May 3 2004
RWANDA: A SPECIAL REPORT
Testing Their Faith
An overwhelmingly Christian country is shaken when church grounds
become killing fields
By Dele Olojede
SOVU, Rwanda – As a young girl growing up here in the hills above the
local monastery of the Benedictines, Regine Niyonsaba sometimes caught
sight of the nuns, immaculate in their white habits, heads covered
discreetly in the chocolate-brown scarves of the Belgian order.
While the nuns rarely left the monastery compound, each time Niyonsaba
saw them she dreamed of one day entering the order, living in the
impeccable monastery with like-minded sisters, and away from the
uniform wretchedness of the poverty that otherwise defined life in this
rural commune, barely five miles west of the southern university town
At the age of 20, she enrolled as a novice.
But five years later her tranquil world of prayer and meditation was
shattered at the outset of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which
the government mobilized the Hutu majority to exterminate members of
the minority Tutsi, such as herself.
Like thousands of other Tutsi fleeing the bloodbath, Niyonsaba’s family
had sought refuge in the monastery compound. But the mother superior, a
Hutu whipped up by the official incitement to murder, had invited in
the militias and local officials carrying out the genocide, saying the
presence of the refugees was a threat to her domain.
The mother superior, Sister Gertrude Mukangango, insisted that the
relatives of nuns also be expelled from their sanctuary in the
monastery’s guest quarters, knowing full well that she was sending them
to their deaths, as numerous witnesses, human rights organizations and
Belgian prosecutors would later establish. Niyonsaba’s father and
brother already had been killed elsewhere in the monastery compound in
the preceding 15 days, along with nearly 7,000 others.
And now, on May 6, 1994, under the gun of a police officer, Niyonsaba
followed her mother and two younger sisters down a footpath to a banana
grove on the far side of the compound. They were accompanied by another
nun, Sister Fortunata Mukagasana, whose relatives also were slated for
execution that Monday afternoon.
The police officer, Francois-Xavier Munyeshyaka, was in fact doing
Niyonsaba’s family a favor of sorts. In consideration for a sum of
7,000 Rwandan francs, he had agreed to shoot the novice’s mother and
sisters rather than leave their fates in the hands of the militia, who
favored the use of machetes and nail-studded clubs.
“We asked him why he was killing our families. Why? He said the mission
he was given was that no nun should be killed, but all the others must
die,” Niyonsaba recalled recently. “We buried them at the spot where
they were killed.”
Dazed from the execution, Niyonsaba stumbled back to her quarters and
locked herself in. But since that afternoon in the banana grove,
Niyonsaba knew that her days as a nun were numbered and, soon after the
genocide ended, she walked away from it all.
“Ever since,” says Niyonsaba, now 35, “I lost hope in the spiritual
life. I lost faith in my life as a nun.”
The massacre at Sovu monastery has recast the lives of many of its nuns
who survived the genocide. The trauma cut some loose from their
religious moorings and sent them to seek the less exalted experiences
of the secular life. Yet others profess even more fervor for their
faith, seeing it as the price to pay for having been spared. Nine of
the original 36 nuns were killed during the genocide. Six remain, and
the rest quit the order.
The travails of the nuns in many respects reflect the spiritual
wilderness many Rwandans inhabit today.
Ten years after the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and
moderate Hutu were killed, the question of personal faith has become a
profoundly disorienting one for many in Africa’s most overwhelmingly
Christian – and overwhelmingly Catholic – country. The moral crisis
triggered by the decimation has compelled many survivors to re-examine
their relationship with the church – and with Christianity in general.
Aiding and Abetting
Some of the worst massacres occurred right inside churches and parish
compounds, many with the active collaboration of priests.
Many other priests risked everything to save lives, and more than 200
of them were believed murdered along with their parishioners. One
particularly courageous priest, Father Boniface Senyenzi, who was Hutu,
stood steadfast with the thousands who sought refuge in the Roman
Catholic Church in the lakeside city of Kibuye. He was killed, along
with 11,400 people in the church.
But many more became foot soldiers in the extermination campaign or
passively accepted its inevitability. Among the most notorious was
Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, the first priest to be convicted of
genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania,
which is trying a few of the leaders.
In his Kigali church Munyeshyaka presided gleefully over the mass
murder, egged his congregation on to greater effort in their “work,”
and often read from a list of those Tutsi who must die. The mother
superior at Sovu, too, is serving a 15-year sentence in a Belgian
Throughout Rwanda the smashed skulls of the innocent are in church pews
still as a memorial. In the church in Ntarama, south of Kigali, more
than 5,000 perished at the hands of government armed killers. And at
Nyarubuye, the priests gave up thousands of Tutsi parishioners who
sought sanctuary at the only place they thought they could safely turn.
As a result of what many survivors see as treachery, the primacy of the
Catholic church in civic and spiritual life in Rwanda has come under
increasing strain. Estrangement from the church has pushed many into
the willing arms of evangelicals. Others appear to have turned their
backs on Christianity altogether, seeking refuge in Islam, which had
few adherents as a percentage of this country’s population of about 8
million. Yet others have abandoned religion entirely.
Accurate statistics are hard to come by in Rwanda. But experts say the
genocide has helped demystify the Catholic Church, easing the way for
many of its adherents to flock to the proselytizing evangelical
churches whose revival tents sprout like toadstools throughout the
Kigali metropolitan area.
“The evangelical Christians – the born-agains – they are growing very
fast,” says Privat Rutazibwa, a former Catholic priest who was inducted
by John Paul II on Sept. 8, 1990, when the pope visited Rwanda. “They
have attracted people who have been overwhelmed by problems and need an
external force to help them.” Rutazibwa felt compelled to quit the
priesthood but remains a Catholic, though an openly skeptical one.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda, Archbishop Thaddée
Ntihinyurwa, acknowledged a flight from the church by an indeterminate
portion of his flock. This, the archbishop hinted most certainly
reflects poor judgment.
“If they think by leaving the church they can live better lives, it’s
their choice,” he said one recent Saturday afternoon in his Kigali
office. “Christianity is not about numbers, but about those who have
accepted Jesus in their lives.”
And despicable as the genocide was, said the archbishop, and as
impermeable to Christ’s teachings many citizens proved to be, in the
end nothing that happened here in 1994 was unprecedented or even
“Many have asked, how can a Christian country do this? My answer is you
can’t talk only about Rwanda; talk about human beings who have not
accepted Christ in their hearts,” Ntihinyurwa says. “There have been
genocides in other countries, and the first genocides happened in
Christian countries also, like Germany and Armenia.”
The official line laid down by the Vatican, and still followed by the
church hierarchy in Rwanda, is that individual priests, and not the
church, must be held accountable for the genocide.
Church and State
With the possible exception of the government, the Roman Catholic
Church was the most powerful institution in Rwanda. It always had been
intertwined with the political establishment. The church ran 60 percent
of Rwandan schools, even enforcing strict quotas that limited Tutsi
enrollment to their proportion of the overall population. It operated
clinics and relief services. In the rural areas, which accounted for
nearly 90 percent of the population, often the church functioned
effectively like the social services department of the government.
Until the pope ended the practice in 1990, the archbishop was a member
of the ruling council of the ruling party, whose primary ideology of
Hutu Power defined itself as anti-Tutsi, and eventually metamorphosed
into a campaign to turn Rwanda into the exclusive preserve of the Hutu
Ntihinyurwa’s predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva, was a member
of the Hutu Power cabinet that presided over the genocide. (He was
killed in June 1994 in a revenge shooting by rebel soldiers, who held
him responsible for the genocide.) Church documents show that priests
even adopted the language of the genocidaires, routinely referring to
Tutsi as inyenzi, or cockroaches.
Today the church co-exists warily with the government of President Paul
Kagame, a Tutsi whose rebel Rwandan Patriotic Force halted the genocide
by defeating the army of the old regime. Several priests have been
found guilty of complicity in the genocide, and dozens remain in jail,
along with some 100,000 genocide suspects. The most senior cleric
charged so far, a bishop, was found not guilty.
“In the beginning the government blamed the church for not stopping the
genocide,” Archbishop Ntihinyurwa says. “The church defense was that
our only weapon was the word of God, and the word of God was no longer
being listened to.”
Violence in Butare
The genocide commenced in earnest after the plane carrying President
Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on the night of April 6, 1994, as it
approached Kigali airport. But the violence took nearly two weeks to
spread to Butare province, alone of the country’s 12 prefectures in
initially resisting state-sanctioned murder.
Mild-mannered in its climate and moderate in its politics – perhaps on
account of the concentration of the country’s intellectuals at the
National University – Butare set itself apart for a while from the
genocidal frenzy radiating outward from Kigali to the rest of the
country. Opposition Hutu politicians predominated in the province,
which also had the country’s only Tutsi prefect, Jean-Baptiste
Hutu were reluctant to kill Tutsi and, so, on April 19, 1994, the
interim president, Theodore Sindikubwabo, a Butare native, visited
Butare to rally local officials. He expressed disappointment that they
were failing to carry out their communal responsibility – their
umuganda – by not mobilizing the population to de-Tutsify the
That same day, mass killings began throughout the region. The Tutsi
were on the run.
In April 1994, as the Tutsi of these parts were driven from their
homesteads and sorghum fields by drunken members of the interahamwe
militia, they began to funnel downhill toward the monastery, seeking
refuge. Some had family there, but most simply acted on the assumption
that the only inviolable sanctuary available to them was the house of
It was not an unreasonable assumption. In all the previous anti-Tutsi
pogroms, in 1959 and then in 1961-63, there’s no record of anyone ever
killed within a church compound.
The monastery sits near the base of a series of hills. At its entrance
is a large health center. An immaculately kept garden dotted with
gazebos conveys a sense of tranquility. The administrative building
complex, where the monastery intersects as needed with the secular
world, sits at the end of the driveway. Church buildings and other
facilities are scattered around and about. And partially hidden from
view are the nuns’ quarters.
Above the monastery the hills rise into the distance, covered by pine,
stands of eucalyptus, and banana groves. The land, to paraphrase the
South African writer Alan Paton, is green and rolling, and is beautiful
beyond any singing of it.
A Malevolent Duo
The assumption by the frightened Tutsi of the inviolability of the
monastery did not count on the simmering malevolence of the mother
superior, Sister Mukagango, and her deputy, Sister Julienne Kisito.
“Our family members ran to the monastery expecting to find sanctuary,”
says Bernadette Kayitesi, a nun who also left the order in the
aftermath of the genocide. “But what happened – our mother superior was
the one who began requesting for the militia to come and kill them.”
Over the coming days, Kayitesi’s two brothers hiding in the compound
would be killed as the mother superior worked closely with the
interahamwe – “those who fight together” – to clean the refugees out of
the monastery compound. “I did not know,” Kayitesi would marvel today,
shaking her head, “how a person we thought was good came to be so
Within two days, about 7,000 Tutsi were packed into the monastery
compound, most at the health center near the main entrance. According
to other nuns, the mother superior grew increasingly agitated, saying
the militia should get rid of the refugees and insisting that she
didn’t want to jeopardize the monastery. In interviews in Belgium
before she was convicted in June 2001, Mukangango denied collaborating
with killers. “These charges against me are false because they
attribute to me intentions I never had,” she told Belgian television.
But like many other witnesses, Anunciata Mukagasana, one of the Sovu
nuns who is Tutsi, says the mother superior acted promptly to turn the
refugees over to the killers.
“As the refugees came, her heart hardened,” she says of Mukangango.
“She worked closely with Rekeraho, who was in the monastery every day.”
For three months in 1994, Emmanuel Rekeraho was the most-feared man in
Sovu. A retired army warrant officer, he took charge of the militia and
directed the attacks on the refugees seeking shelter in the monastery.
He also was given use of the monastery’s minivan, and held meetings
daily with the mother superior and her second in command, Sister
“I had good relations with the sisters,” he says in an interview on
death row in Butare Central Prison. “We were working together as one.”
Rekeraho described how he coordinated repeated attacks on the refugees
barricaded inside the health center, using grenades and rifle fire, and
then directing the militia to finish off survivors with studded clubs
and cutlasses. A few hundred hiding in a nearby parking garage were
simply burned alive, with gasoline allegedly supplied by Kisito, whose
brothers were members of the interahamwe.
In his hot-pink prison uniform, Rekeraho affects the befuddlement of
someone whose actions were so extreme they were a surprise even to
himself. “In those days, people had been turned to animals,” he says.
“You should have seen the faces – just like animals.
