He Survived the Rwandan Genocide—Then Met the Man Who Killed His Family

Marcel Uwineza

Rev. Marcel Uwineza, S.J., has endured more hardships than most people can even imagine, but regardless of this difficult life, he opened his talk with the idea of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness leads to freedom, if you forget everything else [from this talk] remember this,” he said.

Uwineza is a Jesuit priest, a student in the Boston College School of Ministry and Theology, and a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide. As part of a special Easter Agape Latte, Uwineza spoke about his experiences during the genocide and what led him to forgive the perpetrators.

Uwineza was born in Ruhango, one of the central provinces of Rwanda. He was raised in a large Catholic family, with four brothers and two sisters.

There are three ethnic groups in Rwanda, the Hutu, which make up 85 percent of the population, the Tutsi, 14 percent of the population, and the Twa, 1 percent. Uwineza and his family are Tutsi and part of the targeted group during the genocide. Uwineza explained that the tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups stems from Tutsis being in power for most of Rwanda’s history and when Germany, and later Belgium, colonized Rwanda, they favored the Tutsis and gave them better treatment.

The balance of power shifted when the Rwanda held democratic elections and a Hutu president.

Uwineza explained that he began to sense the tensions between the two groups when he was in elementary school. The teacher would ask the Tutsis in the class to raise their hands and identify themselves, and after school, the teacher would tell the Hutu children that the Tutsis that had raised their hands were people to be wary of.

These tensions between the different groups escalated in the years before the genocide began and, in 1992, Uwineza’s father was killed by Hutus.

On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, died in a plane crash when his plane was shot out of the sky. The same day, the killings of Tutsis began.

Uwineza explained his suspicions that the genocide was premeditated because of the speed and effectiveness of the murder and the pre-dug mass graves.

A week after the genocide began near the capital city of Kigali, the killings reached Uwineza’s home town. Two of his brothers and one of his sisters were visiting their aunt when Uwineza and the rest of his family went to the local church and to seek refuge.

The priest, a Hutu, turned them away and said “I have no place for Tutsis here, you go away.”

After being turned away by the priest, they ran into one of their neighbors, a Hutu named Joseph Kabera, who offered to hide Uwineza and his family in the compound where he kept his bee hives.

Kabera would bring them food at 3 a.m. when everyone else, including his own wife, was asleep and could not catch him. Eventually, others in the village became suspicious and Uwineza and his family had to leave.

They decided to go to the district office and see if they could find help there. On the way, they were discovered by a group of Hutus and Uwineza’s mother was beaten so badly she almost died. By chance, the group got called away, and Uwineza and his family were able to escape to the district office.

There, they met with the mayor, who was half Tutsi and half Hutu. His mixed ethnicity gave him empathy for the Tutsis in trouble and he allowed Uwineza and his family to stay in the town hall for a few days with other Tutsis before arranging transportation to a cathedral for them.

When they were on buses to the cathedral, they were stopped by a roadblock and told they needed to show Hutu identity cards, which none of them had, in order to pass.

Luckily, a priest came out of a chapel on the side of the road and paid for the buses to pass through. After this, Uwineza lived in the cathedral until early June, when Tutsi rebels liberated them.

Shortly after the genocide was over, Uwineza’s mother died and he learned of the deaths of his two brothers and sister that were not with him throughout the genocide. For a few years, he was not able to return to Church, but with the help of a friend from school and his uncle, he began praying and going to Church regularly.

Uwineza fell in love with the Jesuit order, joined, and became a priest. After he finished his novitiate, Uwineza returned to his childhood home and visited his parents and siblings graves. While there, the man who killed his brothers and sister came to see him and ask for forgiveness. The man got down on his knees in front of Uwineza and pleaded to be forgiven. Uwineza embraced the man and told him that he forgave him.

Uwineza said that forgiving the man freed him of all the hate he had been holding onto and felt like “chains falling off.”

“When I was about to say to him, ‘I forgive you,’ I felt free. This was one of the freest moments of my life,” he said.

Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff