ROCHESTER — Jesuit Father Elisee Rutagambwa points out a single skull among thousands stacked neatly in a pile at a Rwandan genocide memorial.
This particular skull is missing a wedge-shaped section, as if it were a birthday cake with a slice removed.
A machete hacked the piece of bone out of the skull, Father Rutagambwa said. During the 100-day genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the 800,000 victims were killed with work tools such as machetes, not by machine guns or heavy artillery, he noted.
Father Rutagambwa showed pictures of genocide memorials during a slideshow as part of an April 2 talk at Monroe Community College. His visit was sponsored by the Holocaust Genocide Studies Project and the Black Student Union, and he was introduced by Diocese of Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
“I can think of no topic more worthy, and no subject more challenging to my belief of the goodness of God and the goodness of human beings, than the purposeful eradication of human beings,” Bishop Clark said in his introduction.
Father Rutagambwa, who spoke about the importance of teaching young people to care for others, lost his brother in a 1993 murder in Burundi and 40 family members in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He had been living in Burundi during that year, and he said he was on the phone with a panicked cousin in Rwanda when she was murdered.
He returned to Rwanda in 1995 to help care for war orphans and is now writing his doctoral dissertation at Boston College about the church’s and international community’s response to the Rwandan genocide. At least 80 percent of the population of Rwanda is Christian — converted in the 20th century by missionaries known as the “white fathers” — so the violence pitted Christian against Christian, he said.
“Mothers killed children, and children killed mothers,” Father Rutagambwa said. “Teachers killed students, and students killed teachers. Parish priests killed their parishioners.”
Before the destruction, Rwanda was a beautiful country with thousands of green, rolling hills, he said. The roots of the conflict date back to Berlin Conference of 1884, when European nations divided up most of the African continent without regard to language, tradition, culture or past conflicts.
The state of Rwanda became a Belgium territory after World War I. In 1935, the Belgian colonial administration introduced ethnic-identity cards, to identify who was Hutu, or a farmer, and who was Tutsi, or a cattle herder.
“When they distributed ethnic-identity cards, there was no way to know for sure who was a Hutu or a Tutsi,” said Father Rutagambwa, who said he doesn’t identify himself as either a Hutu or a Tutsi because of the artificial nature of the labels.
According to Father Rutagambwa and the U.S. State Department’s history of Rwanda, Hutus revolted in 1959, overthrowing the Tutsi monarchy. Thousands of Tutsis fled to nearby countries. The country became independent from Belgium in 1962 and fell under military rule in 1973.
In 1990, Tutsis exiled after the 1959 revolt formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front and invaded Rwanda from a Ugandan base. The fighting sparked a nearly two-year war that ended up with a cease-fire drawn up in Arusha, Tanzania.
“The Rwandan genocide was a preventable genocide for so many reasons,” Father Rutagambwa said. “First of all, the world experienced genocide with the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. It was Bosnia one year before, and yet the world turned its eyes away.”
In April of 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down. Within hours, military and militia groups began killing Tutsis and political moderates who supported the Arusha cease-fire. Local officials and the government-sponsored radio told ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors, who were identified by names, addresses and license-plate numbers. Civil war raged alongside genocide for nearly two months.
“Rape was used as a tool of genocide,” Father Rutagambwa said.
He said religion also was used as a tool. Many killings took place in churches, where sacred objects were defiled, the priest said. People used the liturgical language of the Eucharist to promote human sacrifice and rationalized their part in the genocide by saying the Lord would forgive them, he said.
“We (as priests) are also responsible for the type of message we are trying to transmit,” Father Rutagambwa said.
War ended July 16, 1994, when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front won a decisive victory. The war displaced about 3 million people and left about 400,000 orphans and abandoned children.
Father Rutagambwa said the silence from the international community as the genocide was occurring was nearly as bad as the violence itself. Speaking in Rwanda in 1998, President Bill Clinton, who has been criticized for not pushing the U.S. to take action, said the international community bore some responsibility.
“All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror,” said Clinton, according to CNN reports of the speech.
According to the U.S. State Department, by the end of 2006, 818,000 genocide suspects had been identified by local courts, known as Gacacas, where victims, the accused and the community participate in the trials. Tens of thousands of suspects remain in the prison system. Father Rutagambwa said today many Rwandan orphans continue to live on their own and local identities have been destroyed.
Father Rutagambwa said in positive news, ethnic identifiers, which previously had prevented Tutsis from going to school, are no longer used. Political parties are not allowed to form based on ethnicity. Child soldiers receive counseling before they are returned to society.
There are reminders of the genocide throughout the country, as churches, schools and other locations have been turned into memorials.
“Memory is the only way out, because memory works against amnesia,” Father Rutagambwa said.