Rwandan priest survives genocide, forgives father’s killer
Currently celebrating his 35th year in the priesthood, Fr Ubald Rugirangoga has experienced extreme horror which required “extreme forgiveness” even forgiving the man who murdered his father.
Born into a Tutsi family during the decades-old Rwandan tribal conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, Fr Ubald’s father, a teacher was hurt so badly by men of the Hutu tribe that he could not walk and was subsequently murdered.
Fr Ubald, a guest speaker at the February 17–18 Divine Mercy Conference held at the University Inn and Conference Centre, St Augustine, shared his horrific life experiences in an attempt to illustrate the great power of mercy to change lives.
In 1963, Tutsi men of his village were killed in great numbers and both his father and uncle were among the victims. Becoming fatherless along with his brother and sister, his mother had to work very hard to feed them and they “did not have milk or tea”. She had to move them from their home at nights to sleep “in the bush” to escape being killed. “As a child I could not understand…we had a home, why did we have to sleep in the bush?” said Fr Ubald.
Even when he was older and in the seminary, a fellow seminarian from the Hutu tribe wanted to kill him because of his ethnicity and he had to be hidden and sent away by the bishop. He said the politicians had influenced the seminarian. “The priest who had to control the situation sent us away and we fled to Burundi.”
From 1973 to 1978, he lived and studied in Burundi and there he learned to pray the Rosary and use it as a spiritual weapon, and also “discovered the presence of God in my life”. He decided to offer all his life to God in thanksgiving for being spared a violent death.
In 1978, upon completing his studies at the seminary in Burundi, he returned to Rwanda and was ordained a priest in July 1984. He “felt a new vocation” in 1987 which he refers to as “healing”. He saw the problem of hatred in his home village as a sickness and he received a gift of healing from God to help his people.
But being Catholic did not cause brothers in the Church to stop hating each other. He recounted “Hutus killed Tutsis in the faith…45,000 Tutsi people were killed in a few days.” He was then chased from his parish for trying to do his work of forgiveness and healing and once again became a refugee at a bishop’s house. He recalled “I preached love but people from my parish wanted to kill me. I waited to be killed.”
He however also heard God’s voice telling him he would survive because God wanted him to evangelise the Rwandan people. He escaped through a river and went to the Congo in 1994. “It was horror,” he said, as he remembered the ordeal, adding “It was hard to forgive.”
Fr Ubald described the 1994 genocide as a “curse” to his nation and he felt emotional and personal hurt “like a failed army commander”. Despite this, he decided on January 5, 1995 to return to Rwanda and immediately began helping people start a new life.
He spoke about forgiveness and reconciliation but the families of victims were so angry that it took a long time to convince them of the need to forgive. His bishop gave him a “new mission” to be pastor of a parish in his home country and this enabled him to hear from both the Tutsi and the Hutu side of the conflict.
When Hutu prisoners were ministered to and subsequently released from prison, Fr Ubald recalled, Tutsis were still afraid to trust the murderers but he laboured against the “real problem” of ideology. He taught that everyone was made in God’s image and that good would always triumph over evil.
Fr Ubald has held many healing retreats in the villages of Rwanda, his last being a retreat that brought together victims’ families and the perpetrators of the crime, each side having formerly labelled the other as “the bad one”.
He came to his own point of forgiveness in taking care of the children of his father’s killer, despite the outcry from others in his clan. He had also seen his healing work result in inter-tribal marriages and says “We need mercy to change people. If you do not forgive you are with weight. When you do not want to forgive him you carry him. When you are waking or sleeping, he is still on you. If you do not take pardon, you are carrying the other also. Who is your baggage? Your weight? My conviction is this—the good one triumphs over the bad one and forgiveness makes you free.”