Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Memories of April 7, 1994

Some days in history are never forgotten. On December 8, 1941, the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said these words, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Those Americans a few years older than me can tell the exact place and feelings they experienced on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed.

One of my earliest memories is March 30, 1981 when President Ronald Regan was shot.

 April 7, 1994 is one of history’s greatest tragedies. On April 6, 1994 Rwandan President Habyarimana was returning from Arusha, Tanzania following negotiations to end the war in Rwanda. His plane was shot down over Kigali, and the Rwandan Genocide began the following day, April 7, 1994.  It is a date that must live in the memory of humanity. Generations following us must remember that a million lives were lost. We must continue to say, “Never again.”

My family is an oddity. We have lived most of our adult lives in the Great Lakes Region of Africa as traveling story tellers. Sometimes we are asked, “Where is your home?
Us at Brooklyn Center Church of Christ preparing to enter Uganda

We are unable to respond with a specific place. Instead, we tell stories. Home is a place with a warm bed and a gracious friend. We journey through many places, make friends, and tell stories.
In 1993, Ugandan playwright Alex Mukulu wrote his history of Post-Colonial Uganda, 30 Years of Bananas. In the opening scene there is a search for an unbiased narrator. The only one who can be found is a Rwandan refugee, Kaleekeezi.

Maybe, today it would be good for memories of the events of 1993 and 1994 to be told by foreigner such as myself? Maybe, I can speak with the voice of Kaleeekeezi to foreigners like myself?

In doing so, I bring bias. I also will share some secret places, wounds, and actions – a few things I’ve not told publicly. I recognize the events that created my personal wounds are miniscule compared to those who survived the Genocide. I ask forgiveness if my stories wound again. I tell them to share our common humanity. I will share a few names and places. At other points I’ll conceal. My concealments are to protect those who may prefer anonymity. I hope the best for all my friends and even for those who chose to be my enemies. My hope is that love will heal all our wounds that cause bitterness and hatred to reign.

The Rwandan Genocide was a tragedy of the world fueled by our oldest of sins – jealousy, hatred, and untrue mythologies. Today should be a day where we examine our hearts deepest darkest places. In this examining we must wrestle with our responsibility and resolve to change our thoughts, emotions, and actions. By offering our repentance we seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Hopefully, it will be found. Generations who follow us will hopefully live in a world of peace and unity. When ugly voices of prejudice and hate arise our prodigy will respond, “No, never again.”

Photo from National Geographic, November, 1971
My first interactions with the people of Rwanda were a foreshadowing of what my life would become. My grandmother, Minnie Sophia Jenkins and I shared many things. One was a common birthday. Another was a love for reading and writing. A third was a sense of hope in adversity. My grandmother read National Geographic, and kept the magazines in her home. In an article published in November, 1971, "Uganda: Africa's Uneasy Heartland” was a photo that struck a lasting image in my young mind. The photo was of Rwandan refugees in Uganda dancing. They were described as “aristocrats living as refugees.” I was captivated by their beauty and dignity. Somehow I hungered to hear their songs and celebrate with their dance.

In 1990 and 1991 I studied Theology at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Abilene, Texas. While there I met my future in several individuals. The best known and most influential is my wife, Jana Tarbet Jenkins. However, one of great influence who few remember was a fellow student from Western Uganda, Charles Guma. In 1993, Guma returned to Uganda, and I simply followed my family and friends there.

Upon our arrival in March, 1993 we began the task of settling. We rented a home.  We needed a staff to manage. We knew few people we could trust. While looking for a home we met a woman named
Lydia Bagira.

