From Hell to Hope, Rwanda, 20 years later of tribal hatred and destruction that left nearly 1 million people dead during the course of 100 bloody days known simply as “the genocide.”
From Hell to Hope
Rwanda, 20 years later
By Claude Richli
“‘There are no devils left in hell,’ the missionary said. ‘They are all in Rwanda.’”
This was the quote on the cover of Time magazine, May 16, 19941 I remember the shudder that went down my spine as I stared at this cover in the spring of that fateful year. Since my father and friends had served as missionaries at the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) in Mudende, I couldn’t be indifferent to the plight of this beautiful country, tucked away in the mountains of central Africa. In fact, nobody with a beating heart could, except perhaps the Western powers that hardly stirred as this country convulsed in a spasm of tribal hatred and destruction that left nearly 1 million people dead during the course of 100 bloody days known simply as “the genocide.”
Exactly 10 years later, during the first week of April 2004, I traveled to Mudende in Rwanda as part of a delegation from the newly established East-Central Africa Division. We were charged with making recommendations about what to do with the now dilapidated campus. There I stood, amid what Time magazine called “the killing fields of Rwanda,” at what used to be a Seventh-day Adventist institution, in the science building where more than 1,000 people who had sought refuge were hacked to death by a frenzied mob. Thirty-two of our own students lost their lives.
Situated on the eastern slope of the Virunga mountains, at about 7,000 feet, the place is almost always shrouded in mist. Now, to my eyes, it looked like it would forever struggle to dispel the images of the past. Indeed, the whole country seemed as if it had not yet come to terms with the tragedy. A shroud of gloom appeared to hang everywhere. Fields were left untilled; black tree stumps stood as silent witnesses of lost forests; homes everywhere were in disrepair.
Kigali, the country’s capital, seemed lethargic; traffic was nonexistent. More important, the naturally reserved Rwandans were still struggling with their grief, demoralized by unfathomable losses. Entire families had been wiped out. Would the country, would the church, so proud of its Mudende campus, come to terms with the tragedy and move from hell to hope? Little did I realize that God had already put into place the actors who would be the architects for the rebirth of the church in Rwanda.
Architects of Hope
They came from four continents. The first, whose character and determination had been tested as president of the Hungarian Union in the aftermath of the totalitarian Communist regime, heard God’s call in 2001 to come to Rwanda. Jozsef Szilvasi, along with his wife, Suzsana, agreed to serve as AUCA’s vice chancellor. His office was then operating out of a small campus in Kigali called Gishushu. When Szilvasi arrived and saw the pathetic condition of the campus, he almost decided then and there to return home. The place did not look like a university campus, but rather like a primary school with no facilities whatsoever. The library was no bigger than the average-size living room in America. His office could barely accommodate a small desk, a bookshelf, and one chair for a visitor. Enrollment was only 320. In spite of numerous threats on his life, however, Szilvasi stayed—because he had a vision.
In 2004, with part of the US$200,000 the church had obtained as a settlement for the damages caused to Mudende when it served as refugee camp for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees following the genocide, Szilvasi bought a beautiful property that the city of Kigali had made available on the hill of Masoro, just across from the international airport. But now what?
That same year, God moved on the hearts of a young couple in the Philippines, Dominique and Angie Pagarigan.
Dominique was an architect; Angie was chief financial officer of the Adventist Hospital of Manila. She accompanied her husband to AUCA to teach classes in accounting, while he drew up plans for what to build on the new property. They didn’t know it at the time, but they, together with Szilvasi, were to lay the groundwork for what turned out to be not just the rebirth of the university, but, in fact, of the entire church in Rwanda. The road, however, proved to be an extremely rocky one. The first major milestone? Deciding what to do with the Mudende campus.
The Turning Point
On May 13, 2004, a historic meeting took place at the Novotel Hotel in Kigali. The East-Central Africa Division executive committee was holding its midyear meetings, and the most important item on the agenda was to receive the report of a study commission to determine the future of Mudende. Under the leadership of Mutuku Mutinga, a university professor from Kenya, it brought recommendations to accept the government’s offer to purchase the dilapidated campus, and with the proceeds to develop the campus on Masoro Hill.
