The peace had been a fragile one at best. For 3 years, Rwandans focused on putting the genocide of 1994 behind them, but the Tutsis still did not trust the Hutus who had killed their family members, and the Hutus feared the Tutsis were secretly planning revenge. It seemed the nation would remain divided forever.
Who knew reconciliation for one young man would start when a gun was pointed at him?
For 100 bloody days in 1994, the small African nation of Rwanda was ripped apart by a violent civil war. During those three months, drunken soldiers and self-appointed militiamen from the Hutu tribe rampaged through the country and systematically murdered almost one million Tutsi men, women, and children. Thus, no one wondered why peace hadn’t appeared by 1997 even though the fighting had ceased three years earlier.
The only restoration to speak of was the fact that a few Hutu and Tutsi children shared classrooms around the country. But what little peace existed was about to be shattered in a violent episode Catherine Claire Larson recounted in her book As We Forgive:
There was a noise of chairs scuffing against concrete as students ducked under their desks, covering their heads. Just then shots burst through the closed door and three men entered the classroom, two carrying guns and one a machete. No one had remembered to shut off the generator, so the students did not even have darkness to cover them, and the desks were a feeble shield.
“Do you know me?” asked one man in uniform, speaking French, the language spoken most commonly in the Congo.
“No,” whispered several of the students.
“Well, you are going to see me,” he continued, moving to the front of the classroom. “I am going to ask you one simple thing.” Phanuel tried to get a better glimpse of the man. He looked young, perhaps 22 or 23. “I want you to separate yourselves between Hutu and Tutsi.”
Phanuel froze, returning his eyes to the ground. He listened; no one seemed to make a sound except he could hear one of the girls whimpering.
“Do you want me to repeat?” came the rebel’s voice, louder, angrier. “I want those of you who are Hutu to go there and those of you who are Tutsi to go to the other side.”
Phanuel felt like his heart would beat out of his chest. As a Hutu, he knew that he could say something and perhaps spare his life, but he couldn’t imagine betraying his own friends. He knew also that as a Christian he didn’t have that option. He prayed, “Lord, help us.” It couldn’t have been more than a few moments that the rebel waited for an answer, but to Phanuel it seemed like time had slowed. And then there was a voice. Phanuel winced.
“All of us are Rwandans here,” said Chantal from the front of the classroom. A shot rang out in reply. The students gasped – the bullet hit Chantal squarely in the forehead.
“Hutu here! Tutsi there!” yelled the man.
“I don’t want to die. Please help my classmates not to separate,” Phanuel prayed again.
Then the rebels walked out of the room. Phanuel wondered what was happening – were they leaving? A moment later, an explosion shattered the soft sounds of crying and rapid breathing. Glass exploded and one of the walls crumbled. Excruciating pain shot through Phanuel as debris rained down on him. He could hear his other classmates wailing and groaning. When the smoke dissipated a bit, he heard the rebels move back in.
“This is your last chance,” came the voice. “You will separate or you will all die.”
Just then Emmanuel said in a steady low voice, “We are all Rwandans.”
The vicious murderers rewarded Emmanuel’s courage the same way they had Chantal’s. In fact, many of the students were killed in the attack, but Phanuel was miraculously spared.
Since that awful night, he’s invested his life into helping other Rwandans forgive evil and embrace love. His message has proven hard to ignore. After all, he could have betrayed his friends, but didn’t. That example has led many Hutus and Tutsis to realize that they are all Rwandans.
As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation From Rwanda by Catherine Claire Larson. Zondervan, 2009, Pages 214-216.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)