America and Rwanda have a special bond. We share a national holiday on July 4. While America was celebrating Independence from England, Rwanda celebrated the end of a genocide that ravaged the country a quarter century ago.
The 100-day killing spree that began on April 7, 1994, came to an official end when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) drove the genocidal government out of power on July 15, 1994. But on July 4, the RPF retook the capital city, Kigali and effectively won the war.
The Rwandan genocidaires, unlike Cambodia or Germany, made no attempt to catalog their extermination of the Tutsis. We only have estimates. The UN estimates 800,000 dead. Two more-exacting estimates put the number over one million. But even this is a slight accounting.
Neither considers the 250,000 to 500,000 women who were unspeakably brutalized or the two million Rwandans who were displaced into refugee camps. In a country of 7.1 million people, that means 40 percent of all Rwandans and 70 percent of the Tutsis became casualties of war.
In this third and final commemorative column, I want to look at the cause and the cure of this unspeakable evil of recent history.
Histories that trace the rise of tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis through the 20th century are myopic, at best. But those that trace the tensions to pre-historic times are no better. Both narratives assume a falsehood. They believe in the existence of two races.
To tell the story of how tensions arose between Tutsis and Hutus omits the most important part of the story. It fails to consider the genesis of the racial division in the first place. In fact, prior to the imposition of toxic Darwinist ideas, the Hutus and Tutsis were different cultures, but not different races.
For centuries, Rwanda had ranchers (Tutsis) and farmers (Hutus). Ranchers tended to marry other ranchers and farmers tended to marry other farmers. But these tendencies were not set in stone. The characteristics of facial structure and physique that marked two distinct ancestries had been largely effaced over centuries of coexistence.
This is what the colonists from Europe encountered when Rwanda and Burundi were assigned to Germany in 1885. But these colonists were carriers of something deadlier than smallpox. Their minds were infected with the new ideology of Darwinism. Reading the evolutionary tea leaves, they came to believe that the Tutsis were of Ethiopian descent and hence, racially superior to the Hutus.
Acting on this blind faith, the Germans discriminated against the majority Hutu tribes in favor of the Tutsi. Later, when the Belgians took Rwanda as a war-prize after the Treaty of Versailles, matters only got worse. The Tutsis were made the ruling class, while Hutus were disenfranchised.
Even these injustices might have been weathered and corrected over time. Then, the Belgian rulers made even that virtually impossible. In 1933, they introduced government identity cards that pigeonholed each Rwandan into one of four racial categories.
Intermarriage that had once integrated families, did so no longer. The indelible mark of a “Tutsi” or “Hutu” could not be erased by marriage. Likewise, changes in economic fortune that once gave opportunity for mobility from working class to ruling class did so no longer. The caste system created by European colonists was now irrevocable, forever documented on an ID card.
These are the ugly results of Darwinism and the identity ideology that it spawns. It is a reminder that the racism of National Socialism was not quarantined to Germany. It infected the minds and skewed the policies of all prewar Europe, and it was imposed on unsuspecting tribes that had lived in relative harmony for centuries.
War did not come immediately but resentment did. It grew like a cancer until it broke out in civil war in late 1959. Since then, Rwanda experienced three and a half decades of on-again off-again civil war.
Some foreign powers sided with the Hutus as victims of Tutsi oppression. Others supported the Tutsis as victims of Hutu aggression. The truth is that both were victims. They were attacked by a toxic Darwinism imported from Europe.
When the genocide began, the government ID cards became a death sentence for Tutsis and forced conscription into execution squads for Hutus.
The cure for this venom is not to exact reparations for sins of the past. It is to reject the racial ideology at the root of the injustices.
Even as this toxic stew was boiling over in the first days of the 1994 genocide, there were both Hutus and Tutsis who rejected the Darwinist division. Numerous Hutus died at the hands of fellow tribesmen when they refused to kill their Tutsi neighbors.
Tutsi heroism mostly took place after the genocide by those who sought to rebuild trust with Hutu countrymen. Other acts of heroism were done by expatriates who weathered the genocide, refusing every opportunity to flee the maelstrom.
Father Vjeko Curic was one of these. He was a 37-year-old priest from Yugoslavia who had been in Rwanda for 11 years prior to the genocide. On the third day of the slaughter, the same day that 110 Tutsis were slaughtered in the sanctuary of a church in Kigali, 1,000 heavily armed French troops came to escort foreign nationals out of the country.
Curic refused to go with the rest of the priests at his parish. He stayed and opened the parish to refugees that were streaming out of Kigali. He hired people to help him feed the crowds. He smuggled people past check points and into safety.
When genocide squads threatened to storm the parish, he met them at the gate, and talk turned them away. Once, at least, he fired a gun into the air that scattered a mob intent on killing his guests.
Then, the unthinkable happened. A killing squad broke into the primary school and slaughtered everyone hiding there. Even then he did not leave, but gathered the bodies for burial and transported the wounded to safety. For 100 days his parish held out.
Through it all he taught his flock not to join in the violence. And when it ended, Curic immediately began to reach out to Hutus to rebuild a community shattered by neighbor murdering neighbor. He raised money to rebuild homes and hospitals.
Tirelessly, he lived out his love for all Rwandans. Then, on Jan. 28, 1998, he was assassinated in Kigali. To this day, his murderers have not been identified. In death, he stands as an example of one who treated people according to their humanity and not according to their identity card. He is not the only one. I have briefly told his story as an example of many others who understood the truth.
Rwanda is still rebuilding relationships and trust. It is not always smooth, and armed conflicts continue to occur. But one thing the new regime understands: the artificial division between Tutsi and Hutu must be erased.
President Paul Kagame has worked to pass various laws designed to undo the ideology that led to genocide. Official Rwandan policy no longer identifies people by race or seeks reparations for past atrocities. They have made much progress, but there is still a long way to go.
Even as America shares a national holiday with Rwanda, we should also share this noble goal.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.