KIGALI, Rwanda, APRIL 8, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Ten years after the outbreak of the genocide that left more than 1 million dead in Rwanda, the country is still healing, day by day.
This week a series of official commemorations for the genocide is under way in Kigali, the capital.
“From the analysis of the last census, there were more than 1 million people killed in just three months of massacres,” Father Dominique Karekezi, of the Office of Social Communications of the Rwandan bishops’ conference, told the Vatican agency Fides. That death toll could rise as more data surface, he said.
On April 6, 1994, a surface-to-air missile downed a plane that was carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, and triggering a series of massacres without precedent.
Ensuing violence killed many people of the Tutsi minority, as well as Hutus opposed to the existing regime. Confrontations spread to border countries giving rise to a decade of instability in the Great Lakes Region.
To the terrible killings at the hands of soldiers and militiamen of the then head of state Habyarimana, were added crimes by the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The war ended in the summer of 1994 with the victory of the RPF, which established a government of national unity.
“Thousands of people are still detained and awaiting trial, but many thousands have already been sentenced,” said Father Karekezi, director of the Catholic newspaper Kinyamateka.
“Many were released when being judged innocent, or for lack of evidence; others because they admitted their faults and asked for pardon from the community,” he said. “Others, instead, were found guilty and are serving their sentence.”
The Rwandan government decided to establish 11,000 traditional courts to cope with the high number of those detained — at present some 115,000 — accused of having taken part in the 1994 massacres. In October 2001, the juries were elected by popular acclamation.
Indicative of the Catholic Church’s active involvement in the country’s process of reconciliation was the international meeting held March 29-31 in Rwanda to reflect on the situation in the region.
“All the bishops, priests, men and women religious, and numerous lay people of Rwanda participated in the meeting,” as well as “delegations of the neighboring countries, Burundi and Tanzania in particular,” Father Karekezi explained.
The meeting was one more initiative “of the Catholic Church in favor of the reconciliation and pacification of the country,” he said. “Immediately after the genocide, the Rwandan bishops promoted synods of reconciliation in all the dioceses and parishes of Rwanda, and continued to do so for several years.”
Among the activities promoted by the Church are meetings of women who lost their husbands in the massacres and those whose husbands are in prison accused of being among the attackers.
John Paul II raised his voice from the moment he heard the news of the bloody confrontations in Rwanda. On April 9, 1994, the Holy Father sent a message to the Rwandan Catholic community imploring it “not to give in to feelings of hatred and vengeance, but to courageously practice dialogue and forgiveness.”
On June 23, 1994, the Pope sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to the central African country on a mission of solidarity and peace. The cardinal visited the hardest-hit dioceses, the places where the bishops were killed, and held meetings with the interim president of the republic and the RPF leader.
In 1994, the Church in Rwanda also paid a high price in blood with the death of 248 persons, according to data provided by Fides: three bishops, 103 priests, 47 men religious, 65 women religious, and 30 consecrated lay people. Another 15 died from lack of proper treatment or disappeared.