'I Hope We've Learned Our Lesson ...'

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If it weren’t for the sign outside the gate, the Catholic Church in Ntarama would seem little different than other churches in Rwanda. The rectangular red-brick building topped by a corrugated-tin roof is similar to churches in many countries in East Africa.

But in April 1994 horrifying events occurred that turned this church into a genocide memorial site. The sign in front of the church says in French, English and the local Kinyarwanda dialect that nearly 5,000 people were murdered on this site—many in a single day.

Scars on the landscape

Ntarama is an hour’s drive on rough dirt roads from the country’s capital, Kigali. The drive is impressive. Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful country of lush, green mountains and verdant lake and river valleys.

With one of the highest population densities in Africa, virtually every bit of arable land is under cultivation. Yet on the drive out to Ntarama we saw abandoned houses and fields lying fallow. Fulgence, the taxi driver, explained that the vacant areas are the result of the violence of almost a decade ago when the region’s population was decimated.

We parked in the center of the village and began walking toward the fenced church compound. A man and woman who had seen us arrive walked up with the keys to the gate. They introduced themselves as Pacifique Rutaganda and Dancille Nyirabazungu and explained that they were survivors of the attack at the church. Now they are state-appointed guides and caretakers of the site.

Through my friend Jean-Marie, who could translate from Kinyarwanda into French for me, I asked them to tell me what had occurred, to help me understand how something like this could happen.

Understanding the division

I had already read some background on the events of 1994. Especially useful was Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

Mr. Gourevitch explains how the two largest tribal groups in Rwanda are the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes. Many researchers today believe that they did not actually begin as distinct ethnic tribes so much as economic entities. Under the precolonial Rwandan monarchy, the king was Tutsi and Tutsis were favored for government posts. But the barriers between the groups were porous. It was possible for a Hutu who succeeded financially to officially become a Tutsi.

When European colonial powers arrived, however, they hardened the division, going so far as to issue ethnic identification cards in 1934 labeling each person as either Hutu (85 percent of the population), Tutsi (14 percent) or Twa (pygmies, 1 percent). Hardening the tribal divide meant the path to advancement was closed to Hutus, since the European colonizers employed Tutsis to rule the country and discriminated against the Hutus when it came to educational and career opportunities (pp. 56-57).

In 1957 Hutu intellectuals signed a Hutu manifesto, stating that, as the majority of the population, the Hutus should govern. In 1959 violence broke out as organized groups of Hutus attacked Tutsis. The European military officer in charge took the side of the Hutus against the Tutsis, allowing the violence to continue and even pushing the “revolution” forward by suddenly and unilaterally replacing Tutsi village chiefs with Hutu chiefs in 1960.

In January 1961 the Europeans convened Hutu leaders, abolished the Rwandan (Tutsi) monarchy and declared Rwanda a republic. The Europeans then pulled out, declaring Rwanda independent in 1961 (pp. 60-61).

From that time on, unscrupulous politicians of the Hutu majority brandished the contrived threat that the minority Tutsi tribe was plotting the resubjugation of the Hutus. Through the 1960s and ’70s they organized periodic attacks, declared in “self-defense,” that killed many thousands of Tutsis.

Fear of this shadowy, fictional menace kept the Hutu politicians in power. With each attack on Tutsis, some escaped into neighboring countries and a small, rather weak resistance force formed in Uganda. This in turn fueled Hutu Power propaganda about the Tutsi menace.

In the early 1990s the Hutu Power movement began preparations for a sort of “final solution” that would completely eliminate the Tutsi presence in Rwanda. Radio and newspapers increasingly disseminated Hutu Power propaganda. By early 1994, tension was building palpably in the country.

On April 6, 1994, Rwandan (Hutu) President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali, killing him and all aboard. The Hutu Power movement immediately blamed the attack on the Tutsis, though it now seems more probable that he was eliminated by the Hutu Power movement itself, which had begun to see him as an obstacle to its plans.

The president’s death provided a convenient and powerful rallying cry to attack all Tutsis, again in “self-defense.” The violence broke out almost immediately throughout the country, as many Hutu villagers followed the call of their tribal leaders to kill all Tutsis.

“Don’t worry, we will go to the church”

This is where Dancille and Pacifique picked up their story. Pacifique said his family members knew from past experience that when the violence began they needed to find a safe place to hide. His father, who had survived the killings in 1959, told him, “Don’t worry, my son, we will go to the church.” Church buildings had been respected places of safety in 1959.

As the events of 1994 began, hundreds, then thousands of Tutsis from miles around took refuge in the Ntarama church and on the grounds. They waited three days in the church, afraid to go out at all.

