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Day Two; Kigali Rwanda

Day Two: The Valley of Life

Kilgali form the hotel Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda) tonight.

Kilgali from the Hotel Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda) tonight.

This morning I went to the airport to collect my luggage. I had a gut feeling that it would not be delivered to my hotel as promised. How right I was. My case was left sitting amidst a pile of other items of luggage. It was a morning where I learnt about the importance of trusting ones gut or relying on providence, karma or whatever you like to call it. I know what I call it and so too does John Bosco.

The plan for the group today was to visit some of the sites that are associated with John Bosco’s struggle for survival. He left Rwanda with his wife Christine and his family in the year 2000. Much has changed since then. The population of Kigali at the time of the genocide was approximately two hundred thousand people, now it is estimated to stand at over a million people. For John Bosco and Christine much has changed in Kigali. They were concerned that some of the buildings that are important in their journey may have been knocked down. These buildings included his old home, Christine’s home and the Swiss Village.

At the time of the genocide Christine worked for a project sponsored by the Swiss Government which involved forestry and agriculture projects. The Swiss Village was also known as The Swiss Ghetto and it housed Swiss people involved in the various projects. It was not far from John Bosco’s home. When the genocide began it wasn’t long before government soldiers appeared at his house. The soldiers worked hand in hand with the militia. John Bosco was taken to his back yard with his relatives and where was certain that he would be killed by the soldiers who had come to his house. When they took their eye off him he jumped the fence leaving the rest of his family in the garden. The purpose of this ‘gut’ initiative was to talk to his neighbour; an elderly lady and a Hutu. She called a neighbour three doors up who was a Captain in the army and shortly after this the captain’s body guard appeared; he paid off the soldiers with John Bosco’s money and told them to ‘get out of here’.

But where could you go; soldiers and militia were everywhere. Christine’s boss has said to her that if things got dangerous they could use the Swiss Village. You see, there was a sense in the air that trouble was brewing. Embassies had emptied; the international community literally abandoning the people of Rwanda. John Bosco made his way to the Village. He was given the use of an apartment where he and family hid along with many other Tutsis. He hid the younger members of his family in a press where they slept. However two days later the morning of Sunday April the 13th he awoke to see an army of militia ‘like red ants’ approaching the village. Everyone knew what was happening and they all ran; people were climbing walls’ jumping over hedges; all trying to find a palce to escape to. The militia pursued everyone and the shots that rang out were accompanied by screams. When John Bosco ran he realised his sister Julienne was missing; he ran back and realised after finding her that they were only seconds away from death. If he left the courtyard where he had found Julienne they would certainly meet the militia and both would be killed. He decided to jump up on the roof getting Julienne to find a chair that she could stand on so he could pull her up to the ‘hope’ of safety. Again fortune kicked in; the roof was designed like a Swiss ski chalet and unlike Rwandan houses they had hidden gulleies. If this was a standard Rwandan roof there would have been no place to hide. From the spot on the roof they could hear people being interrogated, being shot and some being hacked to death. They lay on the roof for over twenty four hours, terrified.

This morning I accompanied John Bosco and his wife to this place that holds horrific memories. In the company of his friend Felicien who they met at the infamous Hotel Rwanda and Fr. Daniel Groody we watched as he recalled those dark yet days that shot out beams of light for him. When we returned with the larger group in the afternoon I helped him onto the roof. The two of us sat in the spot where he had hidden with his sister. He said that he felt secure on the roof that somehow an overpowering sense of the presence of God assured him that all would be well despite his fear. Shots rang out all around and death was in the air in the midst of these thoughts. We visit the Valley of Death in a few days; the gulley on that roof John Bosco now calls the ‘Valley of Life’.

Felicien, Christine and John Bosco in front of The Swiss Village. You can see the gulleys in the building behind them in which John Bosco hid with his sister.

John Bosco, Christine and Felicien in front of The Swiss Village. You can see the gulleys in the building behind them in which John Bosco hid with his sister.


Despite all the sacramental preparations and carefully executed liturgies,  God’s presence is most powerfully felt in anguish. Polite theologies often exclude the dimension of human struggle and human energy that leaves itself open to grace. This level of divine engagement was witnessed most powerfully on the cross and continues to be seen alive in stores such as John Bosco’s and Christines.

