The massacre of innocents, Rwanda 1963

This Christmas period as every other year, millions of Rwandans will flock to their respective Churches to celebrate what is believed to be the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a joyous occasion as people of all ages, dressed up in their best finery, wish each other a Happy Christmas and life-long prosperity for the coming New Year.

Now, picture the exact same scene fifty-five years ago, but this time, if you can bear it, see men, women, and children, hacked to agonising deaths with crude instruments for weapons, lying in front of church doors in pools of their own blood, their once immaculate clothing now saturated with it.

Most of the world is now at least aware of the 1994 Genocide against Batutsi, but, few know that this was a genocide in several stages. In 1963, an estimated 20,000 people were murdered, in what we now know was a chilling rehearsal for 1994.

Only a few years earlier, in 1959, the Centuries old Rwandan Monarchy had been overthrown, and a Republic proclaimed.

The new Republic announced itself by staging the first genocidal massacres of Batutsi, murdering hundreds of thousands driving hundreds of thousands more into exile to neighbouring countries. All perpetrated under the connivance of the Belgian colonial powers, and especially the Catholic Church represented by the missionaries of the White Fathers.

In an echo of the European racist theories of the time, the new ruling party, the extremist racist PARMEHUTU (Party for the Emancipation of Hutu) had declared their kith and kin, the Batutsi, an alien race, the “other” to be dehumanised, then murdered, almost as a religious duty.

When in 1962, independence was declared from Belgium, it was independence in name only. For PARMEHUTU, the enemy was not the colonising power, but the Batutsi from whom they could not be separated by history, language, culture, and everything else that makes a people one.

Genocidal massacres of Batutsi were planned intermittently since 1959. The excuse for the 1963 massacres was an attack by the exiled Rwandans, dubbed “Inyenzi”, or cockroaches by PARMEHUTU.

The attackers were romantic, quixotic, young men, with idealistic dreams of restoring a united Rwanda, under a Monarchy once again. They were brave and courageous to a point of fatalistic recklessness. And they were as ill equipped as they were ill organised.

But, they served as a ready excuse for the regular bouts of massacres of those Batutsi left in Rwanda. “If Inyenzi even think of attacking Kigali”, declared Gregoire Kayibanda, the newly installed President of the newly minted Rwandan Republic, “it will be the end of Batutsi as a race”.

In 62-63, the monarchists, by sheer will power, for they had little else, had managed to come to within a few kilometres of Kigali.

The killings were spread around the country, but, were most intense in the South West, principally Gikongoro, Butare, now Huye, Cyangugu, Kibungo, Byumba. They began with the rounding up and murder of Bahutu politicians who were known opponents of the genocidal ideology and plans.

These included Kayibanda’s own uncle Michel Rwagasana. He had been a Member of Parliament, and Secretary-General of UNAR (Rwanda National Union) a nationalist, unionist, pro-independence party.

He and other politicians of similar mind were picked up on the night of the 23rd, and transported to Ruhengeri.

They spent a night beatings and torture, and early in the morning of the 24th, they were dragged to the foot of Nyamagumba hill, and there, under the supervision of a Belgian military officer, Major Turpin, in what is considered the first government supervised massacre, they were shot dead.

They were buried in a mass grave, some as they were dying, still alive. More Bahutu politicians were murdered then in a single day, than were murdered in 1994.

With these voices silenced, it was now the turn of the ordinary men, women and children whose murder the politicians would have protested to be murdered. And the plan for this was chillingly efficient and ingenious.

Rwandans are a religious lot who were monotheistic believers long before the arrival of Christianity. Well over 70% of the country was Catholic, and almost all of them would be in Church on Christmas Eve. This their murderers decided was a perfect time to find them all in one place, gathered, unwittingly, like lambs to the slaughter, and slaughter it would be.

People were murdered as they came out of Churches, others on their way there. The massacres continued on Christmas day, and into the New Year, as those who had not heard of what had happened on Christmas Eve, made their way to the Christmas service.

By the end of the carnage, 20-30,000 were dead, or dying. As in ’94, and ’59 before that, the killers’ unspeakable hatred was clear in the way they murdered their victims, with basic, crude instruments. Some were dragged to rivers to be drowned.

Among these was a young pregnant woman who managed to survive. The child she was carrying would grow up to join the Rwanda Patriotic Front which ended the 1994 genocide. Today, Richard Sezibera serves as Rwanda’s foreign minister. His father however, like so many others, did not survive the killers to see his son being born.

To suggest that the Catholic Church was complicit in these murders would be a gross understatement. The Church was the power in the land, little of anything happened without its say so.

The notorious Archbishop Andre Perraudin was the de facto ruler of Rwanda. There were individuals among the Catholic Clergy who were horrified and protested the killings. Among them, Henri Bezo, who confronted the Prefect of Cyangugu, Pascal Ngirabatwara, whose murderousness had earned him the nickname Cain.

Father de Jamblinne expressed his outrage by refusing to give the holy sacrament to the Prefect of Gikongoro. Now in his 90s and still in Rwanda, de Jamblinne would go on to try and save more people in during the following genocides, 1973, and of course throughout the 90s, culminating in 994.

These priests did all they could to hide as many people as they could from the killers. They raised the alarm about what was taking place as far Vatican radio. It was Vatican radio which announced that genocide was taking place in Rwanda for the first time.

Back in Rwanda, the Catholic Church authorities were furious with these priests. Andre Perraudin chided Vatican radio for broadcasting what he called “false rumours”, while the official Catholic Newspaper Kinyamateka attacked news outlets worldwide, who published these “false rumours of genocide”.

Catholic doctrine teaches that no sin is unforgivable, provided repentance is sought. This Christmas period, as every Christmas period, nothing will be said of what happened in 1963. Until that changes, surely by its own teaching, the Church remains condemned to damnation.

Twitter: @MweneGahaya

The writer is a freelance broadcast journalist and programme maker.

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