22nd April 1995. Rwanda. A civil war had been raging between the Hutu and Tutsi groups. Between April and July 1994, the Rwandan genocide took place in which over a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed. However, the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) eventually took control.
There were several camps for internally displaced persons – that is, people who had to flee their own homes but who were still in the country. One of the largest camps was in Kibeho and up to 100,000 men, women and children were there. The United Nations and Medecins Sans Frontieres were both in attendance.
On 17th April, the administration within which Kibeho sat let it be known that the camps would all be closed. The aim was to find and separate out those who were known to have been involved in the Rwandan genocide. On 18th April, RPF soldiers surrounded the camp and started firing “warning shots”. The next day there are more shots. The refugees were blockaded and food and water was forbidden from coming into the camp. Tensions raised and on the morning of 22nd April, 1995 the troops started firing into the crowd with rifles first and then with mortars – that is, bombs. About 4-5,000 people were killed.
Artist George Gittoes was with the UN forces at the camp. In his journal, he noted that “Two days ago there were thousands of people standing and pleading for help. Now everything is flattened – bodies crumpled amidst rubbish – their few discarded possessions. This afternoon, as if walking through an invisible door, I came into a group who were calm. Though bursts of machine gun fire surrounded them – continually getting closer with terrifying inevitability – they remained a solid congregation – bound together not by walls, but by prayer. A solitary preacher read to them from a ragged bible. He was a tall man in a yellowish coat sitting high on a sack of grain. He spoke French with a thick dialect – his voice hoarse and broken – but I could recognise the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the pure in heaven, for they shall see God.”
There is a photograph of this man, and he is shown in Gittoes own painting.
It is horrific. It is beyond imagining. When I first heard the story, I knew I couldn’t un-hear it. And, as Christians, how do we make sense of it? Why would God let that happen? I don’t know. In all honesty, I don’t know. But I know what the Bible tells me – that in the brokenness of this world, God is present when terrible things happen. The wisdom book of Job shows us that no matter how terrible things got for Job, God was with him in the darkness. I know that when terrible things happened to Joseph, he still acknowledged that what man meant for evil, God used for good (Gen. 50:20). I know that while things in this world are horrible and evil and shattered, we look forward to a promise where there will be no pain (Rev. 21:4).
But my heart pumps a thick beat for the preacher. That in the face of unconscionable evil, he preached the promise. That when suffocated by unimaginable fear, he looked to his congregation and drew their terrified hearts to God. That among the deafening drumroll of death and anguish, he spoke the words of the only one who could truly see them in that moment, who could understand their pain and who was about to welcome them with loving arms into paradise.
As I sit in my comfortable life, in my safe suburb with very little to alarm me, I look to the preacher and know that he is a guide for us. As I look at him, I see Jesus. It shakes me out of my soporific stupor and reminds me to look to my creator and the promise of paradise. God sent his son to suffer torment for me – for all of us – so that we could be in paradise.
How does God use such terrible events? I don’t know. I don’t see enough of the picture to know what waves of goodness might come from something so horrific. But I know that after being sent to investigate the Rwandan genocide, that Gary Haugen founded the International Justice Mission which has done so much good in God’s name. I know that the preacher continues to bring hope long after he and his whole church were killed. I know that, as Tertullian in the 2nd century said, “The blood of martyrs in the seed of the church.” What he meant by this is that the example of the faithful in the face of death because of the grace and power of God, is a strength to believers. As we pray for the deliverance of the faithful around the world, we are connected to them in prayer, and connected with them in Christ. It is a very real example of how Christians are part of something bigger.
I know that by telling the story, it reminds us where the preacher was pointing in those last moments. He was pointing to the God we share. The God who welcomed him to paradise will welcome us. I pray for my church leaders, seeing in this preacher the weight laid on their shoulders to shepherd us.
More than anything, I know that in my comfortable life, the main focus is me. I praise God that I am in a place where I am safe and I don’t have to worry about the safety of my children, or try to protect them in a refugee camp, or make choices between life and death. I pray that God will keep reminding me of the power of his people and the needs of his people across the world.
I pray that God will keep reminding me of the power of his words and the truth of his promise.
I pray that in all situations, I can, with God’s grace, remain calm and remember Him, not me.