Forgiving the Killers of My Wife and 9 Children
When people speak badly about the killers in Rwanda’s genocide, I remind them that God is very patient.
, president, East Central Rwandan Conference, as told to Gina Wahlen, editor of the Mission Quarterly from the Office of Adventist Mission
The killers came on a Sabbath — brought onto the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s compound by the mission president himself and his son, a physician who served as medical director of the church-owned Mugonero Hospital.
Many people had fled to the compound of the church’s South Rwanda Field after the Rwandan genocide started on April 7, 1994. Pastors and their families joined other church members in crowding into the compound, and particularly the church building, thinking they would be safe.
I worked as director of the publishing department for the South Rwanda Field. The office, church, school, workers’ homes, and Mugonero Hospital were all located on the same compound in an area of Rwanda known as Kibuye.
The day before Rwandans began to kill one another, I was attending publishing meetings at the Rwanda Union Mission office in the country’s capital, Kigali. That night the president of Rwanda was shot down in his plane, and the genocide began. The next day, an employee at the Mugonero hospital called to say that my 14-year-old son, Paul, had been killed and that my wife and children had fled to the compound’s church for protection.
Then on Sabbath, April 16, the killers entered the compound with the assistance of the mission president and his son. How could this be? My father, a pastor, had worked with this president while I was growing up. I had worked with him and had no idea what was in his heart.
What saddened me even more was that the pastors holed up inside the church with my wife and eight other children had written a letter to the mission president, telling him: “We know they’re coming to kill us. Please help us get a boat to the lake and go to the Congo so we can be rescued.”
The letter was taken by a soldier who was protecting them in the church to the president’s nearby house on the compound. The president responded that not even God could help them now.
People from all over the country descended on the compound to kill the Adventists. Some of the killers were Adventist. They came with grenades, machetes, knives — anything that could kill a human being.
A pastor was preaching when the killers entered the church. They first shot and killed him. Then they started killing the others. My wife and children ran to the president’s house for help, but he turned them away. Others ran toward the hospital, trying to escape, but were caught by people waiting with machetes. The killing inside the compound continued for several days. Day and night the killers looked for those who might have escaped. They even brought dogs to assist in the search in the bush.
By the time the genocide ended in July, I had lost my entire family: my wife and nine children, and my father and mother, three sisters, a brother, and a brother-in-law.
The Mugonero Hospital, located on the compound where church members died in 1994. (Gina Wahlen)
Church for Displaced People
The outbreak of the genocide made it impossible for me to return home. From Kigali, I was taken by a group of soldiers to a camp for internally displaced people in a northern province of the country.
I was the only pastor in the camp, and I didn’t have time for sad thoughts. I found that when you’re busy doing good, it makes you forget the bad things that have happened to you. That’s how God strengthened me.
One Friday evening I was walking around the city near the camp and saw an abandoned Roman Catholic church. I asked for permission to pray and hold services in the church. Receiving it, I went back to the camp and invited people to come to the church on Sabbath.
We began to meet as a congregation every Sabbath. Even though we were homeless, those who had some money faithfully gave tithe and offerings as if they were still at home. Sometimes people from Uganda came to visit and gave us money, which we also tithed and used for offerings. We set aside the tithe safely until the church in Rwanda could begin working again, and we used the offerings to help treat people injured in the war.
Many people of other faiths joined the Adventists in worshipping every Sabbath. By the time we were able to leave the camp four months later, 300 people were ready for baptism.
When the genocide was over in July, I traveled to Kigali and found that no Adventist church was operating in the country. So I went throughout the city, pleading with people to return to church. Slowly, people returned to the churches, and I was asked to serve as the church’s president for Rwanda for two years. Later I was elected to the publishing department of the Rwandan Union.
Five years later I was given the most challenging invitation that I have ever received: Would I be willing to serve as president of the very area that included the Mugonero compound where my family had been killed?
I prayed about it and decided to go. This would be the first time to go back and work with the people who had killed my family. I didn’t know what to say when I returned alone, so I prayed, “God help me and give me strength and words to say to these people.”
I remember spending a whole night in prayer asking God for clear direction shortly after my return. In the morning I knew that I had to call everyone together for a meeting. I knew that if I didn’t speak with the community from the very beginning, they would always feel threatened by my presence. I needed to open up my heart.
So I called for a large district meeting on my first Sabbath back.
The Rwanda Union “has sent me here to preach the good news, and to lead this conference,” I said. “I don’t want anyone to tell me who killed my family. I don’t even want you to tell me that you’re my friend. My friend is the one who loves God and who loves God’s work. Let’s work together in that spirit.”
I stayed there for three years and was then called back to Kigali to serve as president of what is today the East Central Rwandan Conference. We praise the Lord that our conference has grown from 65,000 church members in 2004 to more than 110,000 today. Among Rwanda’s total population of 12 million, the church has about 640,000 members, and we are now holding Bible studies as we prepare to baptized 100,000 people after evangelistic meetings in late May.
Love and Forgiveness
My favorite Bible verse is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). If God had not loved everyone in the world, I would have gone and killed the killers. But God loves them, and He gives them time to repent.
The mission president and his son were tried and sentenced to prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. The father has died, while the son remains incarcerated.
When I was in the camp during the genocide, a journalist came to interview me. He had heard about how I had lost my entire family and asked me, “What do you think about revenge?”
I took my Bible and opened to Hebrews 10:30-31: “For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
“It’s a scary thing when the Lord will come and catch you!” I said.
The journalist was amazed. He thought I was going to encourage revenge. But I had an answer from the Bible.
When people speak badly about the killers, I like to remind them that we have a God who is very patient with us. He’s very patient with everyone. He doesn’t want anyone to perish. That’s the only thing that can help someone like me who has gone through such circumstances. Anytime anyone comes to God and asks for forgiveness, God forgives. There’s no sin God can’t forgive. Death is not something that scares God. It’s not a big problem for God.
Another thing that gives me strength today is knowing that my family and the other pastors and families in the compound church spent their last few days studying the Bible. They prayed to God for forgiveness of their sins and asked forgiveness from one another. That gives me strength to continue living because I know one day I will see them again. I know they are sleeping and will wake up one day. Because of that, I live for Him.