Dancille told me that on April 14 some soldiers arrived, asking why the Tutsis were fleeing. “The [Hutu] militia” was the reply. “We will protect you here,” said the officer. “Call all other Tutsis you know and tell them to come here.”

Dancille said they all felt a sense of relief that the danger was over. More Tutsis came in. But the next day, four buses of militia and soldiers of the presidential guard arrived. The refugees huddled in the church with the doors barred. Then it happened: Men armed with sledgehammers knocked holes in the walls, then tossed in hand grenades through the holes, killing and maiming many and stunning the rest. Others then broke open the doors, whereupon militia and regular soldiers armed with rifles, clubs, machetes and even bows and arrows killed every man, woman and child they were able to find still alive inside.

Dancille and Pacifique were among the few who, in the confusion, survived by running out the back door. Dancille said, “When you are so panicked, you don’t even think of your own children; you just run.” She told me she lost her husband, her two children, her mother-in-law, father-in-law, two brothers-in-law and others—18 family members in all.

Pacifique lost his father, mother, sister and two brothers. His oldest daughter, age 6, was also killed. His wife received a machete blow to the head and suffers from psychiatric problems to this day. They had to hide in fields and holes in the ground for a month until the soldiers finally stopped hunting Tutsis.

Dancille continued, “These people became like animals. The [Hutu Power] government was responsible for this: One day we were neighbors, and the next day the massacre began.”

“I hope people have learned their lesson”

Dancille and Pacifique showed us around the church and grounds. The church had been left much as it was following the violence. As a testimony to the magnitude of the genocidal attack, the bones had not been removed and buried, but rather left on the floor.

There were piles of bones in the church and flour sacks full of bone fragments in the church and surrounding buildings. I was shown a mud-brick building with walls and metal roof blackened on the interior from fire. The people hiding inside had been burned alive.

In a makeshift shelter next to the church building, skulls and leg bones of victims were displayed on bamboo platforms. There were, I estimated, about 300 skulls in neat rows; some showed clear signs of having been crushed by blunt-force blows.

The magnitude of what I was seeing and the obvious evidence of such cruel violence made the whole scene rather surreal. It didn’t seem possible that this could really have happened, as if it all somehow came from another world. But sadly, it did indeed come from this world—the same one in which you and I live.

Summing up her thoughts on these atrocities, Dancille stated: “I hope this will never happen again. I hope people have learned their lesson.”

Have we learned anything?

Rwanda in 1994 was not the first time, nor the last, that people would attempt genocide, much less commit the standard brutality of “routine” warfare. How can human beings come to the point of committing such horrible acts on other human beings? Have we truly learned our lesson? Will humankind ever learn its lesson and forever cease such violence and atrocities?

The Bible tells us that in the beginning, the first man and woman lived in an earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden. Their continued enjoyment of this paradise hinged on their obedience to their Creator—on following the instructions He gave them on how to live their lives happily. God told them that not abiding by His laws would bring them death.

The biblical account shows that Adam and Eve’s stay in paradise did not last long. Satan, in the guise of a serpent, appeared on the scene and tempted them. He told them they didn’t need to heed God’s instructions, that they could do better making their own decisions and that there would be no death penalty for doing so.

Further, he told them that disobedience to the Creator’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would actually have good results for them, not bad. The tempter told them: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5 Genesis 3:4-5 [4] And the serpent said to the woman, You shall not surely die: [5] For God does know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
American King James Version×
).

By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve signaled that rather than listen to God’s instructions, they were choosing to decide for themselves how to live, how to make decisions and how to solve their problems. Consequently, they had to leave the garden paradise and were hindered from access to the instructions and laws of their Creator.

The result? The first child ever born, Cain, ended up murdering his own brother—rather like what happened in Rwanda on a much greater scale thousands of years later. The history of humanity, often written in blood, is the continuing result of Adam and Eve’s choice to reject God.

Why can’t we make right decisions?

The Bible says that human beings, apart from the instructions of God, don’t know how to make decisions that will have the desired result of happiness and fulfillment. The prophet Jeremiah put it this way:

“O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23 Jeremiah 10:23O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps.
American King James Version×
). We human beings simply don’t know how to make the decisions that will bring us complete fulfillment and happiness.

Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×
explains it another way: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” What may seem to the human mind to be right and proper under given circumstances may well end in suffering and eventually even death.

We’ve all experienced this on a small scale, perhaps in our social lives, our marriages, raising our children or in the workplace. We make decisions we thought would have good results, only to experience the opposite effect because we lacked some important elements of understanding.

