Day 2 - The nuns' betrayal

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Second in a series

As a young girl growing up here in the hills above the local monastery of the Benedictines, Regine Niyonsaba sometimes caught sight of the nuns, immaculate in their white habits, heads covered discreetly in the chocolate-brown scarves of the Belgian order.

While the nuns rarely left the monastery compound, each time Niyonsaba saw them she dreamed of one day entering the order, living in the impeccable monastery with like-minded sisters, and away from the uniform wretchedness of the poverty that otherwise defined life in this rural commune, barely five miles west of the southern university town of Butare.

At the age of 20, she enrolled as a novice.

But five years later her tranquil world of prayer and meditation was shattered at the outset of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which the government mobilized the Hutu majority to exterminate members of the minority Tutsi, such as herself.

Like thousands of other Tutsi fleeing the bloodbath, Niyonsaba's family had sought refuge in the monastery compound. But the mother superior, a Hutu whipped up by the official incitement to murder, had invited in the militias and local officials carrying out the genocide, saying the presence of the refugees was a threat to her domain.

The mother superior, Sister Gertrude Mukangango, insisted that the relatives of nuns also be expelled from their sanctuary in the monastery's guest quarters, knowing full well that she was sending them to their deaths, as numerous witnesses, human rights organizations and Belgian prosecutors would later establish.

Niyonsaba's father and brother already had been killed elsewhere in the monastery compound in the preceding 15 days, along with nearly 7,000 others.

And now, on May 6, 1994, under the gun of a police officer, Niyonsaba followed her mother and two younger sisters down a footpath to a banana grove on the far side of the compound. They were accompanied by another nun, Sister Fortunata Mukagasana, whose relatives also were slated for execution that Monday afternoon.

The police officer, Francois-Xavier Munyeshyaka, was in fact doing Niyonsaba's family a favor of sorts. In consideration for a sum of 7,000 Rwandan francs, he had agreed to shoot the novice's mother and sisters rather than leave their fates in the hands of the militia, who favored the use of machetes and nail-studded clubs.

"We asked him why he was killing our families. Why? He said the mission he was given was that no nun should be killed, but all the others must die," Niyonsaba recalled recently. "We buried them at the spot where they were killed."

Dazed from the execution, Niyonsaba stumbled back to her quarters and locked herself in. But since that afternoon in the banana grove, Niyonsaba knew that her days as a nun were numbered and, soon after the genocide ended, she walked away from it all.

"Ever since," says Niyonsaba, now 35, "I lost hope in the spiritual life. I lost faith in my life as a nun."

The massacre at Sovu monastery has recast the lives of many of its nuns who survived the genocide. The trauma cut some loose from their religious moorings and sent them to seek the less exalted experiences of the secular life. Yet others profess even more fervor for their faith, seeing it as the price to pay for having been spared. Nine of the original 36 nuns were killed during the genocide. Six remain, and the rest quit the order.

The travails of the nuns in many respects reflect the spiritual wilderness many Rwandans inhabit today.

Ten years after the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed, the question of personal faith has become a profoundly disorienting one for many in Africa's most overwhelmingly Christian -- and overwhelmingly Catholic -- country. The moral crisis triggered by the decimation has compelled many survivors to re-examine their relationship with the church -- and with Christianity in general.

Aiding and Abetting

Some of the worst massacres occurred right inside churches and parish compounds, many with the active collaboration of priests.

Many other priests risked everything to save lives, and more than 200 of them were believed murdered along with their parishioners. One particularly courageous priest, Father Boniface Senyenzi, who was Hutu, stood steadfast with the thousands who sought refuge in the Roman Catholic Church in the lakeside city of Kibuye. He was killed, along with 11,400 people in the church.

But many more became foot soldiers in the extermination campaign or passively accepted its inevitability. Among the most notorious was Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, the first priest to be convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, which is trying a few of the leaders.

In his Kigali church Munyeshyaka presided gleefully over the mass murder, egged his congregation on to greater effort in their "work," and often read from a list of those Tutsi who must die. The mother superior at Sovu, too, is serving a 15-year sentence in a Belgian prison.

Throughout Rwanda the smashed skulls of the innocent are in church pews still as a memorial. In the church in Ntarama, south of Kigali, more than 5,000 perished at the hands of government armed killers. And at Nyarubuye, the priests gave up thousands of Tutsi parishioners who sought sanctuary at the only place they thought they could safely turn.

As a result of what many survivors see as treachery, the primacy of the Catholic church in civic and spiritual life in Rwanda has come under increasing strain. Estrangement from the church has pushed many into the willing arms of evangelicals. Others appear to have turned their backs on Christianity altogether, seeking refuge in Islam, which had few adherents as a percentage of this country's population of about 8 million. Yet others have abandoned religion entirely.

Accurate statistics are hard to come by in Rwanda. But experts say the genocide has helped demystify the Catholic Church, easing the way for many of its adherents to flock to the proselytizing evangelical churches whose revival tents sprout like toadstools throughout the Kigali metropolitan area.

"The evangelical Christians -- the born-agains -- they are growing very fast," says Privat Rutazibwa, a former Catholic priest who was inducted by John Paul II on Sept. 8, 1990, when the pope visited Rwanda. "They have attracted people who have been overwhelmed by problems and need an external force to help them." Rutazibwa felt compelled to quit the priesthood but remains a Catholic, though an openly skeptical one.

Archbishop's Response

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda, Archbishop Thaddée Ntihinyurwa, acknowledged a flight from the church by an indeterminate portion of his flock. This, the archbishop hinted most certainly reflects poor judgment.

"If they think by leaving the church they can live better lives, it's their choice," he said one recent Saturday afternoon in his Kigali office. "Christianity is not about numbers, but about those who have accepted Jesus in their lives."

And despicable as the genocide was, said the archbishop, and as impermeable to Christ's teachings many citizens proved to be, in the end nothing that happened here in 1994 was unprecedented or even uniquely Rwandan.

"Many have asked, how can a Christian country do this? My answer is you can't talk only about Rwanda; talk about human beings who have not accepted Christ in their hearts," Ntihinyurwa says. "There have been genocides in other countries, and the first genocides happened in Christian countries also, like Germany and Armenia."

The official line laid down by the Vatican, and still followed by the church hierarchy in Rwanda, is that individual priests, and not the church, must be held accountable for the genocide.

Church and State

With the possible exception of the government, the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful institution in Rwanda. It always had been intertwined with the political establishment. The church ran 60 percent of Rwandan schools, even enforcing strict quotas that limited Tutsi enrollment to their proportion of the overall population. It operated clinics and relief services. In the rural areas, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the population, often the church functioned effectively like the social services department of the government.

Until the pope ended the practice in 1990, the archbishop was a member of the ruling council of the ruling party, whose primary ideology of Hutu Power defined itself as anti-Tutsi, and eventually metamorphosed into a campaign to turn Rwanda into the exclusive preserve of the Hutu majority.

Ntihinyurwa's predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva, was a member of the Hutu Power cabinet that presided over the genocide. (He was killed in June 1994 in a revenge shooting by rebel soldiers, who held him responsible for the genocide.) Church documents show that priests even adopted the language of the genocidaires, routinely referring to Tutsi as inyenzi, or cockroaches.

Today the church co-exists warily with the government of President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi whose rebel Rwandan Patriotic Force halted the genocide by defeating the army of the old regime. Several priests have been found guilty of complicity in the genocide, and dozens remain in jail, along with some 100,000 genocide suspects. The most senior cleric charged so far, a bishop, was found not guilty.

"In the beginning the government blamed the church for not stopping the genocide," Archbishop Ntihinyurwa says. "The church defense was that our only weapon was the word of God, and the word of God was no longer being listened to."

Violence in Butare

The genocide commenced in earnest after the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on the night of April 6, 1994, as it approached Kigali airport. But the violence took nearly two weeks to spread to Butare province, alone of the country's 12 prefectures in initially resisting state-sanctioned murder.

Mild-mannered in its climate and moderate in its politics -- perhaps on account of the concentration of the country's intellectuals at the National University -- Butare set itself apart for a while from the genocidal frenzy radiating outward from Kigali to the rest of the country. Opposition Hutu politicians predominated in the province, which also had the country's only Tutsi prefect, Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana.

Hutu were reluctant to kill Tutsi and, so, on April 19, 1994, the interim president, Theodore Sindikubwabo, a Butare native, visited Butare to rally local officials. He expressed disappointment that they were failing to carry out their communal responsibility -- their umuganda -- by not mobilizing the population to de-Tutsify the prefecture.That same day, mass killings began throughout the region. The Tutsi were on the run.In April 1994, as the Tutsi of these parts were driven from their homesteads and sorghum fields by drunken members of the interahamwe militia, they began to funnel downhill toward the monastery, seeking refuge. Some had family there, but most simply acted on the assumption that the only inviolable sanctuary available to them was the house of God.

It was not an unreasonable assumption. In all the previous anti-Tutsi pogroms, in 1959 and then in 1961-63, there's no record of anyone ever killed within a church compound.

The monastery sits near the base of a series of hills. At its entrance is a large health center. An immaculately kept garden dotted with gazebos conveys a sense of tranquility. The administrative building complex, where the monastery intersects as needed with the secular world, sits at the end of the driveway. Church buildings and other facilities are scattered around and about. And partially hidden from view are the nuns' quarters.

Above the monastery the hills rise into the distance, covered by pine, stands of eucalyptus, and banana groves. The land, to paraphrase the South African writer Alan Paton, is green and rolling, and is beautiful beyond any singing of it.

A Malevolent Duo

The assumption by the frightened Tutsi of the inviolability of the monastery did not count on the simmering malevolence of the mother superior, Sister Mukagango, and her deputy, Sister Julienne Kisito.

"Our family members ran to the monastery expecting to find sanctuary," says Bernadette Kayitesi, a nun who also left the order in the aftermath of the genocide. "But what happened -- our mother superior was the one who began requesting for the militia to come and kill them."

Over the coming days, Kayitesi's two brothers hiding in the compound would be killed as the mother superior worked closely with the interahamwe -- "those who fight together" -- to clean the refugees out of the monastery compound. "I did not know," Kayitesi would marvel today, shaking her head, "how a person we thought was good came to be so evil."

Within two days, about 7,000 Tutsi were packed into the monastery compound, most at the health center near the main entrance. According to other nuns, the mother superior grew increasingly agitated, saying the militia should get rid of the refugees and insisting that she didn't want to jeopardize the monastery. In interviews in Belgium before she was convicted in June 2001, Mukangango denied collaborating with killers. "These charges against me are false because they attribute to me intentions I never had," she told Belgian television.

But like many other witnesses, Anunciata Mukagasana, one of the Sovu nuns who is Tutsi, says the mother superior acted promptly to turn the refugees over to the killers.

"As the refugees came, her heart hardened," she says of Mukangango. "She worked closely with Rekeraho, who was in the monastery every day."

For three months in 1994, Emmanuel Rekeraho was the most-feared man in Sovu. A retired army warrant officer, he took charge of the militia and directed the attacks on the refugees seeking shelter in the monastery. He also was given use of the monastery's minivan, and held meetings daily with the mother superior and her second in command, Sister Kisito.

"I had good relations with the sisters," he says in an interview on death row in Butare Central Prison. "We were working together as one."

Rekeraho described how he coordinated repeated attacks on the refugees barricaded inside the health center, using grenades and rifle fire, and then directing the militia to finish off survivors with studded clubs and cutlasses. A few hundred hiding in a nearby parking garage were simply burned alive, with gasoline allegedly supplied by Kisito, whose brothers were members of the interahamwe.

In his hot-pink prison uniform, Rekeraho affects the befuddlement of someone whose actions were so extreme they were a surprise even to himself. "In those days, people had been turned to animals," he says. "You should have seen the faces -- just like animals.

"I accept a role in the killings, by commanding the militia who were there," he adds, "but I cannot accept that I am one of the architects of the genocide."

Rekeraho, 65, is aware that the "architects" are the only ones the government is not prepared to grant amnesty. In 1999 he was sentenced to die, but the sentence has not been carried out by the government because officials are debating whether to ban capital punishment.

Refuge in Belgium

Like Regine Niyonsaba, whose family paid to be shot rather than hacked to death, Anunciata Mukagasana fled disillusioned from the monastery, unable to reconcile what she witnessed with the tenets of her faith.

"I couldn't imagine that people could be killed in a place like that, in God's house," she says. "The monastery was very big and it had many hiding places. But Sister Kisito and the mother superior, they were never merciful at all. They used ladders to check if people were hiding on the roofs. The did not have the hearts of Christians."

Once the mainly Tutsi forces overran the country and the genocide ended, the sisters were evacuated to the main abbey of the Benedictines in Maredret, Belgium. As they left the monastery, the surrounding countryside bore every evidence of the horror. "We drove away and there were dead bodies everywhere, by the roadside, everywhere," Mukagasana says. "We were just waiting for death. We could not imagine that we would survive."

But so distraught were many of the nuns that, as soon as they arrived in Belgium, they started denouncing the mother superior. They were shocked, however, by the reaction of the church authorities, who rallied behind Sisters Mukangango and Kisito and tried to suppress any information about their complicity.

"We were more than surprised that the church in Belgium was supporting her -- it was painful," Mukagasana says. "The whites thought that the mother superior was a saint, until they came here in 1995 to take testimony from witnesses. They had thought we just hated her."

Angered and demoralized by the attitude of the church leaders, Scholastique Mukangira, one of the Sovu nuns, demanded that she be allowed to return to Rwanda at once. She had lost two relatives in the monastery massacre, forced into the hands of the interahamwe by the mother superior. She had coped with the killings by praying with ever more dedication, at one point, she said, directly asking for divine intervention.

"I asked Jesus myself, 'Do you accept that all of us should be killed, and wipe out this order?'" she says one recent morning in the reception hall of the monastery. 'I know you are kind and you have power over everything. Use your power to save some of us, so that the order might not perish.'

"That gave me the strength to carry on. I was no longer afraid of death. I was strengthened throughout the war that, no matter what happened I shall be with Jesus."

'She Rebuilt Us'

That this serene compound was the scene of one of the worst atrocities of 10 years ago is today not readily apparent. That nascent recovery is the handiwork, in large part, of the current mother superior, Anastasie Mukamusoni.

Sister Mukamusoni took over the defiled institution in 1995, rallied the six remaining nuns to take eternal vows to rededicate their lives to the service of Christ, admitted nine new novices and methodically set about the task of revival.

A shy woman with a perpetually mournful look, the mother superior spoke softly and gazed constantly downward, talking with evident discomfort about the monastery's progress.

"When you are building the body you have to start with the soul," she says. "We have to start with the renewal of our faith with the church."Sister Mukangira returned home and found her way back to the monastery, where she remains today, working with the new mother superior to try to pick up the pieces of a ministry destroyed.

"During the genocide, because of what I saw, I can say that God did not have a role in the genocide," she says. "And we cannot say that all Christians failed their religion. There were many who did the right thing."At this, she cast a glance at the mother superior, who looked embarrassed and seemed to want to hide. Mukamusoni, then a 40-year-old nun, was away on church business in the border town of Gisenyi when the genocide came to the Sovu monastery. A Hutu, she is said to have arranged secret convoys to take Tutsi across the border to safety in neighboring Congo.

"She protected those who were being hunted," Mukangira says. "And she was the very person who called us back from Belgium. She rebuilt this place. She not only rebuilt the monastery but she rebuilt us."

While Mukangira has found reason to believe, and to continue life as a nun, Anunciata Mukagasana said she had no choice but to turn her back on the Benedictine Order.

"I just wanted to take a break from it because I would run mad if I stayed there," she says. Her family, which had fled to neighboring Burundi at the outset of the genocide, had returned home, and she wanted to care for her parents. So she cast off her habit and enrolled in nursing school, and today she is a pediatric nurse at University Hospital in Butare, the only one with a job in her extended family of 14, including her younger sister's three children.

The family lives in neat but cramped conditions in the Matyazo district of Butare, in a neighborhood of few means and multitudes of malnourished children. In Mukagasana's household, food is often in short supply. "It is a life of hardship, and sometimes it's hard to find milk for the children," she says with an embarrassed laugh. "The meals are not decent, but there is no other option."

At this, Mukagasana's voice caught just a bit, and she asked for a glass of water to steady herself. The living room was painted coral blue, the best to cheer up its threadbare condition. The walls were decorated with the inevitable portraits of Jesus, who is said to be constance -- eternal.

The portraits were an indication of the continuing hold of Christianity on Mukagasana's imagination. Despite everything, she said, she remained a good Christian and believed in God, even if she no longer quite trusted His earthly messengers.

"There are those who turned their backs on Christianity altogether, after what they experienced," she says. "I think to some extent they have reason. They've lost everything, and it seems God forgot them. But I go to church because whatever happened, God did not have a hand in it."

Besides, Mukagasana adds, "Other people died, but it was due to God's mercy that I survived. It was due to God's mercy that my family was able to escape to Burundi."

Reason to Believe

Regine Niyonsaba did not have the luxury of her family's company. Her father and brother had been killed at the monastery's health center, and she had witnessed the execution of her mother and two younger sisters, and buried them with her own hands. When she returned from Belgium with several of the other Sovu nuns, she concluded that her life had been permanently altered.

"Life at the monastery had become impossible for me," she says. "I couldn't see myself praying there anymore."Besides, she had one 11-year-old sister, Florentina Nwambaye, who survived the genocide, and she felt responsible for her. So she took a secretarial job at a local school, then later, at a pharmaceutical firm.

"One of the things that keeps me going is prayer," says the former novice, who packs every day with distractions to help her retain a hold on sanity. For spiritual support, she attends morning sessions of a charismatic Catholic community. She holds down a day job, and afterward rushes off to the university, where she's taking evening classes for a degree in sociology.

"I have had no time to think about the past," she says. "It took me a long time to adjust. It is not easy for me."After a decade-long struggle, including bouts of depression and moments of rage, Niyonsaba said she had reached an accommodation with her faith.

"Since the passage of 10 years, instead of demoralizing myself, I thought it was not only me who had lost relatives because of church leaders' role in the genocide," she says. "I was not the only witness to the scandals in the church. I thought God had helped me to survive. Genocide wasn't planned by God. He gave us knowledge, free will, to do the right thing. God never plans for bad things to happen."

But doesn't necessarily prevent them, either?

Prim in a checkered custard suit with a sensible skirt, Niyonsaba pondered the question for a moment, her charcoal-black face set off against the stark blankness of the wall, serene in the soft glow of the fluorescent light.She turned slowly away, silent.

"How can a Rwandan continue to identify as a Christian?," Rutazibwa, the former priest, asked rhetorically regarding the endurance of faith. "That is part of the mystery of the faith. Despite the horrors, people always need a relationship with a supreme being."

At the monastery, the current mother superior said all she could do now was carry on her calling, which is to serve God. "I saw others die, but I stayed alive," she says. "Since I took the eternal vow, the only thing to do was stay here and serve the Lord. That was the only way I could pay back the gift of life that I was given."

And with that, she rose and walked out to the garden, down a footpath, and to a mass grave in which nine of her fellow nuns killed during the genocide were buried. She observed a moment of meditative silence, did the sign of the cross, and headed back to the well-ordered sanctuary of her domain.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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