It has been 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, when Hutu extremists murdered at least 800,000 Tutsis over the course of 100 days. Women, men, infants, and children were assaulted with grenades and machine guns, cut down with machetes, beheaded, or burned alive. Denise Uwimana, who lost her husband to the genocide (and gave birth to a third son as the slaughter reached her home), has made it her life’s mission to provide material and spiritual assistance to fellow survivors and promote reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis—in part through the organization she founded, Iriba Shalom International. Bethany Hoang, an author and advisor with International Justice Mission, spoke with Uwimana about her memoir, From Red Earth: A Rwandan Story of Healing and Forgiveness.
Being a believer did not spare me from tribulation, but my faith in Jesus remained firm. He showed me that he is with us in every situation, up to the final minute of life. I saw this in Oscar, a Tutsi and friend of my family, who prayed for me before the Hutu paramilitary killed him.
During the worst of the genocide, I thought God loved only the Hutu, because Tutsis were killed like flies, and no one raised their voice in our defense. I was disappointed at how church leaders were involved directly or indirectly in the killing.
My prayer life became a quarrel with God. I reminded God of the promise he makes in Psalm 118, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans” (v. 8). I told him, “I don’t have anyone to help me. I will see if your word is true and how I will survive among the killers.” God kept his promises, and I survived, not because I was better or because I prayed a lot but by his grace.
Before I met other widows, I thought I had suffered more than others. Then I learned of women who had been raped or infected by HIV/AIDS. There were widows who lost all their children and orphans who lost at least one parent. We organized to support each other, sharing what little we had.
In 1999 I moved to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where my love for other traumatized widows and orphans grew. In every home I visited, I saw how their faces shone with joy because someone whom they trusted took time to listen.
After I remarried, I moved from Rwanda to Europe, but my heart kept burning for survivors. When I returned to visit my mother-in-law, who lost eight sons, I had the opportunity to hear other widows’ stories. During one visit, two widows brought me to where their baby boys, among 73 infant boys, were killed in front of their eyes. I spent the whole night weeping and wondering how I could help. Then an inner voice said, “Just love them! Show them I am God. I still love them, and they will be my witnesses. Please don’t let them die in grief.”
Most of the widows and orphans did not want to attend any church again, as the church had lost its credibility through the genocide. But I was convinced that each of us had survived for a purpose: to encourage others who had suffered the same horrors and bring forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation to our society.