Friday, April 25, 2008
Father Rurangirwa: A genocide survivor’s forgiveness
On April 15 Father Romain Rurangirwa gave a heart-wrenching account of the Rwandan genocide 14 years ago. Residents of Carlisle and Westford poured into the Colonel Ruettgers Meeting Room of St. Irene Church and took with them a story that marks the true meaning of valuing life.
Growing up with wisdom, love and respect
Father Rurangirwa was born in 1966 to a large family in the southern part of Rwanda. Their houses were strategically built in a circle around the home of the eldest member of the family, an arrangement that always provided for a playground at the center for the children. He had
eight siblings, and their daily chores of fetching wood and carrying water together were “a time for respect and love.”
With a smile, Father Rurangirwa remembered his cherished bedtime stories. His eldest brother had a great talent for storytelling, so much so that when Father Rurangirwa came to the U.S., he was surprised to learn that Alice in Wonderland was not written by his brother!
One of the stories his grandmother told as they gazed at the night skies before falling asleep was so deeply planted in his mind that it later became the cornerstone of his evolution. She referred to the stars twinkling in the sky as the “eyes of the angels.” The eyes were happy or sad depending on the children’s behavior on a particular day.
Although Father Rurangirwa grew up in poverty, he is grateful to his parents for providing a memorable childhood, with no hint of the ethnic differences that were brewing at that time. By 1994 their house had grown significantly, his brothers and sisters were married and had their own children; in all he had 17 nieces and nephews. This was the year when the genocide began, driven by Hutu tribes committed to wiping out the Tutsi community. With meticulous planning, the Hutus killed one million people in 100 days.
Father Rurangirwa remembers the date on which he lost his entire family – it was April 21, 1994. He was away from home, studying at the seminary, but he fled toward safety. He took refuge in the forest at night, “making a party for the mosquitoes.” He also took shelter in an abandoned house that was inhabited by cows and pigs; he hoped that the smell would drive off any humans. After 100 days in hiding, he set out to find his family. He bought a bike with the small amount of money he had safely stashed away and rode from place to place to reach them or to find anyone who knew their whereabouts. It was a futile attempt, since his entire family had been killed. He was left empty and exhausted.
Filling the void
The loss of his family made Father Rurangirwa reflect on his identity and the purpose of his life. The story that he heard from his grandmother sitting in the moonlight echoed in his mind; he realized that the stars – the eyes of the angels – were his family members lost in the genocide. It was time now to make all those angels happy by not letting his life waste away in revenge and hatred.
For this, he went on a mission to connect with the survivors – the widows, orphans, children and the diseased. He spent time listening to their fears and anxieties and felt transformed. In their faces he saw reflections of his own beloved ones. He returned to the seminary with new-found hope and asked his bishop for special permission to expand his involvement with the victims. He was ordained at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Butare in 1996 at the spot where 35,000 people in his own parish were killed. His goal was to replace “the sadness with a sense of celebration,” to create hope, to show that life follows death.
He extended his work by visiting the prisons and looking eye-to-eye at the Hutus who were serving their sentences for crimes committed; he knew that some of them were responsible for the deaths of his own loved ones. He encouraged the wives of the prisoners to participate in his Bible reading. Gradually the genocide survivors and the prisoners’ wives came together to share their feelings, and, according to Father Rurangirwa, each found peace and tranquility in each other’s presence.
Leaving Rome to retain his faith
In 2002 a Christian group made it possible for Father Rurangirwa to study in Rome. Much to his surprise, a priest from Rwanda had divided the group into Hutus and Tutsis. He questioned the purpose of his study under the shadow of this old bitterness and returned to Rwanda. With a scholarship and the guidance of a friend, he came to the U.S. for Bible study at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, but switched to pastoral care and counseling. He earned a master’s degree in 2004 and in February 2008, he received his second master’s in conflict resolution from Brandeis University.
April is the national mourning month for Rwanda, when old memories return and make people anxious, even if they were not personally affected by the genocide. Genocide, said Father Rurangirwa, “creates a dangerous memory which can be destructive.” He stresses that conflicts are persistent and will always linger – “We can’t pretend to solve them, but we can always learn to accept them and co-exist.”
Father Rurangirwa’s long-term plan is to go back to Rwanda and serve the victims who still need help and moral support. He says he will never forget Carlisle. “The visual of nature [the greenery] connected me back to my home. The people are very down to earth.” He plans to stay in Carlisle for the short term as he wraps up his stay in the U.S. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito