The following is a piece I wrote about my friend Hope Rucyahana. Her outlook on life and her ability to forgive are truly inspiring.
Hope at her wedding to Stephen Rukundo, December of 2009
Thanks, John Richardson, for the photo!
Hope Rucyahana has witnessed more in her thirty-four years than most of us will in a lifetime, but she seems almost unaware of the wisdom she exudes. She does not see that her story is remarkable or that her outlook on life is nothing short of extraordinary. As Hope sits flipping through a wedding planning guide at Barnes and Noble, it is impossible to comprehend the sorrow she has had to overcome in order to make such joyful plans for her own future.
Hope Rucyahana is from Rwanda, the African nation decimated by genocide in 1994. The seeds of hatred between the Hutus and Tutsi had been planted by the Belgians during the days of colonization; they realized it was much easier to rule a divided country than a united one, so they began to create a chasm between the two groups. Before the Belgian rule, the Hutus and Tutsis had lived side by side as neighbors for over 500 years. Although the first of the atrocities against the Tutsi people can be seen going back for decades, over a million Tutsis were murdered in just an 80 day period in the spring of 1994. Hope's parents and four siblings were in Uganda at this time, and Hope was at boarding school in Pittsburgh, but as the crisis escalated and the gravity of the situation was known, Hope's father began taking mission trips into his home country and soon realized he was being called to aid in the work of reconciliation and rebuilding in Rwanda.
Hope and her family are Tutsis, and Hope says she obviously knew of the tensions building in Rwanda before she left for the United States in 1992. She was worried about family members who were still in Rwanda, and she also knew that her parents and siblings, just over the border in Uganda, were far from safe. Hope now laughs at her determination to go so far away in pursuit of her education. "I felt like, at age 15, that I was a grown women. My mother kept trying to convince me to stay home, and even though I was miserably homesick, I tried never to let her hear it in my voice on the phone."
When Hope went home to Uganda for summer vacation in 1994, she found a community that had been devastated by atrocities so great, their number was yet to be known. "We heard that maybe a million had been slaughtered, but we could not comprehend that," Hope says quietly. "For a long time we had no frame of reference for what had happened. We were still trying to contact our family in Rwanda, to see who had survived. We were trying to reunite small children who had survived with family members in other countries. But it was too soon to have any real perspective on what had occurred." Before the violence had ended, Hope's first cousin was raped and brutally murdered. She was close to Hope's age and had just seen Hope's family the day before her life was abruptly seized. The pain of this loss still resonates with Hope- it was a very personal blow in a time that was becoming more and more difficult to understand.
Hope says that everyone in Rwanda began to live in a survival mode for the next several years. "Those who were left simply put one foot in front of the other. If they were hungry, they ate. If they were tired, they slept. Hutus and Tutsis alike were in shock from what had transpired. There were those who had watched their entire families brutally murdered, and there were others who lost only five people. Those who lost five felt bad complaining, but you cannot compare pain. Everyone's pain, survivors and perpetrators, was indescribable."
Hope has a deep understanding of suffering from all she has witnessed in Rwanda, and this allows her to approach her work as a Respiratory Therapist at Trinity Hospital with uncommon empathy. "The pain of someone watching a loved one slowing succumb to cancer is the same as the pain of a mother who watched her child violently murdered. In both cases, the sorrow is too great to grasp. Often times, I just get a box of kleenex and sit and talk with my patients. They need to know that their health care providers care, that we listen. It is part of the human experience."
Hope's father, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana, was one of the first to call for healing and reconciliation in Rwanda. Hope explains that "we were all hurt, Tutsis and Hutus." Because the number of perpetrators of the genocide was so immense, the government was unable to prosecute all the criminals. Tens of thousands of the murderers have been released back into their home villages, and somehow the country has to learn to live together again. Hope explains that the only way this is happening is with forgiveness that comes from God. "It is not humanly possible to forgive someone who raped and murdered your children, but with God, it is possible."
Hope wants very much for people to understand that forgiveness is not easy. It is a choice that one has to make every day, a choice to look to God and ask for His assistance in the journey forward. "If you do not forgive," Hope says, "the anger and the bitterness will become like an acid that will eat you alive. At some point, as a survivor, you look around and say, 'Ok, I am alive, and I want to live in the fullness of life that God intended for me.'"
For Hope, part of the fullness that God intended for her life is a career in health care, and ultimately counseling. She came to Birmingham to visit a family friend in the spring of 1996 and fell in love with the weather. "I had left a snowstorm in Pittsburgh, and in Alabama, the trees were blooming, the sky was blue. I immediately began to figure out how I could stay." Hope started at UAB that fall, getting her undergraduate degree in health services. She then went on to get a masters in Education at Montevallo.
Hope will leave Birmingham, the town that has been her home for twelve years, this August to get married and pursue her Ph.d in counseling psychology in Boston. Hope is marrying a fellow Rwandan, and they plan on returning home to Kigali when she finishes school. "The whole nation of Rwanda is broken. It was reduced to ashes, and now people are beginning to rebuild. The entire community is in need of counseling and someone who will listen, and I want to return to help guide my country on the road to recovery."
Hope says that it is not just the victims, but the perpetrators, who need someone to listen. "They are dealing with incredible guilt. And just like anger, if you let guilt overcome you, you will die, too." The country no longer sees itself as Hutu or Tutsi, but as Rwandese- all countrymen who must work together to provide a future for their children. "So many children lost their parents in the genocide, and if we do not show love to these orphans, a whole generation will grow up and not know how to give love in return or how to nurture their own children."
When Hope and her husband say their vows in Rwanda this summer, she says it will be special to see people laughing, smiling, and celebrating again. "God has a way of using broken things for good," she explains. "He is slowly rebuilding Rwanda, and showing what can come from such evil if you allow Him to work in the situation. It is the same with my patients here; even in the midst of great suffering, you still must choose to live and to be open to what may come from your trials."
If you want to learn more about the genocide in Rwanda and the country's journey toward forgiveness and reconciliation, I strongly recommend Bishop John Rucyahana's book, The Bishop of Rwanda. His message has meant a great deal to me in my quest to forgive those responsible for Virginia's injuries. I am not saying I am there yet, but by God's grace, I hope to be there when it is time.