The Rwandan genocide

Lessons from 25 years ago

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. In less than three months in 1994, more than 800,000 men, women and children, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were hunted down and slaughtered. Catholics in the Diocese of Green Bay, who attended one of the five healing Masses in late March, were given a short history lesson about the tragedy by a survivor of the genocide, Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga.

Fr. Ubald, a priest of the Diocese of Cyangugu, Rwanda, shared his story about escaping from Rwanda, eventually arriving in France and experiencing a conversion after participating in Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. Fr. Ubald lost more than 80 members of his own family in the genocide, including his mother. But through his conversion experience, he overcame his hatred and found forgiveness, even for the man who murdered his mother.

Fr. Ubald’s heart-wrenching story is one upon which movies are based. It actually led to a documentary, “Forgiveness: The Secret of Peace,” which was viewed as part of the two-day healing services across the diocese. His message of forgiveness is inspirational, yet the human tragedy that took place in Rwanda 25 years ago still cries out for attention.

That is because some of the circumstances that gradually allowed Rwanda to become a killing field are cropping up today.

In a message marking the Rwandan genocide’s 25th anniversary, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned the world that nations must guard against hatred that allows violence to occur.

“As we renew our resolve to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again, we are seeing dangerous trends of rising xenophobia, racism and intolerance in many parts of the world,” he said. “Particularly troubling is the proliferation of hate speech and incitement to violence. They are an affront to our values, and threaten human rights, social stability and peace. Wherever they occur, hate speech and incitement to violence should be identified, confronted and stopped to prevent them leading, as they have in the past, to hate crimes and genocide.”

Rwanda’s genocide is an example of how words can incite violence. Leon Mugesera, who was a senior politician in Rwanda and a member of the rival Hutu ethnic group, called Tutsis “cockroaches” in 1992 and said they should leave the country. In 2016, Mugesera was sentenced to life in prison by a Rwandan judge for “public incitement to commit genocide, persecution as a crime against humanity, and inciting ethnic-affiliated hatred.”

The Jewish Holocaust is the prime example of hate speech leading to violence. German Nazis denounced the “infestation” of Jews in Europe, who they described as “vermin.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum warns that preventing genocide requires vigilance against hate speeches.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that certain types of hate speech can serve as both a warning sign and a catalyst of genocide and mass atrocities,” the museum states on its website, ushmm.org.

Today in our own country, we hear disparaging remarks made against immigrants and people seeking asylum at our southern border. Let’s not allow hateful words into our conversations about immigrants. It only leads to dehumanizing them, and it certainly violates what Scripture and centuries of church teachings reveal about the dignity of human life.

In the words of Pope Francis, given during an address to the World Meetings of Popular Movements in 2017, “authentic humanity resists the dehumanization that wears the livery of indifference, hypocrisy, or intolerance.”