Start small and go from there...
Forgiving the Killers
Must I forgive even the Rwanda genocide killers of my family?
By Isaac Ndwaniye as told to Gina Wahlen
The killers came on a Sabbath, brought onto the Seventh-day Adventist church’s compound by the mission president himself and his son, a physician who served as medical director of the church-owned Mugonero Hospital.
Many people had fled to the compound of the church’s South Rwanda Field after the Rwandan genocide started on April 7, 1994. Pastors and their families joined other church members in crowding into the compound, and particularly the church building, thinking they would be safe.
I worked as director of the Publishing Department for the South Rwanda Field. The office, church, school, workers’ homes, and Mugonero Hospital were all located on the same compound in an area of Rwanda known as Kibuye.
The day before Rwandans began to kill one another I was attending publishing meetings at the Rwanda Union Mission office in the country’s capital, Kigali. That night the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, and the genocide began. The next day an employee at Mugonero Hospital called to say that my 14-year-old son, Paul, had been killed and that my wife and children had fled to the compound’s church for protection.
Then on Sabbath, April 16, killers entered the compound with the assistance of the mission president and his son. How could this be? My father, a pastor, had worked with this president while I was growing up. I had worked with him as well. I had had no idea what was in his heart.
What saddened me even more was that pastors holed up inside the church with my wife and eight other children had written a letter to the mission president, telling him: “We know they’re coming to kill us. Please help us get a boat to the lake and go to the Congo, so we can be rescued.”
The letter was taken by a soldier who was protecting them in the church to the president’s house on the compound. The president responded that not even God could help them now.
People from all over the country descended on the compound to kill the Adventists. Some of the killers were Adventist. They came with grenades, machetes, knives, anything that could kill a human being.
A pastor was preaching when killers entered his church. They first shot and killed him. Then they started killing the others. My wife and children ran to the president’s house for help, but he turned them away. Others ran toward the hospital, trying to escape, but they were caught by people waiting with machetes. The killing inside the compound continued for several days. Day and night the killers looked for those who might have escaped. They even brought dogs to assist in searching the bush.
By the time the genocide ended in July, I had lost myentire family: my wife and nine children, my father and mother, three sisters, a brother, and a brother-in-law.
Church for Displaced People
The outbreak of the genocide made it impossible for me to return home. From Kigali I was taken by a group of soldiers to a camp for internally displaced people in a northern province of the country.
I was the only pastor in the camp. I found that when you’re busy doing good it makes you forget the bad things that have happened to you. That’s how God strengthened me.
One Friday evening I was walking around the city near the camp and saw an abandoned Roman Catholic church. I asked for permission to pray and hold services in the church. Receiving it, I went back to the camp and invited people to come to the church on Sabbath.
We began to meet as a congregation every Sabbath. Even though we were homeless, those who had some money gave tithe and offerings faithfully, as if they were still at home. Sometimes people from Uganda came to visit and gave us money, which we also tithed and used for offerings. We set aside the tithe until the church in Rwanda could begin working again, and we used the offerings to help treat people injured in the war.
Many people of other faiths joined the Adventists in worshipping every Sabbath. By the time we were able to leave the camp four months later, 300 people were ready for baptism.
When the genocide was over in July, I traveled to Kigali and found no Adventist church operating in the country. So I went throughout the city, pleading with people to return to church. Slowly people returned to the churches. I was asked to serve as the church’s president for Rwanda for two years. Later I was elected to the Publishing Department of the Rwanda Union Mission.
Five years later I was given the most challenging invitation I have ever received: Would I be willing to serve as president of the very area that included the Mugonero compound, where my family had been killed? I prayed about it and decided to go. This would be the first time to go back and work with the people who had killed my family. I prayed, “God, help me and give me strength and words to say to these people.”
On my first Sabbath back I called for a large district meeting.
The Rwanda Union Mission “has sent me here to preach the good news and to lead this conference,” I said. “I don’t want anyone to tell me who killed my family. I don’t even want you to tell me that you’re my friend. My friend is the one who loves God and who loves God’s work. Let’s work together in that spirit.”
I stayed there for three years, and was then called to Kigali to serve as president of what today is the East Central Rwanda Conference. We praise the Lord that our conference has grown from 65,000 church members in 2004 to more than 110,000 today. Among Rwanda’s total population of 12 million, the church has about 640,000 members, and we are holding Bible studies as we hope to baptize 100,000 people in evangelistic meetings.
Love and Forgiveness
My favorite Bible verse is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” If God had not loved everyone in the world, I would have gone and killed the killers. But God loves them, and He gives them time to repent.
The mission president and his son were tried and sentenced to prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. The father has died, and the son remains incarcerated.
When I was in the camp during the genocide, a journalist came to interview me. He had heard about how I had lost my entire family, and asked me, “What do you think about revenge?”
I took my Bible and opened to Hebrews 10:30, 31: “For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
The journalist was amazed.
When people speak badly about the killers, I remind them that we have a God who is patient with everyone. He doesn’t want anyone to perish. That’s the only thing that can help someone like me, who has gone through such circumstances. Anytime anyone comes to God and asks for forgiveness, God forgives. There’s no sin God can’t forgive.
Another thing that gives me strength to continue living is that I know that one day I will see my family again. Because of that, I live for Him.
Isaac Ndwaniye is president of the East Central Rwanda Conference. Gina Wahlen is editor of Mission, from the Office of Adventist Mission.