 She was watching the home of an expatriate who had left Uganda in tragic circumstances. She was “only the maid,” but I was struck that her employers must have found her trustworthy if they left their home to her management. She inquired if we would need help. As it became apparent that we did need help I remembered both the counsel of my father, Lloyd Jenkins, and my master, Jesus of Nazareth, “Entrust more to those who have shown they can well manage the small.” We found Lydia and offered her a job. A few other expatriates thought we were nuts to entrust someone we did not know without references. However, something inside told me to trust my intuition as the leading of the Holy Spirit, and I’ve come to have my deepest life regrets when I did not trust that intuition.
Lydia Bagira and her sons, Joel and Emmy

Lydia worked with our family for several years. As we shared our stories we became friends. Lydia was the child of Rwandan refugees. She was very intelligent. She was loyal, kind, and compassionate. She also like almost all of my most trusted friends had a very strong spirit and will. Discussions were always honest and on occasion a bit heated, but duplicity was non-existent. Lydia shared stories of suffering and misfortune. On her time off, her friends would come by our home. Most were like her, Rwandan women making the most of poor fortune. They had more ability than the medial jobs they had acquired as refugees. They shared common relationships and hope. Most had brothers, cousins, husbands, and boyfriends who had joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army. They told stories and waited for a day in which they could return to the land the land of their parents and grandparents. A little gossip was exchanged with news from the war front, prayers were said for safety, and they waited in hope. Lydia had recently given birth to a son, Joel that was the same age as my daughter Sophia.

Once, Lydia Bagira decided she needed to go to the border to try to find some news. She left her infant son, Joel in the care of a young Ugandan girl with baby milk bottles. In hindsight, I don’t know if Joel had ever drunk from a bottle. As the day went on we heard Joel’s cries and they never stopped. He would not be satisfied with a bottle. Jana was still nursing Sophia. Joel’s cries continued. We’ve never done well to listen to the cries of children and not respond. Eventually, we broke taboo. Jana collected Joel and nursed him back to calm and sleep from her own body. In some African cultures this was a braking of taboo. In others it was a mark of community. We were naive and just made the best decision we could to help a friend’s child. Again, our empathies for Rwanda people in dispersion increased.

Shortly after our arrival to Uganda I visited my friend, Charles Guma’s home in Western Uganda. We traveled to Mbarara, and then went southeast to Guma’s family home. The scenery became drier and full of hills and scrub brush much like the scenery of Abilene, Texas. As we neared Guma’s home we slowed our vehicle and he began visiting with his village neighbors. One in particular struck me. She was old, but tall and graceful – full of dignity and beauty. After Guma spoke to her, he turned to me and told me that the old woman was a Rwandan refugee that had lived many years in his home village. As I watched her walk away I noticed very unique phenomena. All the men’s eyes followed this graceful old beauty. No matter what misfortune and suffering had befallen her she had never surrendered her dignity. It was thoroughly captivating.

Then we entered Guma’s home. His parents were thrilled to see him. The hospitality was gracious. Dance was celebrated and food shared. However as the celebration ended and life was discussed this home was one of tragedy. Many of Guma’s siblings, friends, and peers had died or were dying of AIDS. In the midst of this tragedy another death had befallen Guma’s family. His nephew had joined the RPF and lost his life in Rwanda. I never heard bitterness about the loss. It was accepted. My understanding was and still is limited. However, he seemed to be a young man seeking adventure that was loyal to his Rwandan friends and simply followed them in their journey to return home.

The following morning, Guma and I climbed the hill above his home. I looked to the east and saw a river. Beyond the river was an encampment with an artillery piece. I inquired and Guma told me that it was a training camp for the RPF. Hope was spoken and I realized how personal the Rwandan struggle was to Guma’s village.

As we returned to Kampala, my brother-in-law and co-worker, Greg Carr made a friendship. Uganda was awakening after years of state controlled media and terror. Peace in Kampala had come in 1986, but the explosion of the consequences of peace and freedom began in the early 90’s. The private media explosion was beginning. Greg established a friendship with one of the upcoming disc jockeys, DJ Barry. He was tall, loud, and flamboyant. You had to try very hard not to like DJ Barry. (Though agreeing with him might be a different matter.) As we discovered that DJ Barry was a Rwandan refugee I did what my training at ACU missions training taught me. I asked questions about language, culture, and ethnicity. DJ Barry did something very out of the ordinary for most Africans I had met at that time. He rebuked me. He refused to see his world as one of ethnic division. He was a Rwandan and not a member of an ethnic group. Eventually, he would share the details of his journey, but they were told through the cultural lenses of unity of the Rwandan people.

