Democracy Lab

The Woman Who Came Back from Hell

How Rwanda's Pentecostals are keeping the demons of the past at bay.

In April 1994, as Hutu extremists launched the campaign of mass killing that would come to be known as the Rwandan genocide, 10-year-old Rebecca Umwali took refuge with her parents and siblings in their local Catholic church. Government officials were encouraging members of the Tutsi minority, like Rebecca's family, to seek safety in churches, traditionally regarded as places of refuge. This time that promise turned out to be a cruel hoax. Once the church was full, an ethnic Hutu militia attacked. Armed with guns and machetes, they killed Rebecca's mother, father, and seven of her nine brothers and sisters. Rebecca survived only because the body of a tall woman fell on top of her, hiding her from the killers. For days afterwards she hid herself in a tree, emerging only at night to forage for food in the ruins of her village.

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. "It was a place where there was always twilight," says Rebecca. "It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world." For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. "I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power."

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and "accepted Jesus as my king." At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her "inner peace." Today she travels around the country, telling her story at emotional revival meetings where listeners respond ecstatically to her account of personal redemption. "After the genocide we had many different emotions," says Rebecca. "Everyone was looking for the place where he can get healed, get peace, and where he can pray." Pentecostalism, for her, is just the place.

Rebecca's story will undoubtedly sound outlandish to those who don't share her faith. Yet the recent history of her country has a way of giving a peculiar resonance to tales of demonic forces at work. Many Rwandans, it turns out, have made journeys that sound like Rebecca's -- journeys often tied up with the extraordinary traumas inflicted by mass murder and its aftermath. (The photo above shows the bloodstained clothing of genocide victims in Ntarama Church, now a memorial to the 5,000 people who were killed there in April 1994.) In a country whose lack of resources means that qualified therapists are few and far between, and where truth and reconciliation efforts have been largely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the crimes committed, many people have sought -- and seemingly found -- consolation in religion.

Before the deaths of close to 1 million Rwandans in the 1994 slaughter, roughly 65 percent of Rwandans were Catholics. But many have since turned away from the church: A 2011 study from the Pew Research Center found that the number of Catholics had dropped post-genocide, to around 50 percent of the population. Many of those who have abandoned Catholicism have gravitated to Protestant denominations of Christianity -- or even to Islam.

The reasons are complicated. The current Rwandan government as well as many ordinary Rwandans accuse the Catholic Church of complicity in the genocide, citing the notorious cases of church officials and priests who participated in the killings. Experts caution against such generalizations, pointing out that there were also priests who fell victim to the slaughter, some in the attempt to protect their parishioners. (The Vatican, for its part, continues to dispute any institutional involvement in the genocide.)

Yet even among Rwandans who don't accept the broader version of the church's guilt, there's still a palpable sense that the genocide marked a radical break with the old ways of doing things -- including adherence to the traditional faith. While it's hard to come by precise figures, many Rwandans say that there's been a clear shift toward other religions. And Pentecostals, charismatic Protestants with an intense belief in the power of the Holy Spirit (including the controversial practice of speaking in tongues), have seen some of the strongest growth.

In this respect, Rwanda is following a broader African trend. Pentecostalism is surging in popularity across the content. That 2011 Pew study found that 44 percent of the world's 279 million Pentecostals live in sub-Saharan Africa -- a figure that translates into 123 million people. (The sociologist Peter Berger, who notes that the modern Pentecostal faith was launched by an African-American preacher in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, has described Pentecostalism as "the fastest growing religious movement in history.")

Gerard van't Spijker, a Protestant theologian who lived in Rwanda for many years, notes that, a generation or so ago, European or American missionaries were the ones bringing Pentecostalism to the Africans. Now, he says, many of the new churches are being founded by "enthusiastic young preachers" of local origin. "In their message there's a very strong appeal to middle-class Christians, an appeal to a new generation of well-educated people in the cities." Pentecostals avidly embrace the notion of the "prosperity gospel," the idea that faith will express itself in worldly material success. Many Rwandan Pentecostal churches offer their parishioners job training and business classes.

Marie Louise Ingabire, a 27-year-old café manager and university student from the southern Rwandan city of Butera, fits van't Spijker's upwardly mobile profile. Yet when you ask her why she converted to Pentecostalism from her family's Catholicism a few years ago, she dwells less on her new faith's push for prosperity than its sense of community and its emphasis on powerful feelings. She now attends services in her local Pentecostal church at least two times a week. "In Catholicism everything is fixed," she says. "It's like a formula that doesn't change. In Pentecostalism you can praise God the way you want. Your emotions aren't stopped. You pray the way you feel it."

