Rwandan pastor speaks at University about genocide victims

Reverend Paul Ndahigwa said survivors of the violence still face many struggles.

Kathryn Nelson

Entire families were slaughtered by their neighbors. Women were systematically raped and killed, leaving their children to survive alone. The gruesome killings were primarily carried out by friends, professionals and intellectuals, people who only murdered because of an ethnic divide.

More than 1 million men, women and children were killed within 100 days during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, according to the Survivors Fund, an organization dedicated to assisting Rwandan genocide survivors.

Reverend Paul Ndahigwa, a native Rwandan, came to speak to University students and alumni Wednesday about the continuing struggles facing victims of the genocide.

The violent outbreak began when a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. Their deaths caused ethnic tensions to climax.

Ndahigwa, who was forced to flee Rwanda at the age of 6, said 12 years after the initial outbreak of genocide, the victims continue to struggle with daily tasks.

“Everything in Rwanda was ruined,” he said. “This is a resurrection from the dead.”

Growing up as an exiled orphan, Ndahigwa said he moved between refugee camps during his childhood because of the ongoing conflicts in Rwanda and other neighboring countries.

“I had no one to love,” Ndahigwa said.

After becoming an ordained pastor in 1982, Ndahigwa said he preached in Tanzania and Uganda until 1994.

He then returned to his native country of Rwanda in 1994 just as the fog of ethnic genocide began to lift.

The lack of international intervention during the blatant violence left many Rwandans feeling rejected, Ndahigwa said.

Rwandans “don’t know why the genocide was not stopped. Everyone was watching,” he said.

The aftermath of the genocide also left extreme poverty, Ndahigwa said.

“Today there is another struggle in what the genocide left behind: AIDS, poverty, widows and orphans,” he said.

LaJune Lange, a law school alumna and former Hennepin County judge, invited Ndahigwa to share his experiences with the community through her organization, the International Leadership Institute.

Lange said it is important to remember the annual income of a typical Rwandan is $260, which makes their survival depend on day-to-day circumstances.

It also leaves little resources to rebuild a country, she said.

Ndahigwa said one of the greatest obstacles facing Rwandans today is reconciling the two ethnic groups: the Hutus, who were the primary perpetrators, and the Tutsis, who were victimized.

“Reconciliation is taking one broken body and bringing the pieces together,” he said.

Ndahigwa said it is just as important for the Hutus to confess as it is for the Tutsis to forgive.

“You must help yourself get out of the bondage and wounds,” he said.

Lange said the mission of Ndahigwa’s work is to help the international community understand their personal accountability to humanitarian issues.

“Any one of us can buy into the logic that any one person is less than us,” she said.

Ndahigwa said he has seen some positive changes in Rwanda.

Citizens of the country are no longer forced to show ID cards that define their ethnic origin, he said.

There is also a process to bring justice to the victims of the genocide called the Gacaca Court. It stresses confession of crimes as a way of healing the country, Ndahigwa said.

Michele Wagner, a history assistant professor, said it is important for the Rwandan government to acknowledge there were war crimes committed on all sides of the war.

“The current government limits the discussion about the genocide,” Wagner said. “It becomes very difficult for people to talk about what their actual experiences were.”

Humphrey fellow Ann Ishaku is originally from Nigeria, and said her country is suffering from issues of ethnic conflict as well.

She attended the event, because she wanted to hear how Ndahigwa was tackling the complex issues of his country and bring those ideas back to her own country.

We need to “seek a way of bringing victims and offenders together,” she said.