Nightmare in Rwanda relived


Staff writer

A hundred days of violence erupted in Rwanda a decade ago, when Hutu rebels launched a brutal war against ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Almost a million people were killed and another 2 million fled.

Photojournalist and World Vision communications manager John Schenk was there in the first days of the fighting. His images broke the story in the United States when tapes he sent back made it to the nightly news on televisions across the country.

Last month, Schenk returned to Rwanda for a memorial observance of the murders and the hurt between two people who still live closely.

“Basically, there’s a miracle that has taken place in Rwanda, but it’s not over yet,” Schenk said. “The blood of 800,000 people has been shed.”

Civil unrest between Hutus and Tutsis had been brewing for some time. In 1959, Hutus overthrew the Tutsi king and, over the next several years, thousands of Tutsis were killed and about 150,000 fled to neighboring countries, according to the CIA’s world factbook.

In 1990, Tutsis formed a rebel group, called the Rwanda Patriotic Front, and started a civil war to reclaim the power they once held in the country. The acts of violence culminated in 1994, when an airplane carrying the Hutu president was shot down.

Shortly after the crash, Hutus began the mass killing of Tutsis. The Rwanda Patriotic Front responded and eventually stopped the genocide in July, but the killing lasted 100 days and claimed the lives of almost 1 million people.

Today, Rwanda is driven by political and economic practicality, Schenk said.

“It’s wise they decided they could not return and stopped crying for the death sentence on tens of thousands of killers,” he said. “The nation can’t afford to execute tens of thousands of killers. They can’t afford to keep that many people in prison for life.”

Instead, leaders have called for “inkoke gacaca” — a grassroots court system that utilizes a community, participatory model of justice. Schenk said Hutu rebels who were released from prison after the genocide are helping build houses for their victims. In turn, the recipients of the homes are trying to give back to the men who, years ago, destroyed them.

As the genocide began to erupt in April 1994, massive numbers of people fled the area, creating humanitarian crises in neighboring countries. As they fled for the borders, they didn’t have much time to reflect on what was happening to them.

“They were just struggling for survival,” Schenk said. “Later on, they started entering into the luxury of healing.”

Today, World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid organization headquartered in Federal Way, is providing psycho-social assistance, taking people through the grieving process. As World Vision is a Christian organization, volunteers working in Rwanda are teaching people there to let go of their suffering and to “hang that pain on the cross,” Schenk said.

The process of reconciliation has begun, but many are still in a state of denial, he said.

“You have to work this way. How do you send that many people to the gallows?” he said. “When would the killing stop?”

The people are broken, and the society they create will, by its nature, reflect what Rwanda has sustained, according to Schenk.

“They’re finding bodies every week, if not every day,” he said. “You can’t lose a million people and not feel an incredible economic impact, plus a psychological impact. While you have healing, you have people who will never be the same.

“Rwanda is a dysfunctional country. It cannot be anything else. Ten years is just the beginning. It will take generations to erase the horror but retain the lessons.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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