Opposition, however, was fierce. Many on the committee could remember the “glory days” of Mudende. They had been students or staff there themselves. Those who lost their lives had been their friends. How could they turn their backs on such an important part of their lives and the history of the church in Rwanda? The pleas to give Mudende another chance grew fervent, the tone passionate.
Finally, Geoffrey Mbwana, then president of the division and chair of the committee,2 a man gifted with an even hand and a level head, asked that the arguments be summarized and called for a vote. Everybody waited with bated breath for the final count. The recommendations of the committee passed by just a few votes. The road was now open for a brand-new future.
And what a future it is! I now visit a transformed Masoro Hill. The new vice chancellor, Abel Sebahashyi, a Rwandese who was part of the initial commission on the future of Mudende, welcomes me into his spacious office overlooking a beautifully landscaped campus dotted with buildings that make the church proud. They were designed and built by Pagarigan, the architect whose financing was meticulously managed by his wife, Angie.
In 2006, Angie became the chief financial officer charged with restoring a sound financial foundation to a chaotic situation. As Sebahashyi put it: “For four years she had to practice ‘archaeology’: the books were completely unreliable, the accounting systems nonexistent, cash flow critical. But finally we were able to save money and build this beautiful campus, as well as a new campus in Gishushu, debt-free.”
The “primary school” that stood there has been razed, replaced by a large building still under construction, with 24 classrooms able to host the booming IT and business administration departments. Enrollment has shot up from 320 to 3,200. New programs will be added to the Education and Theology departments, including software engineering, health sciences, mathematics, economics, geography, and one more—medicine.
Building the Future of the Country
A few months ago Sebahashyi and deputy vice chancellor for academics Ndahayo Claver were summoned to the office of the country’s Minister of Education. After affirming them for their work and thanking them for the quality education the university provides to the country, the minister made a request on behalf of the government. He asked that AUCA make plans to start the first medical school in Rwanda. The government would help by providing internships, scholarships, and access to other partners. Four million dollars still need to be raised, but plans are now underway to open the doors to a first cohort of 45 students in September 2015.
“The rebirth of the university was the rebirth of the church,” says Hesron Byilingiro, a modest and unassuming individual in spite of being a highly qualified individual with impeccable academic credentials. A Rwandese native, he became a United States citizen after spending many years getting his education in the United States. He holds two master’s degrees (divinity and business administration) and a doctorate in ministry, all from Andrews University in Michigan. He could have had a brilliant future anywhere. Instead, unlike many other Africans, he and his wife, Anna, chose to return to their native country in 2003 for Hesron to serve as associate union treasurer. He spent the first two years setting up systems and procedures that would guarantee a healthy financial future for the church. In 2005, he became president of the Rwanda Union Mission.
At the close of a sunny afternoon in Kigali, I stand with him on the rooftop of a nine-story building under construction, surrounded by embassies, just a block away from downtown Kigali. This will be the new administrative office for the church in Rwanda, most of it consisting of office space to be rented out to generate income for further development: schools that will feed into the university; clinics to bring health to the population, church buildings.
When Byilingiro discusses plans, this normally soft-spoken man becomes unusually animated. He talks about Gitarama, in the center of the country, where a new field office was built to achieve greater visibility. “But that was not enough,” he says. “We said, ‘Add a secondary school, so we can capture the minds of young people.’ So now we have 24 classrooms completed.” They also have two dormitories that can host up to 800 children.
“We want to have the kids acquainted with our doctrine and mission,” Byilingiro explains. “Then, there is land, which was supposed to be sold. So, we jumped in to buy that land. I talked to the mayor [and told him] that the university is going to use that land for an extension of AUCA.
“Pagarigan has already drawn up the master plan. So the moment we have that branch of the university—the secondary school and the headquarters of the mission—I am sure the presence of the church in that city is going to be strong.”