“I accept a role in the killings, by commanding the militia who were
there,” he adds, “but I cannot accept that I am one of the architects
of the genocide.”
Rekeraho, 65, is aware that the “architects” are the only ones the
government is not prepared to grant amnesty. In 1999 he was sentenced
to die, but the sentence has not been carried out by the government
because officials are debating whether to ban capital punishment.
Refuge in Belgium
Like Regine Niyonsaba, whose family paid to be shot rather than hacked
to death, Anunciata Mukagasana fled disillusioned from the monastery,
unable to reconcile what she witnessed with the tenets of her faith.
“I couldn’t imagine that people could be killed in a place like that,
in God’s house,” she says. “The monastery was very big and it had many
hiding places. But Sister Kisito and the mother superior, they were
never merciful at all. They used ladders to check if people were hiding
on the roofs. The did not have the hearts of Christians.”
Once the mainly Tutsi forces overran the country and the genocide
ended, the sisters were evacuated to the main abbey of the Benedictines
in Maredret, Belgium. As they left the monastery, the surrounding
countryside bore every evidence of the horror. “We drove away and there
were dead bodies everywhere, by the roadside, everywhere,” Mukagasana
says. “We were just waiting for death. We could not imagine that we
But so distraught were many of the nuns that, as soon as they arrived
in Belgium, they started denouncing the mother superior. They were
shocked, however, by the reaction of the church authorities, who
rallied behind Sisters Mukangango and Kisito and tried to suppress any
information about their complicity.
“We were more than surprised that the church in Belgium was supporting
her – it was painful,” Mukagasana says. “The whites thought that the
mother superior was a saint, until they came here in 1995 to take
testimony from witnesses. They had thought we just hated her.”
Angered and demoralized by the attitude of the church leaders,
Scholastique Mukangira, one of the Sovu nuns, demanded that she be
allowed to return to Rwanda at once. She had lost two relatives in the
monastery massacre, forced into the hands of the interahamwe by the
mother superior. She had coped with the killings by praying with ever
more dedication, at one point, she said, directly asking for divine
“I asked Jesus myself, ‘Do you accept that all of us should be killed,
and wipe out this order?'” she says one recent morning in the reception
hall of the monastery. ‘I know you are kind and you have power over
everything. Use your power to save some of us, so that the order might
“That gave me the strength to carry on. I was no longer afraid of
death. I was strengthened throughout the war that, no matter what
happened I shall be with Jesus.”
‘She Rebuilt Us’
That this serene compound was the scene of one of the worst atrocities
of 10 years ago is today not readily apparent. That nascent recovery is
the handiwork, in large part, of the current mother superior, Anastasie
Sister Mukamusoni took over the defiled institution in 1995, rallied
the six remaining nuns to take eternal vows to rededicate their lives
to the service of Christ, admitted nine new novices and methodically
set about the task of revival.
A shy woman with a perpetually mournful look, the mother superior spoke
softly and gazed constantly downward, talking with evident discomfort
about the monastery’s progress.
“When you are building the body you have to start with the soul,” she
says. “We have to start with the renewal of our faith with the church.”
Sister Mukangira returned home and found her way back to the monastery,
where she remains today, working with the new mother superior to try to
pick up the pieces of a ministry destroyed.
“During the genocide, because of what I saw, I can say that God did not
have a role in the genocide,” she says. “And we cannot say that all
Christians failed their religion. There were many who did the right
At this, she cast a glance at the mother superior, who looked
embarrassed and seemed to want to hide. Mukamusoni, then a 40-year-old
nun, was away on church business in the border town of Gisenyi when the
genocide came to the Sovu monastery. A Hutu, she is said to have
arranged secret convoys to take Tutsi across the border to safety in
“She protected those who were being hunted,” Mukangira says. “And she
was the very person who called us back from Belgium. She rebuilt this
place. She not only rebuilt the monastery but she rebuilt us.”
While Mukangira has found reason to believe, and to continue life as a
nun, Anunciata Mukagasana said she had no choice but to turn her back
on the Benedictine Order.
“I just wanted to take a break from it because I would run mad if I
stayed there,” she says. Her family, which had fled to neighboring
Burundi at the outset of the genocide, had returned home, and she
wanted to care for her parents. So she cast off her habit and enrolled
in nursing school, and today she is a pediatric nurse at University
Hospital in Butare, the only one with a job in her extended family of
14, including her younger sister’s three children.
