April 15, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 15

Rev. Elisee Rutagambwa, SJ. (Photo by Justin Knight)

Still Hearing the Voice of Horror

Ten years after genocide tore his country apart, a Rwandan Jesuit carries on

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Ten years later, the voice on the other end of the telephone has stayed with Rwandan Rev. Elisee Rutagambwa, SJ.

His cousin, Gertrude, in her 20s, was calling from the Gokongoro province of southern Rwanda on April 7, 1994, the first of 100 days of killings in Rwanda that would become the most concentrated bout of mass homicide since the Holocaust.

She told Fr. Rutagambwa that armed militants had attacked the village. One of her brothers already had been slain. Other family members had sought refuge in the Catholic parish, and grenades had been thrown into the church building.

"She said, 'I can't even get out. All around us they are killing people,'" recalled Fr. Rutagambwa, now a BC doctoral student in theology, then a Jesuit regent teaching at a high school in neighboring Burundi.

"All of a sudden, she dropped the phone. I heard some noises..."

And then: nothing.

Fr. Rutagambwa would learn later she had been murdered, one of the 40 relatives he lost in the Rwandan genocide that is being remembered this month on its 10th anniversary.

"That voice has been very close to me," said Fr. Rutagambwa. "Every year at the commemoration, I hear that voice."

The Rwandan Jesuit, whose Boston College dissertation will focus on the response of the Church and the international community to genocide, recalled the tragic history of his homeland in events this month marking the anniversary of the 1994 massacres.

He joined Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and Philip Gourevitch, author of I Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed, at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy for an April 7 panel discussion on Rwanda.

He preached at a Mass offered by Rev. Fred Enman, SJ, at BC Law on April 7, and celebrated a Mass at St. Mary's Chapel on April 14.

As many as 800,000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred over 100 days in 1994 in an orgy of violence instigated by the Rwandan government and military and carried out by machete-wielding Hutus.

The 1994 horrors occurred against a backdrop of years of civil strife marked by recurring internecine violence and mass-killings among ethnic Hutus and Tutsis in the Great Lakes region of Africa following colonial independence in the early 1960s. In 1993, 50,000 civilians, Hutu and Tutsi, among them Fr. Rutagambwa's brother, were killed in Burundi.

The suffering endured by Fr. Rutagambwa's own family is representative.

He was the eighth and last child of a Tutsi family in Gokongoro in southern Rwanda. In mass-killings that began in 1963, he lost his father; two uncles; his grandparents; and his sister, who was four when she and her grandmother and grandfather were attacked with machetes and thrown in a river. His family fled as refugees to Burundi in 1965 when he was eight months old.

He recalls the "plight of the refugee condition - the fact of losing your home and becoming stateless, completely without any protection. For 30 years Rwandan Tutsi refugees were ignored, and in Rwanda, our family members who remained behind were reduced to citizens of second order, discriminated [against] everywhere."

His brother was killed in the violence in Burundi in 1993 and 40 members of his extended family in Rwanda in 1994.

Fr. Rutagambwa said he entered the Jesuits at 21 to emulate the devotion to service of St. Ignatius, who as "a university student often spent nights visiting the patients in hospitals."

As pastoral fieldwork during his Jesuit formation, he went back to Rwanda in 1995 to help care for war orphans in the capital of Kigali. "I felt I should do something for these kids," said Fr. Rutagambwa, who was ordained a priest in 1998. "It was a way of acknowledging life goes on."

It was not lost on Fr. Rutagambwa that the Rwanda anniversary marked on April 7 fell during the Holy Week that recalls Christ's triumph over suffering and death.

"Before the genocide, I knew intellectually what the Passion meant," Fr. Rutagambwa said. "I could figure out all the theological talk about the Passion.

"After the genocide, the Passion was real. It was real for my relatives and for my friends, not just killed, but dehumanized, laughed at. The suffering goes beyond the physical.

"I have seen signs of the Resurrection through this."

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