April 1, 2014

Rwanda – 20 Years Later


On the evening of
April 6, 1994, a mortar rocket took down the plane of Rwandan president Juvénal
and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira as it descended into Kigali, killing all on board. Immediately following these events, the country was precipitated into a murderous rampage. Throughout the course of 100 days nearly 1
million people
were killed, mostly Tutsis as if they were responsible, in what became known as “the Tutsi genocide.”
marketing director Claude Richli recently
visited Rwanda to find out how the country and the church are doing 20
years later. You can read his article in the April issue of
Adventist World. In the days leading up to April 6, Richli will
post additional articles on the
Adventist Review Web site to mark the 20-year anniversary of this dark chapter in our
church’s history.

Why the Genocide in a Christian Country?

The first campus in Kigali at Gishushu in 2004

Rwanda is one of the most thoroughly Christianized countries
in Africa. At the time of the genocide, almost three quarters of the population
claimed to be Catholic. Adventists were already well represented in this
country of almost 8 million inhabitants. According to Ron Vyhmeister, a
Seventh-day Adventist who did consulting work for the government at that time and
who saw the data from the national census that had been conducted in 1990,
there already were close to 2 million Adventists!

So, how can it be that in a country that is home to so many
Christians (including Seventh-day Adventists), rape and massacres on an almost
unimaginable scale could be perpetrated with such cruelty?

Rwanda is a former Belgian colony, and the seeds of the
genocide were planted by the colonial masters. Starting in the 1930s, the
Belgians actively favored the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus, even
though the Tutsis represented only about 10 percent of the population. They introduced
large-scale modernization projects in education, health, public works, and
agricultural supervision, disenfranchising the Hutus and subjecting them to forced
labor. Grazing areas that were traditionally under the control of Hutus were
seized with minimal compensation.
2 The Belgians also introduced a system of identity cards, labeling each
individual a Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, or Naturalized. Tutsis were also given
privileged treatment in the mission schools. Everything contributed to the
development of a spirit of jealousy and animosity between the two tribes.

The monument to those killed on the premises of Mugonero Hospital in Western Rwanda.
In 1959, sensing that independence movements among Tutsis
were afoot, the Belgians and the Catholic missionaries reverted their policies
and started favoring Hutus. The archbishop of Kabgayi, a Swiss Catholic
missionary by the name of André Perraudin, wrote a pastoral letter that gave moral
support to the Hutu demands, which was used to justify the first massacres
against the Tutsis in that area in the same year. In 1960, Belgians replaced
most Tutsi chiefs with Hutus. In 1962 came independence, and Rwanda became a
Hutu republic. The Tutsis were purged from the country and sought refuge in the
neighboring countries, where they organized for guerrilla warfare against the
Hutu regime in Rwanda. This kept the whole region unsettled for decades.
Sometime in the early 1990s, radical Hutus decided to pursue the “final
solution” of eliminating all the Tutsis in one final blow. Machetes were
imported by the hundreds of thousands to arm young militias, the Interhamwe. At
about the same time,
Radio Television
Libre des Mille Collines
(the Free
Radio and Television of the Thousand Hills
), a radio station that had created
a populist format made up of Congolese pop music, call-in programs, and racist
jokes, began broadcasting programs actively inciting hatred and retribution. In
the early days of April 1994, the calls went out on FM 106 to “kill all the
cockroaches.” This played a major role in unleashing the violence that had been
carefully nurtured for the better part of the century. All this propaganda
systematically sapped the moral ground on which Christians stood. Their
resentment had been nurtured for decades. On April 6, when the news went out
that the president had been murdered, the country was primed to explode in a
spasm of tribal rage. Most Christians (but not all) forgot they were
Christians. Neighbors turned against neighbors; gentle people turned into “savage

The Adventist Church was not spared. Three thousand people
were brutally murdered on the compound of the Adventist hospital in Mugonero.
The president of the mission, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, and his son Gérard,
medical director for the hospital, had encouraged people to seek refuge at the
hospital. Once they were there, they called Hutu militias to come in and “clean
up the country.” That was on April 16, 1994.

sidebar contentBeginning in 1991, the Adventist University of Central Africa
(AUCA) in Mudende began to feel the impact of the rising tension. It was
located in the country’s western region, in a strategic corridor between the
Democratic Republic of the Congo and the center of the country. According to
Abel Sebahashyi, who was on the staff and is now the vice chancellor of the
university, the first massacres around the campus started in 1991. The
university had to close temporarily. It then reopened, had to close again, and
reopened, until the paroxysm of violence came on the night of April 6, 1994, a
few hours after the presidential plane had been shot down, when thousands of
people sought refuge on the campus. Within three days, more than 1,000 unarmed
people were killed with machetes in the science auditorium. The Adventist missionaries
had to flee in tears with a Belgian armed convoy. It was the end of an era for
the church, and a turning point in the country’s history. It was never to be
the same again.

  1. These figures were never published.
  2. Prunier, Gérard, The Rwanda
    Crisis, 1959–1994: History of a Genocide
    (2nd ed., 1999).
    London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.
    ISBN978-1-85065-372-1, as quoted in
    Wikipedia at
  3. Elizaphan Ntakirutimana was indicted for
    conspiracy to commit genocide, three counts of crimes against humanity, and one
    count of serious violations of Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions. He served 10 years in prison, and died one
    month after his release. His son, Gérard
    Ntakirutimana, was found “guilty of genocide and two counts of
    murder as crimes against humanity. In sentencing him to 25 years’ imprisonment,
    the Trial Chamber considered the mitigating factor that he was a person of good
    character until the genocide, but also the aggravating factors of his
    education, status and abuse of his profession as a doctor, and his personal
    participation over an extended period of time in killing Tutsi civilians. The
    judgment and sentence were upheld on appeal December 13, 2004. On June 27, 2009, he
    was transferred to Benin to serve the remainder of his sentence.” See “The
    Hague Justice Portal” at