Greg found an office space in a Kampala office complex called Black Lines House. We rented a space and began discovering ministry possibilities. We opened a small library. We kept a guest book. Our first registered guest was a Rwandan refugee seeking to learn. (I’ve forgotten his name, but I have the records somewhere in my boxes of memories.) Around the corner from our office was a small restaurant. For some unique reason there were a few Rwandan gentlemen who frequently stopped and had lunch. I always enjoyed our short conversations.

During this first year of ministry discovery in Uganda, Greg and I became embroiled in an ugly church conflict. I was 26 and very naive. We were accused of the most ridiculous and inflammatory actions. It may have been the defining conflict of my life and career. I thought in coming to Uganda I would be welcomed as a messenger of peace. Instead, an old church and political leader from a previous regime had an ax to grind, and Greg and I would be the stone. He wrote letter after letter to my old professors, supporters, Ugandan government officials, church leaders, and anyone else who would listen. The strangest thing is that some considered his flagrant untruthfulness as “smoke behind a fire.” We were always on the defensive and in continual turmoil for a year.

One day I picked up a copy of New Vision, Uganda’s Daily Newspaper, and found an article concerning a press conference by a political party who ruled Uganda from 1962 to 1971 and from 1981 to 1985. The news conference focused upon Rwandans living in Uganda. I noticed some strong similarities between the accusations directed at me and the accusations directed at Rwandans in Uganda. A little while later I did something as embarrassing as if I bought a National Enquirer copy at a grocery checkout line in America. I walked a couple blocks down the street and bought political propaganda from an old political party who no longer was ruling Uganda. I skimmed to its sections on Rwandans living in Uganda. I noticed a unique writing phenomenon. If I removed the word “Banyarwanda” (people of Rwanda) and replaced “Bazungu” (people with white skin) it appeared to be the same document. If I removed the names of the leaders of Rwandans in Uganda and replaced them with the names of Greg Carr and myself it seemed to be almost the same document. Hatred and mythology are always dangerous. We all struggle with prejudice and convenient stereotypes. However, it appeared that I had discovered the original source of my accuser’s mythology. He either was the editor or he was highly influenced by the editor of this misguided political propaganda.

My empathy with the Rwanda community in Uganda was solidified as I found we had the same accuser. (Seven years later Rwandan friends would confirm my suspicions as they told stories of being chased out of Uganda’s civil service by my accuser in the early 1980’s.)

As 1993 became 1994, hope filled my Rwandan friends. Negotiations were taking place. It was hoped that a final and lasting settlement would soon be reached. Many thought their return to Rwanda was imminent.

Then in the evening of April 6, 1994 our radios told a surprising story. As Rwandan President Habyarimana returned from negotiations with the RPF in Arusha, Tanzania his plane was shot down over Kigali. All was tense. The next day rumors began to be heard of mass killings. It seemed completely unbelievable. I thought “surely not.” The stories continued. They sounded like some cross between the Jewish Holocaust of World War Two and the most gruesome horror movies of Hollywood. Civilians were being slaughtered. Killers saw no differentiation between civilian and combatant, child and adult, nor male and female. The tools of murder were the most gruesome of humanity – clubs and machetes. The killing fields were the churches of Rwanda. Roadblocks cut off all hope of escape. Could those made in God’s image so mercilessly destroy other image bearers of God?

Panic seemed to strike our Rwandan friends. What was happening?

Shamefully, I never wrote my US senators or local papers. I was paralyzed. My missions training    taught me to be unengaged with matters that had political consequences.  My reading of the Old Testament spoke that the role of the faith community is to be a prophetic voice. I chose my reading of mission’s theory over the words of God in the Old Testament. My repentance for my silence in 1994 is to have an active prophetic voice where ever I land. I still have my failings, but as best I can I speak for those without a voice and seek out friendships with the media so I am never silent when I should speak.