On a tour of the country, Byilingiro shows me the new nursing school next to the Adventist hospital in Mugonero, ready for occupancy as soon as the government certifies it. In Gisenyi, near the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he shows me the new field office, as well as a large secondary school. It’s a well-situated property bought with the help of a lay member and complete with a warehouse that had formerly been rented by a congregation of another denomination. When its members learned that the Adventists had bought it, some became upset; others asked to be shown what our church teaches. At the end of an evangelistic campaign held on the premises, 140 people asked to be baptized and joined the church. We now have a flourishing congregation there.
In Ruhengeri, we stop to visit the Galilaya church, organized just a year ago. It has 324 members, but plans for 2,000 within a few years. Construction of a new building is well advanced. Another two churches with a seating capacity of 2,000 or more are under construction in the same town. A school for 1,400 students is receiving finishing touches.
Gérard Karasira, a graduate of AUCA and now president of the North Rwanda Field, receives me and shows me the new field office. It is a modern three-story building with ample offices, complete with its own server and SunPlus accounting system connected with the union and the General Conference.
In April 2014 it will be exactly 20 years since the genocide, and what a contrast! Back then, hatred had nearly destroyed the country. Today the country is booming, and the church is too. Its people have learned to forgive one another and to work together. Corruption has been diminished, law and order restored, discipline rebuilt.3 The country actually works. It is rapidly becoming a role model in Africa. And within Rwanda, our church is becoming a source of inspiration, spiritual strength, and intellectual development.
- Building the Future Building the Future
- Sound Finances Sound Finances
- Building Professional Building Professional
- Faces of Tomorrow Faces of Tomorrow
- Faces of Tomorrow Faces of Tomorrow
- Growing Rapidly Growing Rapidly
- Brand New Campus Brand New Campus
- New Rwanda Union Mission HQ New Rwanda Union Mission HQ
- Old Campus Old Campus
- Old Central Academic Block Old Central Academic Block
1See also Nancy Gibbs, “Why? The Killing Fields of Rwanda,” Time, May 16, 1994; http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,980750,00.html#ixzz2rUsszqKi.
2Geoffrey Mbwana is now a general vice president of the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States. He has exercised this function since 2010.
3Read Below this article.
Claude Richli is associate publisher of Adventist World.
More Than 1,000,000 Sabbathkeepers in Rwanda
By Claude Richli
It is 9:30 on this last Sabbath morning of January in Kigali, and the roads are practically empty, except for police officers here and there. My driver, Adventist pastor Karangwa Nephtal, has warned me that it would be difficult to make it to church without being stopped. And indeed, stopped we were. Three times in three miles, always with the same question: “Are you a Seventh-day Adventist?”
“Show me your card.” Dutifully the pastor produced a card issued by the church, proving he is a Seventh-day Adventist. Had he not had it, he would have been detained on the roadside until 11:00 before being let go.
Today is “Umuganda,” the national day of communal work. Once a month, the entire population must provide volunteer service on Saturday mornings to build social housing or schools, clean roads and public spaces, pick up trash, plant trees and shrubs, and otherwise improve the environment. Everything, except Adventist churches, is closed. Nobody, except for emergency services and Seventh-day Adventists, is allowed on the road. Seventh-day Adventists are expected to work on Sunday mornings instead.
When the government introduced this program in 2006, the church was mandated to issue identity cards to its members. Within a month 980,000 people requested the card in Kigali alone, as well as hundreds of thousands more outside the capital city. Not all of them are listed on church membership rolls, but all claimed to be Sabbathkeepers. They may not all attend church, but they know about the Sabbath from having grown up in an Adventist family, and they refrain from working on that day.
Today the church reports “only” 604,000 members in Rwanda. But we know at least twice that many claim to be Seventh-day Adventists. According to government statistics, 11.1 percent of the population of 12 million are Seventh-day Adventist. That is more than 1.3 million Sabbathkeepers, making it one of the highest concentrations of Adventists anywhere in the world.