Tonight we were brought for dinner to the Hotel Mille Collines; the hotel that was featured in Hotel Rwanda. We had dinner with three people; John Bosco, Christine and Felicien. John Bosco spent forty four days in the hotel during the genocide and Christine forty days.  The irony of enjoying a meal in the same place with three people who close to twenty years were surviving daily on bags of rice and water from the swimming pool during those days of uncertainty. John Bosco thanked God at the end of the meal for allowing him to live and share his life with Christine and for so many people who have become family to him over the years to replace all those who were murdered. Felicine spoke of the journey beyond guilt that he had to make and the realisation that it is not tolerance that builds societies but acceptance which is founded on love. If they held onto their anger or their annoyance at past events they know they couldn’t live as they do today…they live lives that are lived for others.


Dinner in Hotel Mille Collines, (Hotel Rwanda) withFelicien, Christien and John Bosco. They were refugees in this hotel in the height of the genocide.

Dinner in Hotel Mille Collines, (Hotel Rwanda) with Felicien, Christine and John Bosco. They were refugees in this hotel in the height of the genocide.

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Day One Rwanda…Revisiting the Genocide with John Bosco and Christine

Day One in Kilgali, Rwanda


The photograph is taken from the window of the Senior Researcher for the newly established Commission for the Fight against Genocide. John, the researcher gave us a two hour presentation. The first hour was an overview of the history of Rwanda. There is no doubt that the colonial legacy contributed greatly to the genocide which this country experienced in 1994 when up to one million people were murdered in a most callous fashion. Most were hacked to death by people wielding machetes; women were raped and those showed any compassion were murdered as collaborators.

The social engineering that went on set people up against one another may not have been intended to have the effect it had however, the classical colonist approach of ‘divide and conquer’ was employed in Rwanda and it contributed greatly to the genocide. Groups who lived peaceable alongside one another for many centuries were now at odds with one another

The second hour looked at the work of the commission and a little from John’s own story. The genocide is never far from the surface here. John explained that he was studying in Geneva when the genocide started. His mother, father, two brothers and two sisters were murdered. Like many here he spoke with little emotion; he was merely sharing his own story. A number of years later he returned to find the remains of his family. In Ireland there are many reports from families who wish to find the remains of their relatives who were killed in the troubles and reports are that the remains can’t be located. The remarkable thing about John is that he located the remains of his family within days. Having received the information he set out one morning with a truck and by one o’clock he had exhumed the skeletal remains of his family. One lady was able to tell him exactly where his mother was buried, Standing int the ladies back garden he asked ‘how do you know that this is the spot’. She said, ‘my husband killed her, I was here when it happened’. His mother had come to their door looking for a glass of water having been in hiding for days on end. ‘Where is your husband now?’ asked John. ‘In the Congo I believe but to be honest I don’t exactly know’. Like many associated with the genocide he fled to another country. She is one of the many widows on the Hutu side.

The genocide was a well-orchestrated event. It was not a sporadic bout of madness but the work of a militia who terrorised local areas as they sought to wipe out the Tutsi population of Rwanda. The event was in the planning for at least four years. The history of this ethnic cleansing is not something that was born in centuries past; the first reported killing of a Tutsi by a Hutu for reasons of race was on the 25th of July 1959.

There is a lot more to say; a lot of conversations had today as we unpack this horrific event. I am here with a couple called John Bosco and his wife Christine. Along with a team sponsored by Notre Dame University we are journeying with them as they try to unpack their horrific experiences in the genocide. They are an amazing couple whose love for one another is beyond question. They were engaged to be married just before the genocide. When the genocide broke out John Bosco put life and limb at risk to protect his future wife. Hopefully I can give you an insight into their story over the next few days.

My luggage was lost in transit. I didn’t loose the head over it. I just thought of some the stories from the genocide that I am familiar with when people like John lost a lot more than a few possessions. My little mishap reinforces one certainty; these amazing people have a lot to teach us ‘westerns’. Maybe next time I’ll share the conversation about suicide that I had with John Bosco and a nun earlier today.

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