“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

So began Dickens in his famous novel 'A Tale of Two Cities' (1859).

It belies belief that twenty years ago this month we saw some of the best human behaviour possible and some of the worst human behaviour imaginable in two African countries. In April 1994 extraordinary histories were being written in South Africa and Rwanda that would continue to remind the world of the best and worst of human nature.

On April 27 1994 as the people of South Africa were assembling at polling stations to cast their vote in the first democratically elections in the country’s history, Rwanda was entering the twentieth day of the most intensive genocide of the last century.

Johannesburg friends of mine, David and Liesel West describe that day as one of the most memorable of their lives. They found the polling station with the longest queue in the city and stood in line for seven hours, dancing, singing and rejoicing with thousands of other South Africans of every skin colour and political persuasion as they celebrated this long anticipated day of democracy. 

As one nation faced the future with such optimism and hope, another nation descended into the horror of unspeakable violence, mass-murder and fear that would shock the watching world to its very core and shame the leaders of that watching world for their indifference and inactivity. It was among Clinton’s and Albright’s darkest hours. But they weren’t alone.

The 100 day Rwandan genocide, from April 7 1994 until sometime in July of that same year, claimed up to a million lives and scarred the lives of millions more. Systematic rape, torture and the spread of HIV left the country with countless traumatised victims and child-led households. The devastating legacy was a nation in spiritual, psychological, social and economic ruin. 

Being once a Belgian colony, many of Rwanda’s citizens were Roman Catholic. A smaller number belonged to the younger Anglican Church. The East Africa revival traces its roots to the town of Gahini in the east of Rwanda near the Tanzanian border. That such atrocities could erupt in a nation so steeped in Christian history is deeply troubling. Many argue that it adds weight to the idea that African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. But such stereotyping could also be leveled against the Christianity of America or Australia.

The roots of the genocide were tangled, complex and deep. They run back for decades and even centuries into the country’s colonial and pre-colonial history. 

The simple text involved militant Hutu’s (the major tribal group) attempting to exterminate the Tutsi and moderate Hutu people. But nothing is simple after generations of tribal conflict overlaid with arbitrary social/political decisions made by colonial masters.

Many will have seen the movie Hotel Rwanda (2005). It gives us a helpful insight into the trauma of the genocide and, while story not documentary, it does reflect history more than revise it. It has an objectivity that is welcoming though harrowing.

A thorough treatment of the genocide is found in Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2005). I turned each page of this book in stunned, numbed silence. Dallaire was the Canadian leader of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda and felt deeply betrayed by the intransigence of the West. Passages like this brought me to tears in a confusion of anger, grief and shame:

On April 3, Easter Day, I flew to Byumbu to review the bulk of my forces in the demilitarized zone. We had a magnificent 55 minute flight at very low altitude over the rounded mountaintops of central Rwanda. Below me that morning it looked like all the villagers in the country were dressed in their finest, walking in near procession towards their places of worship. Here is what my experience of Rwanda has done. I am unable to remember the serenity, order and beauty of that scene without it being overlaid with vivid scenes of horror. Extremists, moderates, simple villagers and fervent worshippers were all in church that day, singing the message of Christ’s resurrection. One week later, the same devout Christians would become murderers and victims, and the churches the sites of calculated butchery (p216).

At the time of the genocide Bishop Alexis Bilindabagabo, a good friend to Sydney Anglicans and many Anglicans throughout Australia, was a young bishop in the west of the country. He spent many days throughout the genocide impounded in a school campus that had been turned into a makeshift military barracks with his young family (wife Grace and their four small children) expecting each new day to be their last. His parents and siblings were all victims of the butchery but Alexis and his family was spared the slaughter they witnessed around them. 

Alexis tells his story in his book Rescued By Angels (2005) where he saw God’s purpose for sparing his life in his future ministry to care for many of the orphans of the genocide. Alexis established a ministry to over 8,000 Rwandan orphans in foster care:

(Now in Kenya just after the 100 days) God wanted us to go back to Rwanda where there were now thousands and thousands of orphans and we were to care for them. If anyone asked me, ‘Why have you survived?’ I replied, ‘Because God wants me to take care of the orphans.’ The matter of whether to go away with my wife and children (relocate to some quiet place in the West where there were many offers to do so) had been ruled out. That was in July and as early as August I was back in Rwanda caring for orphans and carrying out the mission which the Lord had entrusted to me.

South Africa and Rwanda face many challenges in the days ahead. South Africa goes to the polls again early next month. The president, Jacob Zuma, is seeking another term in office and the ANC a fifth term in government. Many are disillusioned. Questions of corruption have constantly clouded Zuma’s credibility.

Both countries need a new generation of Gospel preachers and teachers. Bible college training is urgent. Resources are vital, but scarce. Islam is making inroads.

Both countries have frightening levels of grinding poverty. Malnourished children, exploited women, massive youth unemployment and the problems that follow.

Both countries face major immigration issues. It is estimated that there could be five million illegal immigrants in South Africa - up to a tenth of the population. In Rwanda refugee camps are mushrooming along its eastern border with Tanzania as the Tanzanian government expels anyone suspected of Rwandan heritage. Tens of thousands of people are living in a stateless, nation-less limbo in these new tent cities.

The final two lines in the last scene of Hotel Rwanda may have relevance beyond Rwanda and even South Africa. A Red Cross aid worker and Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel’s manager whose actions spared the lives of 1,260 Rwandans, are walking side by side. With them are a dozen orphans being cared for by the aid worker and Paul’s wife and children as well as two orphaned nieces. They are walking towards a bus that will take them to Tanzania and freedom from the final days of the genocide:

    “They told me there was no room (on the bus),” says the aid worker.

    “There’s always room,” says Paul.

Words for today in the country that claims to have boundless plains to share? Perhaps.

Through its trusted Christian partners Anglican Aid serves some of the most vulnerable people in South Africa and Rwanda; from rescuing women and girls caught up in sexual servitude in inner city Johannesburg, to training Zulu pastors in Zululand and by providing ‘an egg a day’ to ensure protein in the diet of malnourished toddlers in the Shyria Diocese in northern Rwanda.



Feature photo: DFID