That emphasis on shared emotion (including plenty of rousing music and preaching) helps to explain why so many Rwandans are drawn to the Pentecostal message. Rose Mukakimenyi, 37, lost much of her extended family in the genocide, prompting an intense spiritual search. "My focus was to pray, and praying was the basis of finding peace," she recalls. "Praying in Catholicism didn't do that." She smiles as she recalls her conversion to Pentecostalism 14 years ago -- in terms that have strong overtones of group therapy: "When they sing, I feel peace. When we pray, I feel we are like a family."

Her friend, 26-year-old Thitien Nsabumukiza, has a dramatic conversion story of his own (involving an elaborate, dreamlike vision of his Pentecostal mother, who desperately wanted him to join the faith). Now he works as a deacon at his local church, leading a 53-member prayer group and doing his best to woo new believers -- a stark contrast, he says, to the days when all he wanted was to take revenge on those who had orchestrated the killing of so many of his fellow Tutsis: "After I was converted by the power of God, God gave me the power of healing rather than killing," he says. "Now I have new eyes, and I'm a servant of God."

It should come as little surprise that the lives of so many Rwandan Pentecostals dovetail with their faith's intense focus on personal transformation. For those who survived an event that claimed the lives of so many others, talk of "rebirth" or "resurrection" has a powerful immediacy. "They taught me that being baptized in water means dying with Jesus Christ and then being resurrected," says Rebecca Umwali. "You emerge as a new person. I was baptized and became a Pentecostal."

Religion is clearly not a panacea for Rwanda's problems. The Pentecostal Church itself is hardly immune to the temptations of power and wealth, as some of the recent scandals within its leadership demonstrate. And the appalling actions of the spiritual leaders who participated in the horrors of 1994 (including, indeed, some Protestant pastors) should serve as a reminder that the religiously minded are also just as prey to human frailty as anyone else.

Yet one suspects that many Rwandans will continue to turn to religion as a source of consolation and community. For Rebecca and so many others, it's their faith that helps them to keep the demons at bay.

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Democracy Lab

Rwandan Shadows

Twenty years after the end of a genocidal regime, Rwandans are still trying to come to terms with the destruction of their world.

KIGALI, Rwanda — During my travels in Rwanda over the past week, my guide Hyppolite has become a friend. He's a sharp-minded 27-year-old with an engaging smile who bombards me with questions about everything from smart cards to China's rise. This fall he's starting work on a master's degree at a British university -- not bad for someone who remembers spending much of his childhood gathering firewood for the family cooking stove.

Rwanda has some remarkable wildlife, and the other day I happened to see a particularly interesting bird, which I pointed out. Hyppolite shook his head. "I don't like animals," he said. Fair enough. But he was emphatic about it. He has his reasons.

In April 1994, they came for Hyppolite and his family. The killers were armed with machetes and spears; some of them were neighbors. Hyppolite, at age 7, was the youngest member of his family, which included five sisters and one brother. On April 6, his parents heard the news of the death of Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana. His plane was shot down by unknown assailants as it approached the airport in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. A network of ultranationalist politicians from the country's majority Hutu ethnic group immediately seized upon the president's assassination to unleash a campaign of slaughter against the minority Tutsis. (Many of those first killed, in the early hours of April 7, included moderate Hutus who were viewed by Hutu radicals as traitors to their own ethnicity.) The Hutu Power movement cast Tutsis as an alien race determined to claim Rwanda for themselves. The only viable response, these extremists declared, was to launch a "final solution" that would "cleanse" Rwanda of their enemies forever.

Hyppolite and his family were Tutsis. Hearing the news of the president's death, Hyppolite's parents immediately knew that their lives were in danger. They fled their house and sought refuge in a nearby church. But the hope of safety proved illusory: The church was attacked. Hyppolite and his father escaped. But when they heard a group of pro-government militiamen approaching, they dove for cover in bushes at the side of the road. Hyppolite managed to keep quiet. "But my father had a cold. He coughed; he couldn't help it. The militia pulled him out and killed him right there." He waited until the murderers left, then emerged from his hiding place. "And when I came out, I saw that the dogs were eating my father's body."