Weeks later a Rwandan women came to a Bible study for expatriates that Jana attended. She was in Rwanda during the Genocide and somehow escaped to Uganda. She told unbelievable stories. When Jana shared them with me I had to close my both my ears and my heart as they were too painful to bear.

At least once per week I would walk down to our local lakeside market to buy fish. Uganda is downstream from Rwanda. Her Kagera River runs into Uganda’s Lake Victoria. The corpses of the genocide victims were dumped into the Kagera River basin. The corpses began washing up on the shores of Lake Victoria. Our fish market was closed. Water and fish from our fair Uganda lake became inconsumable for humans.

In hindsight as we ask the question why the world did not act I’ve pondered.

“If Red Lobster had been shut down in the US; if it was impossible to get a fish sandwich at McDonalds; if there were no more catfish restaurants in the Southern United States. Would we then have acted?” Does our concern and action always have to be driven by selfish consumerism? When do the interests of the developed world simply mean we respond believing that all men are made in the image of God?”

A few months later, my Ugandan accuser had seeming victory. My family lost our financial support. We returned to the US to discover partnerships and funding anew. I followed the news from my African home while living in my American home.

On July 4, 1994 the RPF captured Kigali. It seemed that a million lives had been lost in the chaos of 100 days. News seemed to tell that most of Rwanda was now secure and the genocide was history.

Our family went to a fireworks display to celebrate America’s Independence in Lakeville, Minnesota. I sat still and watched the fireworks over my head. I visited with old friends and thanked God for my American freedom.

Inside, something was changed forever. Rwanda was an inescapable call. Uganda would be our home for several following years, but we were entangled in this region. I could never get out of my heart and mind my Rwandan friends and their stories.

Today I remember, grief, and repent. Will you join me? Where were you on April 7, 1994? What will you do about it today?


  1. Hello, Dave. Thank you for sharing your rememberances and insights of that horrible period of history. I had a few relatives who served in our own Civil War here in the United States back in 1861-65, and I cannot understand how, in that war, physical brothers would take different sides and shoot at each other or how Christian brothers could do the same. And so I feel utterly at a loss to understand the brutality shown by Rhwandans toward Rhwandans in 1994. But words like your's do give perspective. --Stan Paregien, Edmond, OK

  2. Dave-
    Thanks for sharing. We are friends with the Cromlings and have been to east Africa several times on short-term missions. We taught pastors and their wives in Burundi three years ago; the sadness in their faces was so apparent. They went through the same devastation but it seems that it is taking them longer to recover. I don't really know what the answers are for Africa, they have so many issues. And the church has often been a place of weakness rather than strength. It is impossible to go there and not feel a compassion for the people and a compulsion to do whatever we can. Donna Edwards

  3. Dave, thanks so much for giving me a heads up via e-mail so that I could read your blog today. Storytelling truly is your gift!

    I was living in Argentina back in 1994 and missed out on much of what was happening on your side of the world.This gave me a new perspective via Uganda. It shed more light and left me thinking and praying for both countries today.

    As far as what to do about it... let me know when you're ready to use the radio once again to share the great faith story. I know it is a major undertaking and it may not yet be God's plan or timing.
    --Dianna Teel,Hendersonville, NC
    World Radio

  4. Dear Dave,
    Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your transparency regarding your own hurts from the accuser. BUT GOD, gets the glory in that the enemy didn't win. Praise God, you are in the battle, speaking truth and living sold out for Him.You challenge me to be a voice and take action as the Holy Spirits leads. Our family will look forward to getting to know yours better. We too, feel compelled to join God's people in Rwanda. Blessings, Melody Taylor

  5. Dianna - We're still pondering radio. We'll see what develops when we get back to Rwanda. I do sense if we do radio we must make it a model of love and reconciliation.