The family lives in neat but cramped conditions in the Matyazo district
of Butare, in a neighborhood of few means and multitudes of
malnourished children. In Mukagasana’s household, food is often in
short supply. “It is a life of hardship, and sometimes it’s hard to
find milk for the children,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. “The
meals are not decent, but there is no other option.”
At this, Mukagasana’s voice caught just a bit, and she asked for a
glass of water to steady herself. The living room was painted coral
blue, the best to cheer up its threadbare condition. The walls were
decorated with the inevitable portraits of Jesus, who is said to be
constance – eternal.
The portraits were an indication of the continuing hold of Christianity
on Mukagasana’s imagination. Despite everything, she said, she remained
a good Christian and believed in God, even if she no longer quite
trusted His earthly messengers.
“There are those who turned their backs on Christianity altogether,
after what they experienced,” she says. “I think to some extent they
have reason. They’ve lost everything, and it seems God forgot them. But
I go to church because whatever happened, God did not have a hand in
Besides, Mukagasana adds, “Other people died, but it was due to God’s
mercy that I survived. It was due to God’s mercy that my family was
able to escape to Burundi.”
Reason to Believe
Regine Niyonsaba did not have the luxury of her family’s company. Her
father and brother had been killed at the monastery’s health center,
and she had witnessed the execution of her mother and two younger
sisters, and buried them with her own hands. When she returned from
Belgium with several of the other Sovu nuns, she concluded that her
life had been permanently altered.
“Life at the monastery had become impossible for me,” she says. “I
couldn’t see myself praying there anymore.”
Besides, she had one 11-year-old sister, Florentina Nwambaye, who
survived the genocide, and she felt responsible for her. So she took a
secretarial job at a local school, then later, at a pharmaceutical
“One of the things that keeps me going is prayer,” says the former
novice, who packs every day with distractions to help her retain a hold
on sanity. For spiritual support, she attends morning sessions of a
charismatic Catholic community. She holds down a day job, and afterward
rushes off to the university, where she’s taking evening classes for a
degree in sociology.
“I have had no time to think about the past,” she says. “It took me a
long time to adjust. It is not easy for me.”
After a decade-long struggle, including bouts of depression and moments
of rage, Niyonsaba said she had reached an accommodation with her
“Since the passage of 10 years, instead of demoralizing myself, I
thought it was not only me who had lost relatives because of church
leaders’ role in the genocide,” she says. “I was not the only witness
to the scandals in the church. I thought God had helped me to survive.
Genocide wasn’t planned by God. He gave us knowledge, free will, to do
the right thing. God never plans for bad things to happen.”
But doesn’t necessarily prevent them, either?
Prim in a checkered custard suit with a sensible skirt, Niyonsaba
pondered the question for a moment, her charcoal-black face set off
against the stark blankness of the wall, serene in the soft glow of the
She turned slowly away, silent.
“How can a Rwandan continue to identify as a Christian?,” Rutazibwa,
the former priest, asked rhetorically regarding the endurance of faith.
“That is part of the mystery of the faith. Despite the horrors, people
always need a relationship with a supreme being.”
At the monastery, the current mother superior said all she could do now
was carry on her calling, which is to serve God. “I saw others die, but
I stayed alive,” she says. “Since I took the eternal vow, the only
thing to do was stay here and serve the Lord. That was the only way I
could pay back the gift of life that I was given.”
And with that, she rose and walked out to the garden, down a footpath,
and to a mass grave in which nine of her fellow nuns killed during the
genocide were buried. She observed a moment of meditative silence, did
the sign of the cross, and headed back to the well-ordered sanctuary of
A Matter of faith
Once the most Catholic of all the African nations, post-genocide Rwanda
has seen a shift away from Catholicism and toward new forms of piety,
Protestant, evangelical/charismatic 24.0
Protestant, evangelical/charismatic 43.9
NOTE: Statistics vary widely due to the absence of reliable census
material; some report place current percentage of Muslims as high as 15
percent. Post-genocide figures are from U.S. Department of State and
John Hopkins University 2001 study.
SOURCES: International Religious Freedom Report 2002 Johns Hopkins
University; Cox News Service Global Security.