Hyppolite, dazed and starving, managed to hide in the woods until the killing stopped, occasionally emerging to scavenge for food; sometimes he slept in the ruins of his family's house, the one place, he correctly guessed, where no one would be looking for people to kill. Somehow he remained alive.

A few years later his older brother decided to get a dog as a pet. "I couldn't stand it," Hyppolite said. "All I could think of was the dogs who had fed on my father. So I waited until my brother left the house one day. Then I took the dog into the forest and I killed it. I found some sticks and I beat it to death."

These days, so many years later, he says that he can finally look at dogs without feeling that same desire for revenge. Though many members of his extended family fell victim to the genocide, his mother and his siblings managed to survive, so he has that to be thankful for. He has moved on, at least on some level. Now, he says, he can at least live like a normal human being; when you see him flash one of his dazzling smiles, you're hard-pressed to imagine what he's been through. But he admits that the shadow of those experiences still lies across his soul, and will probably never go away entirely.

It's a shadow that still lies over his country as well. It could hardly be otherwise. By the time they were stopped, the génocidaires had succeeded in wiping out something close to 1 million Rwandans, using guns, grenades, machetes, homemade bamboo spears, and bare hands. The killing wasn't an expression of some "ancient ethnic hatred" dating back centuries. Violence between Hutus and Tutsis only really started in the second half of the 20th century, a product of warped racial ideas implanted by Rwanda's Belgian colonizers and aggravated by scheming Rwandan politicians who sought to use ethnic hatred to keep themselves in power. What Rwanda does have is a long-established tradition of clearly defined hierarchies, tightly organized government, and people who are accustomed to obeying their leaders. The killers used their control of the state apparatus and media to make their plans a reality. The rest of the world stood by and watched.

This week Rwanda is marking an important anniversary. Twenty years ago, on July 4, 1994, the rebels of the mostly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who had launched a desperate offensive from their bases in the country's north as soon as news of the slaughter broke, finally occupied Kigali, bringing the 100 days of the genocide to an end. (The photo above shows a distraught woman being carried out of a ceremony commemorating the genocide in Kigali in April.)

When the rebels marched into the capital they confronted not only mountains of corpses but also absolute devastation. The Hutu extremists and what was left of their government had fled -- but before they left they cut water lines, destroyed power plants, and robbed whatever they could take along, from cars to light bulbs. The new RPF government convened in ministries where the only furniture consisted of beer crates. As Phillip Gourevitch relates in his remarkable account of the genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the advancing RPF soldiers shot every dog they saw along the way -- for the same reasons that inspired my friend's peculiar act of revenge. (As Gourevitch tells it, one British medical relief worker took the opportunity to scold them for their cruelty to animals.)

Today Rwanda is a radically different place. The man who led the RPF to victory, Paul Kagame, is president, presiding over a government that combines equal measures of competence and ruthlessness. Rwanda in 2014 is a place of smoothly surfaced roads and increasingly modern infrastructure. Fully 98 percent of the country's citizens are covered by a national health care program; huge strides have been made in combating HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Economic growth is strong. The government says that GDP has been expanding at roughly 8 percent annually over the past few years. Though many Rwandans still struggle to get by, Kagame's government gets stellar ratings from the international aid community for its poverty reduction efforts, including the "one cow per family" program, which has buoyed up the poorest of the poor by providing them with livestock. Underlying all of these successes is a strict anti-corruption policy that has borne visible fruit. Even Rwanda's harshest critics concede that the country's policemen rarely take bribes.

And critics there are. They assail the government for its cowing of the media and its lack of tolerance for dissent; opponents of the government have an alarming tendency to disappear or turn up dead. Rwandans know that expressing negative opinions about Kagame, the centerpiece of a strictly organized one-party state dominated by the army and intelligence services, is likely to end badly. "People are afraid to say what they think," one Rwandan told me. "This is a place of many secrets."

In many ways, nonetheless, Rwanda's post-genocide story is largely a positive one. The signs of material progress are ubiquitous; other African leaders speak of emulating Rwanda's model. Despite the weight of its past and its extremely limited resources, the country has made remarkable progress toward domestic stability. Like Hyppolite, many Rwandans are moving forward, eager to embrace what life has to offer.

Yet you don't have to look hard to find the darkness. Hints of it are everywhere. Twenty years is not that long.

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