Rwanda’s Central Lesson: Never Again

It’s now been twenty years since Rwanda was engulfed in a sea of unimaginable horrors. Perhaps 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in just 100 days in 1994, as the world stood by idly.

This modern genocide relied not on the latest technology, but on simple instruments of death—most often machetes and nail-studded sticks (known as masu). It was evil in its most naked and pure form—hatred and brutality were translated into sheer butchery. The depersonalization of the victims was personal, as the killings were carried out directly with people’s own hands, sometimes brutalizing their own neighbors. For those who had somehow forgotten the horrors of the Holocaust or the depths of that depravity, it was a reminder of the human being’s capacity for cruelty and evil.

Twenty years later, Rwanda has provided us with stories that show the opposite—the human person’s capacity for good, for spiritual freedom, for the ability to rise above evil. Many Rwandans have courageously pressed on in life after losing their entire immediate family. Like many Holocaust survivors, they have persevered and found meaning in life despite losing dozens of relatives and friends.

Beyond this, there are countless stories of forgiveness. Those who have lost their dearest loved ones have forgiven the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Where we might naturally cling to hatred and the desire for revenge, they have chosen love. For all of us who turn away from loving others over petty disputes, their Christian witness demonstrates how far we must go to truly follow in the footsteps of Christ and embrace His radical commitment to love and forgiveness.

These stories should inspire us. And they should show us that reconciliation can be achieved in situations that seem more likely to result in endless cycles of violence and revenge. The pain does not disappear, the consequences of evil actions reverberate, and the genocidaires must still face the punishment that must be meted out, but freedom from hatred is possible when free will is exercised to choose love over revenge, mercy over vindictiveness. It is not easy, but these stories show us that it is possible.

Yet it’s still critical to remember the single most important lesson of the Rwandan genocide: ‘never again’ must not be an empty slogan but a concrete reality. The moral imperative to halt genocide or mass atrocities trumps the state’s claims of sovereignty. The international community has a responsibility to protect the innocent.

It is not a call for endless meetings or strong verbal condemnations or additional UN reports or pseudointellectual discussions of “age old animosities,” but action that stops the killing. Romeo Dallaire, the Force Commander of the UN mission in Rwanda during the genocide, believes that just a few thousand troops with a mandate to protect the innocent was all that was needed to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The international community failed, and President Bill Clinton has rightfully identified his inaction as his worst mistake in office.

The Church is not guiltless. It worked closely with a colonial regime that imported the eugenic pseudoscience of Tutsi biological superiority and divided a society along ethnic lines, creating decades of resentment, animosity, and fear. And the Church’s record during the genocide is also stained by far too many shameful acts and sins of omission.

Just as there were prophetic acts of Christian courage and love in the Holocaust, like St. Maximilian Kolbe’s willingness to sacrifice his own life, some Rwandan priests, religious, and lay Catholics put life and limb on the line to protect threatened Tutsis and moderate Hutus. But far too many were complicit in the genocide, with some facilitating the death of hundreds and even thousands of men, women, and children. Some priests and nuns embraced the Hutu Power ideology of the genocidaires. Others were just trying to save their own skin.

The Church’s inadequate response heightens its responsibility to embrace ‘never again.’ The Church, in any way it can be defined, did not do enough to resist the Rwandan genocide. Its response to the Shoah was also inadequate. Some critics of the Church may ignore the good that was done by some Christians and Church leaders, but this does not negate the responsibility to acknowledge the Church’s failures. The Church must atone for its failure to do more to protect the innocent. It must be a leading voice that demands action to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities.

There are some encouraging signs that the Church may be moving in this direction. Pope Benedict XVI has said that “recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.” The responsibility to protect flows from the core commitments of Catholic social teaching: to human dignity, the sanctity of life, universal human rights, and the equality of all human persons as children of God.

The international community’s response to ethnic cleansing in Central African Republic has thus far been too slow and inadequate, despite the excellent response of religious leaders, including Archbishop Dieudonnè Nzapalainga. The response to mass atrocities in Syria can only be described as pathetic, with over 150,000 killed and crimes against humanity being committed on a daily basis.

Both the international community and the Church have yet to fully embrace the Responsibility to Protect. Let us pray that the preeminent lesson of the Holocaust will be learned and fully embraced by both so that ‘never again’ will no longer be a slogan, but a description of reality.