How the Rwandan genocide helped me understand the Troubles

What lessons can Northern Ireland learn from Rwanda? We find out in a reflection from Diane, a native of Northern Ireland, who recently went to see Tearfund’s work in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali.

For the past 19 years I’ve worked in community transformation and church community engagement in Northern Ireland. My visit to Rwanda this May was the first time I’d been to Africa.

I was leading a team from Moira Presbyterian Church as part of Tearfund’s Connected Church initiative. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to learn from people in a different part of the world and explore how those lessons could be adapted and used to help local congregations back home. I don’t think I realised just how much I would learn.

After the 1994 genocide, Rwanda was in ruins. Up to a million people had been killed in 100 days, leaving countless orphans and widows, thousands of people with disabilities and an emotionally and physically damaged population. The leadership shown by the Rwandan churches was essential in the renewal and rebuilding of this fractured country.

Moira Presbyterian Church is connected to Rugarama Presbyterian Church and, with the support of Tearfund, that congregation in Kigali helps genocide survivors work through their trauma. It was in Rugarama that we met Antoinette, who told her story publicly for the first time.

Longing for death

Antoinette’s husband was killed at the start of the genocide and she was raped repeatedly. Discovering she was pregnant and overwhelmed with anger and despair, she headed out into the dangerous streets hoping someone would kill her. There she saw things she would never forget. 'I just wanted to be one of those dead bodies,' she says.

Antoinette later discovered she’d been infected with HIV, as was her new baby son. But God met her in the midst of all this. 'I am able to tell my story now because of the love and prayers of the church,' says Antoinette.

The relentless love of the Rwandan church is helping to address the multiple problems that survivors of the genocide still face: disability, stigma, HIV, trauma and poverty.

Survivors told us that talking and being heard was a hugely important part of their healing. They also said that they had to work through their trauma before other problems, including poverty, could be addressed.

'I just wanted to be one of those dead bodies’

Antoinette

Trauma from the Troubles

Sadly, however, as a society here in Northern Ireland, it seems we struggle to deal with our own trauma. And the lid we put on pain and suffering causes them to manifest themselves in other ways. Not by accident, I believe, are we the poorest part of the UK.

The University of Ulster’s research for the Commission for Victims and Survivors found that almost 30 per cent of our population have mental health issues. More than half of those are directly related to the Troubles.

As Rwanda moved through 100 days of remembrance, posters and billboards carried the message: 'Remember, Unite, Renew'. These are important words on which to reflect, for Rwandans and for us.

Maybe it takes a visit to another country with divisions to help us see ourselves more clearly.

As with the church in Rugarama, our relentless love must begin on our own doorstep.

We need to learn more about building authentic, vulnerable relationships. Maybe then we’ll get better at making courageous and difficult decisions too. Maybe then we will see 'all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross' (Colossians 1:19–20, The Message).

Moria Presbyterian church has established an active partnership with Rugarama Presbyterian Church and its members are being supported to help translate their learning in Rwanda to their local experiences in Moira.

If you are interested in finding out more about connecting with your local community in Northern Ireland, email diane.holt@tearfund.org.

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