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‘To believe amidst the unbelievable’

| Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series discussing the Rutagengwa family’s search for God from the 1994 Rwandan genocide in light of their trip back to Rwanda in December. To remain true to their experience, this piece contains graphic content.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 1 million people were killed in 100 days, a group including theology professors Fr. Dan Groody and Fr. Virgil Elizondo and project coordinator for the Institute of Latino Studies Colleen Cross accompanied survivors Jean Bosco Rutagengwa and Christine Rutagengwa to their home country in December to explore the search for God during genocide.

Groody, who organized the trip, said its goal was to bring together a “community of friends” to address the issue of finding God in seemingly hopeless situations.

“We wanted more than to just see a pious Band-Aid over a very painful, difficult reality,” Groody said. “We wanted to see how people really helped rebuild their lives after such violence … and how you begin to think about that theologically.”

Groody, whose primary research area is migration theology, said Christine Rutagengwa reached out to him two years ago after he gave a talk about Rwandan refugees. She introduced Groody to her husband, Jean Bosco Rutagengwa, who wanted to write a book about the search for God from his personal experience seeking refuge in the Hotel Mille Collines, also known as the Hotel Rwanda.

“I said, ‘Where was God for you during that time?’” Groody said. “And [Jean Bosco] says, ‘Well, I remember one instance in particular where they cut off all the water sources and we had started to drink out of the swimming pool. And at one point there was no water left, but amidst our desperation that we thought we were going to run dry, it then started to rain. God for me was in the rain.’”

The Rutagengwas, whose daughter Fiona Rutagengwa is a freshman at Notre Dame, spent 40 days in the Hotel Mille Collines, the inspiration for the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” where more than a thousand Tutsi refugees sought shelter during the genocide, Groody said.

Fr. Dan Groody stands with survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in December. While in Rwanda, Groody visited victims’ memorials and met with community leaders seeking to rebuild their country.Photo courtesy of Dan Groody

Fr. Dan Groody stands with survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in December. While in Rwanda, Groody visited victims’ memorials and met with community leaders seeking to rebuild their country.

During the trip, the group stayed at the hotel — the Rutagengwas’ first visit there since they fled 19 years ago — and visited important memorials for genocide victims, Groody said.

“When you go out to these memorials, they had all kinds of different models,” he said. “One would [display] the skulls and the bones, and you can just pick them up. They’re right there. And then there were others where they would say, ‘Here are the vaults,’ and there are 200,000 people in this vault, 200,000 people in that vault. … It wasn’t as graphic as the first model.

“The third, which was really disturbing … [showed] how they died, and then they took this lime and they basically preserved the bones, some of which still had hair on them. The most disturbing one was I think the rape. You’d see this woman who had been raped and kind of thrown into this pit.”

The group also visited Christine Rutagengwa’s childhood parish, the site of a brutal killing spree, Groody said.

“It’s a church that is a memorial for the genocide, and in the back it’s just skulls and bones,” he said. “[Christine] said, ‘This is where I went to Sunday school. This is where they rounded up my mother and my sisters, and they macheted and threw grenades and they macheted 5,000 people in a couple of hours.’

“Some French brigade group trained the killers how to kill 1,000 people in 20 minutes.”

Groody said churches were popular targets for those carrying out the genocide.

“There were previous genocides in Rwanda, but in those previous times, people fled to the churches for refuge, literally for protection,” he said. “But this time, the killers knew they were going to do that, so then they targeted the churches, then rounded them up there and threw grenades in there and hacked them to death or took their kids, their babies, and smashed their heads against the wall. The numbers were just astronomical.”

Groody said he held Mass at many of the memorials, including the place where Jean Bosco Rutagengwa’s mother was buried.

Along the way, Groody said the group met people who proved that new life had emerged in Rwanda, including a nun who had harbored 22 refugees in her house during the genocide. Despite her best efforts, the killers found them and murdered them, even burying one person alive, he said.

“This dog they had was a very mean dog, but the dog one day — after they had killed [the refugee] and put him in this grave — the dog kept whimpering and crying, and he kept going back and forth between the grave and the house,” Groody said.

“What he was trying to say is there’s somebody still alive there. And [the nun’s] comment was that in many ways, this dog showed more humanity than the people, which is interesting for my work because when I ask migrants what is the hardest part about being a migrant, one of them said it’s being treated like you’re a dog.

“But in this case, it even takes that further that sometimes a dog can be even more human than people or show more humanity than human beings do.”

Groody said even though the nun suffered terrible losses, she also said she had a responsibility to cultivate goodness.

“She said, when we asked ‘What is the message of Rwanda for the world?’ ‘Rwanda descended lower than anyone could possibly go. As a human community, we went lower than anybody could possibly go,’” Groody said. “‘Neighbor turned against neighbor. People in the same church started killing each other, parents against children. We went so low that you couldn’t get any lower.’

“But it was from that point that she realized that her mission was to be a messenger of light and hope and to put goodness back on its throne.”

Groody said he also met a priest named Fr. Jerome who sought to rebuild his community after the genocide.

“[Fr. Jerome] realized that he had to do more than keep saying Mass for people,” Groody said. “He started a support group, and they came in and started telling their story. He says the stories were all the same. ‘They killed X, Y and Z. Why did God let this happen?’ Because it’s very hard for people to get beyond their own pain and suffering.

“But he said at one point he asked them, ‘Was there anything good that happened at any time during the genocide? Did you experience anybody do a good act for you or anything that you feel grateful for?’ And he says that kind of opened a door and it just changed the perspective and people began talking about where God was in the midst of that.”

Groody said hearing these survivors’ stories changed the way he approaches finding God in hopeless places.

“Before I left, I had a lot of questions,” he said. “When we got there and started talking to people, I began analyzing it. We got further into the questions to try to understand things.

“As I started hearing people’s stories, I became more and more quiet, and then once you start hearing these things, you’re just speechless. And by the end you’re crying. You just don’t have words that even begin to touch this. You really kind of have to shift your theology in a way from just saying, ‘Where was God?’ to ‘Where were we?’”

Jean Bosco Rutagengwa wrote a book about his search for God, framed around life, death and resurrection, to be published later this year, and Groody said the group is working to release a documentary about their trip to be released around the 20th anniversary of the genocide in April.

“The greatest takeaway for me is that there are living witnesses that bear testimony to a God of life in midst of death, and whose own ability to believe amidst the unbelievable is a compelling narrative of how God is with us, even amidst the most challenging situations we face,” he said. “It’s one thing if we say this from places like [Notre Dame], and it’s another thing when you’re with people who say it from places like [Rwanda].”

About Tori Roeck

Tori is the Associate News Editor at The Observer. She is a senior studying classics and philosophy, and she spent the spring semester of her junior year studying in Athens, Greece, where her heart currently resides.

Contact Tori