‘Love is stronger than death’
Tori Roeck | Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
In April 1994, Jean Bosco and Christine Rutagengwa were preparing for their July wedding when the Rwandan genocide began. They became separated in the chaos.
“We were getting ready for our wedding, and we survived at the Hotel [des] Mille Collines, now known as Hotel Rwanda,” Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said. “I got there first … praying to God to bring my fiancée there. I left the hotel to bring her back to the hotel, and that was to us a testimony that God listened to our prayers.
“We stayed at the hotel about 40 days, and during those days, every day was a dangerous day.”
The Hotel des Mille Collines was the only safe area at the time, but Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said he left anyway, trusting God to keep him and his fiancée safe.
“Every day in the hotel, we put ourselves in the hands of God,” he said. “We prayed for our safety every single day at the hotel. We were surrounded by the killers.
“It was like a small island, or let’s say, a sinking boat surrounded by sharks. It was like the Titanic sinking surrounded by sharks.”
Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said he felt that he and Christine survived the genocide for a reason. After they were evacuated from the hotel by United Nations’ peacekeepers, others hiding there were killed by the militias, he said.
“We were lucky enough to survive, and for us we have a mission — the mission is to spread a message of love,” he said. “We have a testimony that love is stronger than death. … Evil didn’t win.”
Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said he has drafted a manuscript about the search for God from the Rwandan genocide, to be published later this year.
“Before the genocide, I was certain I was just like everybody else, thinking about your future, your family, not thinking much about other people, about being involved in the community,” he said. “After genocide, [my wife and I] really have changed. We both feel like we have a mission to be involved in the community.
“Whenever it’s possible to help your neighbor … to help someone recover from tragedy, [you should] get involved in their affairs, help them live a better life. You only realize that when tragedy strikes your own life. Then you realize that other people need you. You don’t realize that until your own life is impacted.”
While praying to God helped the Rutagengwas get through the genocide, Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said praying does not entail survival. However, God has a plan for everyone, he said.
“We just listened to the teachings of our parents and the Church, and we were able to survive, and we thanked God for all He did for us,” he said. “However, we are well aware, aware that there are so many people who died in the genocide. It does not mean at all that they didn’t pray to God. I know they did.
“My mother was a devout Catholic. She died. My father was. He died. Christine’s mother — she was Catholic. She died. And our siblings, they died. It does not mean at all that they didn’t pray to God. We don’t understand how God works. Some people die, others survive. In our cases, this is why we think we have a mission to be humble people, to show love, to spread the good word — maybe this is what God was telling us?”
Christine Rutagengwa said the experience taught her to appreciate life.
“The life we have is precious,” she said. “When you lose it, when it’s gone, you can’t find it. But material things — we lost our houses, we lost everything, but we found them after. But we never found our parents. We never found our sisters and brothers. So life is precious, it’s very precious and you can’t replace it. That’s what I realized.”
The Rutagengwas, whose daughter Fiona Rutagengwa is a freshman at Notre Dame, returned to Rwanda in December with a group including theology professors Fr. Dan Groody and Fr. Virgil Elizondo, as well as project coordinator for the Institute of Latino Studies Colleen Cross.
“We were happy to go back, even if it was not easy,” Christine Rutagengwa said. “It was not easy because we saw the memorials, and it brought back bad memories.
“To see people like Fr. Dan [Groody] care and show us love — it made us feel better. It cannot take away our pain, but it’s kind of very good for us. When people care, they are not maybe many, but they are people who really care, who were able to see what happened to us. I really loved that experience I had with friends from the [United States]. It was a blessing to go there with them.”
Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said the trip had two purposes.
“Fr. Dan [Groody] had the idea to go to Rwanda,” he said. “We wanted to show our friends what happened to us, because we wanted [them] to know and understand what happened to our family.
“In Rwanda they built memorials for the victims of the genocide, and some of our family is buried there … and the motivation to go there was to honor their memory, to go there and say some prayers for them, being surrounded by some of our friends from the [United States].”
While in the United States, Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said he channels his mission into helping other survivors of the genocide come to terms with what they experienced.
“When I moved to the [United States] in 2000, I devoted my time to supporting FORGES [Friends of Rwandan Genocide Survivors], an association created by Rwandan survivors living in New England,” he said. “For the last several years, I have organized in Boston with other FORGES members the annual commemoration of the genocide of the Tutsis, which takes place every April, and I have spoken at different events aimed at fighting the genocide ideology.”
Jean Bosco Rutagengwa said his advice to people facing difficult situations is to hold onto faith.
“Life is full of distractions, especially for young people, and whenever life issues arise, many forget that God is the answer and revert to their habits and distractions,” he said. “Putting God before everything is the only way to be happy and to be at peace. But it’s easier said than done. It requires sacrifice; it requires discipline; it requires humility.
“But at the end, it saves lives.”
Christine Rutagengwa said she and her husband still wonder why they survived the genocide and others did not, and they pray to God for guidance constantly.
“We’re always looking, praying and asking God, ‘Why? What do you want me to do? What are the lessons you want me to give to the people who don’t know about or happen to ask? We know you are real. We know you are there,’” she said.
“That is a kind of question we don’t know how to answer. We are trying. Maybe one day we’ll find out.”