Bad history, but a promising future

The year was 1994. Mass killings and genocide taint the personal memories of then 25-year-old Maurice Kwizera. Seven months after he saw his friend die by the machete-filled hands of angry so-called Christians, Maurice gave his life to Christ. The transformation that happened 18 years ago has shaped his current worldview in development work: “The only institution that can bring holistic transformation to the world is the church.”

Ethnic killings targeting the Tutsi tribe happened in 1959, 1963 and in 1973. But Maurice was four in 1973 and remembers little. What Maurice does remember is that many of his parents’ best friends growing up were Tutsi. “The first cow we had was from a Tutsi. In Rwandan culture, if someone gives you a cow, they are a real friend.” Maurice also remembers his teachers in school randomly asking the students who were Tutsi to stand up in class. Then they would ask the Hutus to stand. Then they would count how many of each. If a Hutu stood when the Tutsis were called, the teacher would correct the child. “For young people, that was meaningless,” Maurice said, “Young people didn’t understand there was manipulation behind the targeted killings.”

Maurice and Juvenal were roommates. They were both teachers in different schools in a town seven kilometers from Maurice’s rural home village. But Juvenal was Tutsi. Maurice was not. “But this was not a matter for me and him at all … we were friends. He and I were ignoring many details of the genocide. We could hear on the radio that the killings started in Kigali, but we always thought such a situation wouldn’t happen in our region,” he said.

Maurice spent two nights outside sleeping with Juvenal in the bush when the killings started coming closer to where they lived. They decided to leave the town they taught in. Maurice convinced Juvenal to go back to his village. “I thought even if the killings are spreading, they won’t make it to the rural villages. ... Ignorant we went,” he said. The two teachers stopped when they were thirsty, traveled by day, and often greeted people they were passing.

Juvenal hid in the attic of Maurice’s parents’ home. Meanwhile there were five other neighborhood children who came to hide in his house. “We were trying to hide them in different places, one in the bush, others in different rooms,” he said.

On April 13, five days after the two arrived in Maurice’s village, a mob of about 100 people came to the village looking for Juvenal. “In that crowd of people, there were young people and even women,” Maurice said. “Some of them I knew. Others I didn’t know because they came from other villages.” One of them he recognized as a church leader.

Maurice was about 600 meters from the front door of his house. “The [mob] said, ‘We were informed that there is a teacher who was brought to hide in your home. Is it true or false? Tell us yes or no.’” Maurice tried to lie. “I said he was [here] but he continued to another district.”

Part of the mob then went to Maurice’s house without him and “almost destroyed all of the house.” They found Juvenal and the children. They asked Juvenal how much he paid Maurice to hide him. “In my imagination I didn’t think that they would kill him,” Maurice said. Maurice started negotiating with the killers. They asked Maurice for the money they assumed Juvenal paid him. “I didn’t get any money,” Maurice pleaded with the mob. “How much can I pay you not to kill my friend?”

While Maurice was negotiating, the group that went to his house returned. “They said, ‘Ah, we found him, and we killed him.’” Maurice then ran to his house and saw his friend and the children dead. “I was told by those killers that they asked Juvenal how much he paid me. He told them, ‘If you come to kill me, at least spare [Maurice’s] life. I didn’t give him any money. He was a friend, he took me here. If you are killing people, don’t kill him. Kill me alone,’” Maurice recounted. “That was shocking for me.”

The mob then left Maurice’s village.

“That was a terrible moment for me,” he said. “First of all I started blaming myself. ‘Why did we travel by day? Because we came during the day, I caused his death.” Maurice asked himself, “How do people come about killing people like this — machete-ing them, cutting them in pieces? How am I going to live in this world? How am I going to live in this country where the killers are in power? I couldn’t imagine a country where the killers are leaders.”

Maurice said he is not sure if he was traumatized. “But even today the image is in my head. That was my first time seeing a person die, but not just one person — six people dead. Not from an accident, not from an illness, but macheted into pieces.”

Thirteen years after the incident, Maurice found out that the director at his school told the killers that he and Juvenal left for Maurice’s hometown. He heard the director left Rwanda and has not returned. “I would forgive him, definitely,” Maurice said. “Especially when I got saved, I realized that behind all of that, it was the devil lurking. So it was with all the other people who committed unbelievable actions. … And I think if they all ask for forgiveness and repent of their sins, the blood of Jesus is so strong — it covers all of those.”

Maurice later found Juvenal’s cousin James, who was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a majority-Tutsi rebel group that took power in July 1994. He recounted how Juvenal died, and was glad he could give James some information, as many of James’ family members had died without any knowledge of how or where.
Maurice, who grew up in a Christian home and attended church, had never given his life to Christ. This event, he said, shook his faith. “I was questioning Christianity for sometime. I had the same question the people on the outside asked us, ‘How in a country 90 percent Christian could a genocide happen?’ I didn’t have an answer to that.”

In November of 1994, Maurice gave his life to Christ at a prayer meeting. “When you are saved you have other dimensions — spiritual dimensions — that can explain things in a different way. At that time, I was just a Christian by name. But after I accepted Jesus, I saw another dimension of Christianity,” he said. “Maybe those who killed were members of denominations, but they weren’t Christians. I can’t call them Christians really.”
The answers were not numerical. “I found that the number of Christians doesn’t matter,” he said. “Up to the point of seeing bodies, I didn’t think people would kill,” he said. “Because of this, I am very passionate about talking with people and with church leaders about restarting the concept of Christianity in Rwanda.” 

Maurice is the director of programs for World Relief Rwanda, a Christian development agency that focuses on holistic development through teaching church leaders, savings and loans associations, HIV/AIDS programs for youth and adults, child development programs, maternal health programs and safe water programs. “I joined them especially because it was a Christian organization and I like the mission of empowering the local church to serve the most vulnerable,” said Maurice, who has been with the organization for 11 years.

“Working with the church becomes important,” he said. “I don’t do it only as a job, but I do it as something I see as fundamental. Even though the church has had faults in the past, it is the only institution that can bring transformation in the community,” he said. “In the aftermath, we saw the church contributing to the reconciliation.”

Maurice said, “It is only from God’s power that people can come together again. For that I see the church as very important in bringing transformation, in reuniting communities, and preventing such a horrible thing from happening again.”

The personal memories Maurice has of the genocide, he said, has made him braver. “This gives me courage to talk to people — to talk about peace, to talk about reconciliation and to talk about loving your neighbor,” he said. “It is something strong in me.”

Also strong in Maurice is his gauge on Christianity. “If you say you are a Christian, unless I stay with you for some time and observe you and hear your testimony and see how the Holy Spirit is leading you … I’ll never know. You may be a Christian or not,” he said. “It has become a relative concept,” he said. “Probably I’m wrong because a Christian should be someone you should not question, but for me it is very relative.”

Maurice said that many people have a hard time visiting the genocide museums. “I go to the museums because I know what it means to visit such places. I cannot be afraid to go visit the bones in these memorials, because today when I go there, I don’t merely just see bones, mass tombs and videos, but I see those six bodies,” he said. “We have a bad history, but a promising future. All of us learned a lesson from what happened.”

Though the events of April 13 are still vivid in Maurice’s mind, his faith is more intense. “I know what Christ did is more powerful than all that I saw,” he said.
When asked what ethnic group he is, Maurice leans back and smiles. “I am Rwandan. I am Christian.”

By Gena Thomas—



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