Sins of the Father


And you think the Catholic priests have problems in America…

CNN just ran a story about a Catholic priest who was a leader in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Athanase Seromba was just convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (which meets in Tanzania) and sentenced to 15 years.

According to the charge sheet, Seromba directed a militia that “attacked with traditional arms and poured fuel through the roof of the church, while gendarmes and communal police launched grenades and killed the refugees.”

After failing to kill all the people inside, Seromba ordered the demolition of the church, the document said.

This Adventist website notes that prior to the genocide over 90% of Rwandas professed Christian faith. An acquaintance of mine who is now a missionary in Kigali described Rwanda prior to the genocide as the “most Christianized country in Africa.” Obviously, he said, it didn’t work. Missionaries like him are now a little less impressed with big statistics, rapid growth, and big churches. Missionaries from some evangelical churches that weren’t involved in Rwanda prior to the genocide are having more ‘success’ now, as they don’t share in the complicity in the same way as more established churches. The Catholics, for example:

“Thousands of Rwandans have turned away from Catholicism, angered and saddened by the complicity of church officials in the 100-day genocide, in which more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists. Priests, nuns and followers were implicated in the killings, and some churches became sites of notorious massacres…. “Last month, the tribunal sentenced a Catholic nun to 30 years in jail for helping militias kill hundreds of people hiding in a hospital. In 2001, two Catholic nuns were convicted by a Belgian court of aiding and abetting the murders.”

This story, while graphic and horrifying, also describes a priest who, while unable to save his people, wasn’t exactly terrible either. While I have no doubt that trying to leaders is a necessity, I wonder if criminal trials for all the particpants are going to happen. CNN outlines the scope of the logistical problems involved:

“About 63,000 genocide suspects are detained in Rwanda, and justice authorities say that at least 761,000 people should stand trial for their role in the slaughter and chaos that came with it. The suspects represent 9.2 percent of Rwanda’s estimated 8.2 million people. The U.N. tribunal in Tanzania is trying those only accused of masterminding the genocide.”

It appears that religious divisions, which so often mirror and/or promote preexisting ethnic, economic, or social divisions in any society (see South Africa’s religious landscape for an example) did much to exacerbate the conflict in Rwanda. I’ve also seen the conflict describe as rooted in a purely artificial conflict based on artificial ethnic classifications developed by the Belgian colonists (this is the summary version presented in Hotel Rwanda). However, I’m not convinced this is the whole story.

In a chapter titled “Malthus in Africa” in his Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond notes that Rwanda and Nigeria were the two most densely populated countries in the world. In proportion of the population killed, the Rwandan genocide is second only to the Cambodian genocide in the last half-century. Diamond notes that while German and Belgian colonists found it expedient to “divide and conquer” by reinforcing ethnic differences, Hutu and Tutsis were nevertheless two previously existing groups. Diamond also describes a history of Rwanda that often gets left out of the account of the 1994 genocide. Periodic massacres had marked its history, including 10-20,000 Tutsis killed in 1963 and smaller scale killings up through the early 90’s. In 1994,

“The largest massacres, each of hundreds or thousands of Tutsi at one site, took place when Tutsi took refuge in churches, schools, hospitals, government officers, or those other supposed safe places and were then surrounded and hacked or burned to death. The genocide involved large-scale Hutu civilian participation, though it is debated whether as many as on-third or just some less proportion of Hutu civilians joined in killing Tutsi.”

Diamond also confirms that leaders of the Catholic Church in particular helped round up civilians for slaughter, the French government sided with the genocidal Hutus, and the U.S. and U.N. failed to do anything significant. But here’s the new stuff. Diamond also notes that the Twa pygmies, who constituted about 1% of the population, were also in large part slaughtered. If the violence was really all about Hutu-versus-Tutsi ethnic hatred, how is this explained? Or this;

“[In northwestern Rwanda] in a community where virtually everybody was Hutu and there was only a single Tutsi, mass killings still took place–of Hutu by other Hutu.”

He then summarized the in-depth research of an economist named Catherine Andre, who studied the situation in Kanama, the almost exclusively Hutu enclave in northwestern Rwanda mentioned above. Andre noted that in Kanama, “It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources.” In Kanama, land-holding widows and older people, along with the young who had recently inherited it, were the most likely to be killed. Sons even killed fathers over inheritance disputes. Diamond also notes (importantly) that explaining causes for an event does not justify the event. Knowing the pressures that contributed to ethnic hatred in genocide do not absolve the individuals involved, like the priest above, of their sins. Diamond summarizes,

“I conclude that population pressure was one of the important factors behind the Rwandan genocide, that Malthus’s worst-case scenario may sometimes be realized… Similar motives may operate again in the future, in some other countries that, like Rwanda, fail to solve their underlying problems. They may operate again in Rwanda itself, where population today is still increasing at 3% per year, women are giving birth to their first child at age 15, the average family has between five and eight children, and a visitor’s sense is of being surrounded by a sea of children.”

And one last quote from a survivor:

“The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.”

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