This has been true throughout human history. At the extreme, war, subjugation, domination and even genocide have been attempts by people to find security or prosperity for themselves at the expense of others. The results have been suffering on an unimaginable scale. Of course, often even the “winners” pay a terrible price for these flawed decisions.

Romans 3:10-18 Romans 3:10-18 [10] As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: [11] There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. [12] They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one. [13] Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: [14] Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: [15] Their feet are swift to shed blood: [16] Destruction and misery are in their ways: [17] And the way of peace have they not known: [18] There is no fear of God before their eyes.
American King James Version×
describes the human race as a whole this way: “ ‘There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none who understands, there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.’

“ ‘Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit’; ‘the poison of asps is under their lips’; ‘whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This sums up the cause of human problems and suffering, on the personal level as well as on the national and international scenes.

The spiritual heart of the problem

Have you noticed how, even in our lifetime, year after year in nation after nation, new solutions are proposed for old problems—scourges such as crime, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, terrorism and war? But the problems are never completely solved, are they? There may be apparent progress on some issues, but the core problems always remain with us. Why is it always this way?

Because, as the Bible indicates, we don’t know where to look for the root of the problem and for true solutions.

The problem lies within the human mind and spirit. Our natural way of doing things tends to go the opposite way from God’s way. In Isaiah 55:8-9 Isaiah 55:8-9 [8] For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, said the LORD. [9] For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
American King James Version×
God says through His prophet: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

As long as humanity is not willing to learn a new way of thinking—God’s way—it is doomed to repeat its own errors. Romans 8:7 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
American King James Version×
tells us that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (New International Version).

Human nature is flawed. What seems natural and right to us is often not. And so, generation after generation, human beings reap the bitter crop of harmful decisions.

Saving us from ourselves

Will we ever “learn our lesson” as Dancille Nyirabazungu hoped? Happily, the Bible says we will! Our Creator will not leave us in this seemingly hopeless situation. He will intervene and save us from ourselves.

Jesus Christ foretold that just before His promised return to earth, people following their flawed human nature will take human life to the very brink of extinction. In Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22 [21] For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. [22] And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×
Jesus said: “It will be a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive …” (Revised English Bible, emphasis added throughout).

Just before Jesus’ return some people will be committing atrocities on a greater scale than at any preceding time—to the point that no human life would survive if God did not intervene. But, thankfully, He will intervene.

The crucial change that saves the world

Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
American King James Version×
records a wonderful announcement to be made at the return of Jesus Christ: “Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever.’”

When the Messiah, Jesus Christ, returns to earth to take the reins of human government, a great change will occur everywhere. The crucial element of that change will actually occur at the heart of the problem—in the hearts and minds of human beings. There must be a deep change in the way we think and act, in our system of values and our goals. Our Creator will accomplish this by a change in our hearts.

The prophet Ezekiel was allowed a vision of what a wonderful change that will be. Through Ezekiel, God foretold: “… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:26-28 Ezekiel 36:26-28 [26] A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. [27] And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my judgments, and do them. [28] And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
American King James Version×
).

This passage speaks specifically of the future of the people of Israel, but God’s promises will be extended to all humanity, because He wants all men to have that same change of heart and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4 1 Timothy 2:4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
American King James Version×
).

What a wonderful scene is painted in those words! The self-destructive ignorance of humanity will be replaced by the knowledge of God, by the way of love for God, for each other and for all of creation. These and other prophecies reveal how humanity truly will finally learn its lesson, and the reward will be peace and fulfillment for everyone on the earth. It is a future worth waiting for with joyful anticipation!

Why not get a head start?

Not everyone, however, has to wait for the future to experience the change of heart promised in Ezekiel 36. God is calling some people now, earlier than most of the people on the earth, to learn a new way of thinking, a new way of life.

The Bible says that even though the old serpent of the Garden of Eden, God’s adversary, Satan the devil, has seduced and deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
American King James Version×
), God is calling some now. He is opening their minds to understand the truth about what’s going on here on earth and what will happen in the future.

In John 6:44 John 6:44No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
American King James Version×
Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” At the present stage of human history, only those who are called by the Father can truly come to Jesus Christ.

If this knowledge intrigues and excites you, it may be that God is calling you now and offering you the opportunity to experience the change of heart that occurs when He begins working in us. Why not explore this further and find out?

The publishers of The Good News offer many other free publications to help you learn what the Bible says about accepting God’s calling. We also have trained ministers available to visit with you and answer your questions if you so desire.

One day humanity will learn its lesson the hard way. But then God will intervene to show mankind a much better way—His way. Then violence like that which occurred in Rwanda will forever be a thing of the past. That wonderful knowledge is truly good news! GN

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