them. Pray that we will reach the Lord.
“Please say goodbye to my old mother and brothers on my behalf. If I get to heaven I will pray for you. Have courage and thank you for thinking of me. Your sister, Niyitegeka.”
Today, Rwanda is at peace. Umurangamirwa still lives in St. Peter’s, where in May the carefully tended garden was exploding with fresh flowers.
Niyitegeka has become a hero for many local Catholics.
“I am so proud of her. Without her, I would not be alive,” said Umurangamirwa.
Niyitegeka’s story of courage and sacrifice is one part of the Catholic Church’s complex, sometimes controversial, role in the Rwandan genocide.
An estimated 800,000 Rwandans — predominantly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, ethnic groups with a history of rivalry — were killed over 100 days in 1994. Some Catholic leaders played the role of heroes in the slaughter; others were villains.
In 2001 a Belgian court convicted Benedictine Sisters Gertrude, named as Consolata Mukangango, and Maria Kisito, named as Julienne Mukabutera, of assisting in the murder of about 5,000 Tutsis at a Benedictine monastery in Sovu, near the university town of Butare. Witnesses told the court the sisters handed gasoline to Hutu militiamen, who burned Tutsi refugees.
In another high-profile case, Father Athanase Seromba is awaiting trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. About another 20 clergymen also are awaiting trial in overcrowded Rwandan prisons.
But less publicized is the role played by some 200 Catholic clergy who sacrificed their lives to save others. One of the most courageous cases was Father Boniface Senyenzi, a Hutu who refused to desert his congregation in the lakeside town of Kibuye and eventually died with 11,400 others in the church.
In the Nyundo parish, where Niyitegeka lived, “even the bishop was forced to dig his own grave. They made him stand inside, to see if it was big enough. Luckily, he was saved,” said Alexis Kayitsimga, president of the local Catholic justice and peace commission.
Today a large notice that reads “Remember” is posted by the main door of Nyundo’s hilltop cathedral, where 500 people were killed between April 9 and May 1, 1994.
“The building can be rebuilt, but the blood that was spilled cannot be returned,” reads the notice.
The challenge for the church now is to “rebuild the social fabric through reconciliation,” said Bishop Alexis Habiyambere of Nyundo, who lost almost his entire family to the genocide.
“People have to separate their faith from politics. That is the lesson of what happened,” he said. “Christianity should not be something you learn by heart. We need a new, deeper evangelization.”
Hutus and Tutsis are the same in many ways, said Kayitsimga.
“We speak the same language, we have the same customs. It is only when there are power struggles that the differences come into play,” he said.
Today those differences are being fueled by extreme poverty, he warned.
“There are so many people who cannot eat, work or go to school. All it takes is a little trouble, and blood could be spilled again,” he said.
Copyright (c) 2004 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops