The pierced, ‘disfigured Christ looks like me’
Révérien Rurangwa was a devout Catholic until the Rwandan genocide left his body scarred and his faith shattered.
Ros Wynne-Jones meets him10 April 2009--Catholic Herald UK
Like many Rwandans, Révérien Rurangwa was brought up in a staunchly Catholic family. His village, Mugina, on the main road south from the capital, is dotted with one-room churches and a convent. In 1994, at the time of the genocide, there were 30 nuns living close by, and two Spanish priests.
Révérien remembers that not a Sunday went past without his family going to Mass, no meal passed without a blessing and no evening without a prayer. At night, he went to sleep to the sound of his mother's whispered Hail Marys coming from the living room of the family house.
But 15 years ago this week, the Rwandan genocide shook a country's faith to the core, and shattered Révérien's relationship with the God he prayed to daily.
On April 20 1994, two weeks after the start of the genocide, during which a million mainly Tutsi Rwandans were killed in just 100 days, Révérien's entire family - 47 members in all - were massacred in front of his eyes. He watched his parents, Drocilla Nyiramatama and Boniface Muzigura die alongside his siblings, Sylvie, 13, Olive, 11, Pierre Celestin, nine, Marie, seven, and Claudette, five. Révérien, their eldest child, somehow survived the attack, despite horrific wounds, his arm hacked off, his eye cut out, his nose cut off, his body battered with a studded club.
His book, Genocide, translated and published in English this week to mark the 15th anniversary, is an extraordinary account not only of his life from that day onwards, but also the spiritual battle that began the moment his Hutu neighbour - a man who owned a local bar which Révérien's family sometimes visited - took a machete to the "Tutsi cockroaches" hiding in a tiny, dank goat shed on the Rwandan hillside.
"I cried out for God that day," he says. "We were very religious. My mother died praying to God. Deliver us from evil, Amen."
But Rwanda, betrayed by the United Nations and by western countries, had also been abandoned by its nuns and priests.
"In Mugina, the nuns - around 30 of them - were picked up by military vehicles, along with our two Spanish priests, by the soldiers of UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) right at the start of the genocide on April 7," Révérien remembers. "The priests were called Jean and Isidore. I liked them a lot. They had lived in Mugina for 30 years and spoke Kinyarwanda as well as our parents, and without any accent. They had become one of us, but they dropped us just like that."
Standing on the hillside with 25,000 other frightened men, women and children, hearing that the plan for Tutsi extermination was now fully underway, Révérien watched the exodus.
"I saw them leave with their pots of flowers and their dogs," he says, when we meet in Switzerland, the country that accepted him for medical help after the genocide. "Couldn't they at least have taken a Tutsi baby with them?
"They left with their dogs and their flowers and they left everyone else to die because they were Tutsis."
The nation's simple churches became the places where hundreds of thousands of Rwandans sought sanctuary - and thus the scenes of their deaths.
"Where was God?" Révérien asks. "Why didn't he do anything? At 15, I may have sinned, but what about the babies, what could they have done?"
"When you see the Hutu priests coming with the machete and killing, and you see a church that 25 Tutsis died in is cleaned up and people go on praying there - and that the ones who pray in that church are the ones who killed... "There is not a church in Rwanda untouched by Tutsi blood."
A week earlier, on April 12 1994, more than 1,500 Tutsis were killed as they sought refuge in Nyange Catholic church in Kivumu, western Rwanda. Bulldozers were used to knock down the church building, and those who escaped suffocation were hacked to death.
Fr Athanase Seromba, a local priest, was later found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the demolition of his church and convicted of the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity.
There were Catholic heroes of the genocide too, like the Bosnian priest, Vjeko Curic, whose story is told in the British film Shooting Dogs - his character is the basis for John Hurt's "Christopher" - but only a tiny percentage of clergy remained beyond the early days of bloodshed.
Still, it was Christian charity that persuaded Révérien's guardian, Luc Dupraz, to take him in to his home in the Swiss Alps, and offer him a new life. And it is in Luc's humble mountain chapel that Révérien continues to struggle with questions of God, theology and spirituality.
In his book, Révérien tells how Luc repeatedly asks him to consider forgiveness, but the western clichés of making peace and closure are not something he is prepared to countenance.
In 1995 he went back to Rwanda determined to track down his family's killer and see justice done. He found the man, Simon Sibomana, still working in the same bar, unpunished for the deaths of Révérien's family and others who died on the Mugina hillside. Révérien challenged Sibomana at the bar, and then went to the authorities and reported him. But after a brief spell in prison, Sibomana was released and it was Révérien who was forced into hiding after an attempt on his life. As the lone surviving witness of this massacre, Révérien believes Sibomana hired contract killers to kill him. Because of his scars he is easily identifiable, and has also been attacked in Switzerland and in Belgium for being "that Tutsi witness".
"People ask if I have forgiven the man who did this to me, and killed my family," Révérien says. "I would ask the question, how could one pardon someone who has never asked to be pardoned? "It's not up to me to propose this to them, people who killed night and day for three months. People who were tired from killing. People who still want to kill me today. People who don't have any regret. How can one pardon these people?
"Yes, I think even today it can happen again. Victims are not being protected. They are still being killed with machetes and being poisoned. I've written a book and I am very public. "I can't go back to Rwanda. It is not my home any more. A home is where you have family. A home is where you have security. My friends here are my family now."
Standing in the United Nations building in Geneva, where this week Révérien will attend the formal commemorations of the genocide, he says he has reached a conclusion on his spiritual conflict.
"I am finished with God," he says. "I understand now that I must be my own god.
"Yet at the end of his book, he tells a curious story. The final chapter is a long burst of rage against God, where Révérien is one cold night kneeling in his guardian's bare private chapel, unable to sleep, shouting at the Cross, and flicking through Luc's Bible, finding only more words to spur on his anger. "Blessed are the meek." "Deliver us from evil." Every phrase seems to him a lie.
Then he approaches the crucifix at the front of the chapel, and notices something
"Suddenly strange similarities leap out at me between His injuries, His wounds, His frailties, His gashes, His dislocations and mine, and those of my massacred brothers," Révérien writes.
"This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. As if it were a brother. He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all the victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs...
"As daybreak spills over the Alpine peaks Révérien is passing in and out of sleep on one of the chapel's hard benches. "Perhaps I was dreaming, but I thought I saw, for just a second, the Tutsi Christ smiling at me. Was it the delirium of the insomniac?"
A question occurs to him suddenly: "If this God is dead in me, why, one day, could I not be dead in Him?"
Révérien Rurangwa's book, Genocide, is published this week by Reportage Press, translated by Anna Brown, £8.99 (http://www.reportagepress.com/)
I will think a lot about Reverien Rurangwa this weekend, and meditate on his last question. "If this God is dead in me, why, one, day, could I not be dead in Him?"
I suspect that Reverien knows the answer to his question is never. He will never be dead in the heart of Jesus. Ultimately this is what this weekend is truly about. In His death and resurrection Jesus saw to it that we would never be dead in His heart, even though He may not find room in ours, and certainly He understands and forgives when His room in our hearts have been driven out by the prejudice and judgement of others.
I also think there's a lesson for American Catholicism in the Rawanda genocide. This was a situation which pitted Catholic against Catholic, Christian against Christian, and where sanctuary sought in churches proved to be nothing more than a certain death sentence. Ethnocentrism trumped Faith, and every single Christian denomination actively participated in the slaughter.
An article from the African News Service, entitled the Cross and the Genocide ends with the following paragraph: Hatred propaganda against Tutsis, Hutus or the government, such as propagated by the Comboni Missionaries, meets general disgust among the awakened Rwandan clergy of today. Although the churches remain in a complex relation to their own past, the local clergy certainly has learned that the unity of the Rwandan peoples is a precious gift not to jeopardised by promoting one group at the cost of another.
Any time a Christian denomination promotes one group at the cost of another it denies the reality of the teachings of Jesus and the cost He paid for those teachings. Anytime a Christian denomination promotes one group at the cost of another, they create the exact climate that Jesus experienced this week two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, and the results are very often the same. Someone, or in the case of Rwanda, almost a million someones, die.
One of the mitigating causes for the participation of Christian denominations in the genocide was the personal connections of church leadership to the political leaders in Rwanda. These connections were why, two priests and thirty nuns were removed before the attack was made on Mr. Rurangwa's village. This was no novel occurrence, as the genocide was not a random event but rather, a coldly calculated event. Church leadership in bed with politicians may protect church leadership, but the cost is born by the laity--always.
As American Catholicism continues to split over culture issues, we may want to look to Rwanda for a few lessons. This is not a good path we've embarked on no matter what our politicians tell us. The Notre Dame controversy might seem like a very pale version of the Rwanda genocide, but the seeds are the same and division in the Body of Christ is the result.
This weekend, I will see the tortured body of Reverien Rurwanga on the Cross, and meditate on it's meaning. I probably won't like all of what's reflected back at me, but that's part of the price we all pay when we embark on the Way. We are not just Christ crucified, we are also Christ's crucifiers. I will also remember His heart is big enough for both and take comfort from that, and pray that we all get a little enlightenment about mixing politics and religion.