The 25th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide: How to Forgive the Unforgiveable

Twenty-five years ago today, in the landlocked African country of Rwanda, over a million people — primarily Tutsi, including women and children — were slaughtered in just 100 days. In the “land of a thousand hills” the blood ran like rivers, as bodies piled up or were tossed into unmarked mass graves. In many cases, there was no one left to bury them. For Fr. Ubald, more than five years passed before he learned the fate of his mother and other extended family members — when the man who had given the order for their execution stepped forward to beg his forgiveness, then took him to the place they had been buried.

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Fr. Ubald at his family’s memorial

His family home was destroyed, obliterated by crops that his former neighbors had sown in an effort to eradicate the memory. “They could not look at us, could not speak to us,” remembers Fr. Ubald. “They had too much shame.” And yet, in time, they found peace. They discovered, as Fr. Ubald so often tells people, that Forgiveness Makes You Free.

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What is most remarkable about Fr. Ubald is not only the fact that survived, or that he was able to forgive and show mercy to those who had committed such unspeakable crimes. What is most remarkable is the spiritual legacy that he has built since then — a beautiful retreat center called the Center for the Secret of Peace.

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Since 2009, Fr. Ubald has expanded his ministry to the United States at the invitation of his friend Immaculée Imibagiza, author of the NYT bestseller Left to Tell. He travels all over the world, inviting people to open their hearts to Jesus, to let go of old burdens, and to receive the healing Jesus wants to give them. If you would like to experience this for yourself, you can find his speaking schedule here. Or you can get a copy of his new book here.

God bless you!

Day 9: Forgiveness

Alice (interpreter), Heidi, Fr. Ubald, and Straton.

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Today’s theme is “forgiveness.” Not just each other, but those who move in your sphere of influence.

This year Craig and I flew to Rwanda to help Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga complete his book for Ave entitled Forgiveness Makes You Free. The highlight of the trip was getting to interview Straton, the man who now works alongside Fr. Ubald to bring reconciliation and peace to the people of Rwanda. Once a powerful burgomeister who gave the order for the execution of Fr. Ubald’s mother and extended family, he now works construction and travels with Fr. Ubald into prisons and speaks to those who, like him, were responsible for the deaths of more than a million former friends, neighbors, and co-workers — slaughtered in just 100 days simply because they were Tutsi.

Looking into Straton’s eyes, I did not see a hardened criminal. There was no hate, only sincerity. This was a man whose life had been transformed by the power of forgiveness — the forgiveness of his victims, the forgiveness of his family, and the forgiveness of God. All of it possible because of forgiveness and mercy.

Think about your own life. Is there anyone — even someone in your intimate circle — you are finding difficult to forgive? Are you willing to set your relationship free through the power of forgiveness? You will be amazed at what God can do in the heart that is willing to surrender.

Together We Rise

Last June my husband and I flew to Rwanda to spend time with one of my authors, Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, to finish up his book Forgiveness Makes You Free. It was a great privilege to meet in person those I had met only in the pages of his manuscript: his brother and sister (the only members of his family who survived the 1994 genocide), along with hundreds of others, both Tutsi and Hutu, whose lives had been indelibly scarred by the violence. The high point of the trip, however, was meeting the former burgomaster, Straton, who had given the order to slaughter the Tutsis who had come to the commune for his protection. Among them was Fr. Ubald’s mother and other family.

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Interpreter Alice, Heidi, Fr. Ubald, and Straton June 16, 2018

As I listened to him tell his story, I realized that this was no hardened criminal. Like so many Hutus at that time, he had been caught up in a wave of fear and hatred, protecting his own family, his own interests. But in the end, he failed. His wife died while he was in prison, leaving his children destitute. He lost his freedom, having chosen to return from hiding to give witness to the truth of what had happened. And when he was released from prison last year, he even lost his standing — the former community leader was now performing manual labor to support himself. And yet, as he talked I could hear no bitterness, only regret … and gratitude to the man whose profound forgiveness had changed not only his own life, but that of his children as well.

Returning to the U.S. after our trip, I recoiled at the political vitriol that seemed to be continuously spilling across my Facebook feed. I had seen firsthand what happens when two groups of people turn on one another — including former family and friends as well as fellow parishioners — according to party lines. While only a small percentage of Hutu had planned the killings against the Tutsi (and Hutus who resisted or tried to protect the refugees), thousands more were compelled to engage in the violence out of fear, anger, or self-interest. A million people were slaughtered in just 100 days, including whole families. Fr. Ubald’s message of forgiveness and mercy has helped many survivors to heal … but there is still much work to be done.

His message is one that is desperately needed today. The anger and bitterness that is pulling our country apart is turning deadly … and cannot be halted by one person, not even one as powerful as the President.

It must start with us. You and me.

When lifelong friends and family members become so embroiled in their political views that they stop speaking to one another, we must find a way to forgive and remember how much there is to love.

When toxic memes, vilifying one side or the other, come across our social media feeds, we must find the strength to unfollow, rather than share.

When we become disillusioned with our political system, we must not waste time and energy howling into the wind. Instead, we must ARISE. Speak respectfully. Act meaningfully. Love absolutely. And, to quote the great Mr. Rogers, “find the helpers.”

Because if we don’t do these things, not only will we fail to “make America great again.” We will lose even the goodness we once found in each other.

Together, We Rise. That red and blue needs to blend … pick your favorite shade, and let it inspire you. Crimson, electric purple, lilac.

What will you do?