Is God Still Sleeping in Rwanda?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.—Matt. 5:9

As with people all over the world, Rwandans think that Rwanda is a special place. There is a proverb in Kinyarwandan (the language of Rwanda) that says, "God goes about the world doing good, but he sleeps in Rwanda." During a trauma healing workshop for survivors of the genocide, one participant changed this proverb slightly to "God goes about the world doing good, but he fell asleep in Rwanda."

In April 2004 I was in Rwanda and heard the testimony of Patrick Mwenedata, a genocide survivor. Now 21 years old, he just finished George Fox Secondary School in Kigali where he is a member of Kagarama Monthly Meeting. During the genocide ten years ago he was 11 years old, and he talks about it as an 11-year-old saw it. I will share only one particular incident of his long story. After he saw his mother and sister hacked to death by the interehamwe (young men organized by the army into a militia that was responsible for most of the killing during the genocide), a neighbor helped him. There were a total of seven children, and as the oldest, "I was the head of the family," he said. At one point, he was running while holding the hand of this three-year-old cousin. He heard a "bomb" (meaning a grenade) and knew his cousin was hit. He continued, "In order to run faster, I picked up the boy. Blood was flowing everywhere. I put him on the ground, covered him, and ran on."

During this trip, I also attended the Fifth Quaker Consultation for the Peaceful Prevention of Violent Conflict in western Kenya, where I heard Malesi Kinaro speak. On October 21, 1993, when the Hutu president was assassinated and violence erupted in Burundi, she was general secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation—Africa Section. She visited Burundi five times, commenting that there were only one or two people on the plane going to Burundi, while the planes leaving Burundi were completely full. Between October 1993 and the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda on April 6, 1994, there was a opportunity to forestall the impending genocide.

Malesi Kinaro also visited Rwanda during this time and, as most people knowledgeable about the situation in Burundi and Rwanda, realized that Rwanda was ready to explode into violence. She went to the African Union in Addis Abba and raised the alarm. She visited Quaker United Nations Office in New York City and raised the alarm at the United Nations. Few were willing to listen, and in April 1994 Rwanda erupted in a well-planned and organized genocide in which approximately 850,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered.

Malesi observed, "If the international Quaker community had sounded the alert, they could have prevented the genocide." Perhaps it was too late for an aroused peacemaking community to have forestalled the genocide then. But the reality is that we didn’t even try—we were asleep.

I also visited northern Uganda. Here for the last 18 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been fighting the government of Uganda mostly by destroying the countryside, forcing over 1,600,000 people into internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. The LRA specializes in abducting children and turning the boys into killers and the girls into domestic/sex slaves. I observed the situation in Soroti where the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) had conducted some trauma healing workshops for children coming to town each night to avoid being abducted by the LRA.

In Lira, also northern Uganda, AGLI was beginning a series of Alternatives to Violence Project workshops, and I attended their first session to make an introduction. As I sat in front of the White House Hotel in Lira, I noticed a young man in a mango tree picking all the mangoes, which I thought were quite green. Perhaps—I thought—they had some use for unripe mangoes I didn’t know about. In about 20 minutes he had expertly picked all of the hundreds of mangoes that were on the side of the tree where I could see him.

Later I visited some of the IDP camps near Lira. So little attention was being given by the international relief organizations and the Ugandan government that some of these internally displaced people did not even have plastic tarps to cover their small dwellings. They told me that when it rained—and the rainy season was just beginning—they ran across the road to the school and waited there until the rain ended. I am not sure what they did when they came back because their houses would have been all wet.

I met a young girl about eight years old named Pamela whose parents had been killed. She was making adobe bricks with her grandmother and was doing a rather nice job. But this meant that Pamela was not attending "school" in a nearby IDP camp, where I saw one teacher with a blackboard and chalk under a large tree teaching over 100 students who sat on the ground.

The next day, when I was in Kampala, I read in the paper that people in Lira were getting sick from eating unripe mangoes. It now became clear to me that they had picked them because they were starving and desperate.

Peacemakers are God’s children here on Earth doing the work of making peace. If we are asleep about peacemaking in Africa, then God is also asleep. Is God still sleeping?

David Zarembka

David Zarembka is coordinator of African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams. He is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and is sojourning at St. Louis (Mo.) Meeting. He is married to Gladys Kamonya, from Kenya.