On April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and other officials was shot down, killing everyone on board. The incident led to one of the most horrific outbreaks of genocide in history. Spurred on by government leaders, members of the Hutu majority began to slaughter their Tutsi neighbors. From early April to mid-July, an estimated 800,000 people were killed.
Samaritan’s Purse responded to the humanitarian nightmare by taking care of orphans and providing medical care and clean water at a camp for 125,000 people forced to flee the violence. We are still working in Rwanda through Operation Christmas Child and our office in the United Kingdom.
The genocide in Rwanda is now a part of history. But sadly, man’s inhumanity to man continues. The current conflict in South Sudan is threatening to become genocide. Just as we were in Rwanda, Samaritan’s Purse is there, providing physical relief and the hope that can only come from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Twenty years ago, Rwanda erupted into a firestorm of mass killing. Ken Isaacs, now the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations at Samaritan’s Purse, was among the first-responders. He reflects on what he witnessed then.
I have been a witness to four genocides, but Rwanda was the worst. It left a foul stain on my heart that will last as long as I live.
Standing on ground saturated with the blood of 800,000 murdered people was fearsome, exhausting, and devastatingly painful. Everyone who survived in Rwanda did some dying in the surviving.
Be warned that if you keep reading it should disturb you. That is my intention.
I have always found it odd that in areas of mass death, especially violent death, the birds and insects cease to make noise. That was the very first thing I noticed as I drove into Rwanda from Uganda in early May of 1994. The earth and air were silent—so overwhelmingly silent that it could not be ignored.
The fighting started on April 6 that year, when an airplane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down as it approached the country’s capital, Kigali. This act unleashed the mass killing of members of the Tutsi tribe by their ethnic rivals, the Hutu. A group of Hutus, called the Interahamwe had been preparing for the slaughter for years.
For approximately 90 days Rwanda was a bloody death ring designed for the sport of killing. Bodies were everywhere. I watched thousands of corpses poke through the mist of Rizumu Falls like quivering masses of rubber dolls moving down the river into Lake Victoria.
There was a large refugee camp just across the border in Tanzania that held about 150,000 people when I first arrived. Within days, it swelled to 500,000. Later, I saw the thousands of hoes, machetes, and hand tools that the Tanzanian military had collected as the refugees crossed the bridge. The camp contained killers trying to flee the conflict—and justice. They were drunk with evil, their eyes bloodshot with death and hatred and fear. I could not find peace in my heart among those people. Bringing our team to work here would have been a mistake.
We went instead to a small village in Rwanda named Rutare where 10,000 internally displaced people had fled. Rutare was behind the territory lines of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the military insurgency fighting against the government’s genocide. The RPF was pushing down into Kigali as the Interhamwe continued their killing day and night.
Within three weeks the population of the Rutare camp exceeded 125,000 as Tutsis fled north. We provided medical care, and by the time we left we had assumed responsibility for 930 unaccompanied minors while providing clean water and healthcare to the entire camp population.
On a Sunday morning in mid-July, I left the camp and drove to Kigali with Paul Chiles, a doctor working with Samaritan’s Purse. Although we had just met, he and I became friends for life. That happens when you walk through fires that no one else can understand. We’re still very close, but we never talk about Rwanda.
A tall, thin, eloquent woman in a RPF uniform gave permission for our team to use a house. Her name was Major Rose, and later she would become the mayor of Kigali. I still have the blue index card she wrote that became the equivalent of a lease for three years. It’s the last thing I see every day when I leave my office. It reads, “Please do not vacate this man, Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse, from this residence. He has permission to stay and use it.”
Fighting continued in the streets of Kigali with routine machine gun fire and mortar rounds. We slept on army cots and ate canned food and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). We kept away from the windows and slept below the sills. Outside, bodies were strewn in the roads and the gutters and the ditches and the fields—piles of bodies, single bodies, and pieces of bodies. There are no words to fully express the ugliness of genocide.
There were bodies in a mass grave in the front yard. It was not deep enough though, and parts would rise up out of the ground after it rained. Two nurses named Bethany Bransford and Helen Liko helped shovel, scrape, mop, and chlorinate every inch of the home to get the vast amounts of blood out.
We focused on restoring the Central Hospital of Kigali, a 600-bed facility that had been looted, sacked, and used for a massacre. Our 30 American and Canadian staff began cleaning the facility of the evidence of the murders. The morgue was full of bodies heaved into a small room.
Staffing the hospital was an incredible challenge as the doctors, nurses, and support staff had either been murdered or had run away. As people started venturing back into Kigali, many would come to us looking for work. In time, we hired trained medical professionals and worked closely to help the new Ministry of Health stand up with quality staff in their ranks.
Every person I met had a story. Genocide survivors always do.
Rwandan people tend to be somewhat private, but if you asked them how they survived, what happened, or did their family make it, they would quickly open up.
One woman had seven children, and she had not seen her husband since the killing started. She knew he was dead. She had been called to a weekly house group meeting in her community. The chief of the group forced her to dig a grave. At the threat of killing all of her family, he forced her to decide which child she would throw in the hole and bury. Every week after that, she was forced to select another child to bury or see all of them murdered at once.
This emotional torture destroyed her will and mind. By the time she had one child left, she had no strength left. When I met her in late 1994 she acted like a zombie. Her face was disfigured from machete wounds.
I do not have words to describe how witnessing genocide has permanently affected who I am and how I see the world. People want to believe that genocide happens in other places or in rare instances. That’s not true. Mass murder, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity—whatever you choose to call it—convince me of the dark side of the heart of man. It can happen anywhere given the right circumstances.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton visited Kigali. He apologized to the Rwandan people for failing them—for acting too slowly, doing too little.
Politicians and academics like to talk about how much we’ve learned from the latest atrocity. There’s nothing left for us to learn about mass murder. We know what it is. We continue to see it unfold in places like Sudan, where the government is waging war against its own citizens.
We’re beginning to see it in South Sudan, where violence that erupted between rival factions in December threatened to become an all-out civil war. Just as we were in Rwanda 20 years ago, Samaritan’s Purse is working there now, helping victims displaced by the fighting.
I’ve seen too much to believe in the hyperbolic rhetoric of “Never Again.” Putting an end to genocide is not an academic exercise. Evil can only be resisted by the resolute will to stand against it.