Fr. Marcel Uwineza was only 14 years old when he witnessed the painful experience of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He saw his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister murdered during the civil war between the Tutsis and Hutus.
Uwineza was able to overcome the pain. He even found himself face to face with the man who killed his siblings and who asked to be forgiven.
The little orphan is now a Catholic Priest in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), and the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation is one of his research interests.
In his new book titled, “Risen from the Ashes: Theology as Autobiography in Post-genocide Rwanda”, the Principal of the Kenya-based Hekima University College recalls his experience of surviving the genocide through the lens of faith that seeks understanding; he strives to make spiritual sense of the tragic events of 1994 in the light of his Priestly Ministry that fosters forgiveness and reconciliation.
“There are several reasons behind the writing of this book. I come from a country that has had several wounds and so when I was growing up, I had this terrible experience of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda but then I have been privileged to have the opportunity to advance in studies through the Society of Jesus,” Fr. Uwineza said during the official launch of his new book on January 13.
He added, “I prayed and realized it was the moment to put down what I have studied, but also even more prominently looking back at my life, how can I tell my story in a more meaningful and rational maybe unbiased way that can be of help to people.”
The Rwandan Jesuit Priest said that many people in his native country of Rwanda “have lost their voices” since the genocide.
“I did write this book to lend a voice to so many people who died, who can't speak today. This is my voice to so many who have been very voiceless,” he said.
The book, he said, “will help people to understand who the human person is and what we are capable of doing, especially when you go to the third chapter on the pain of Rwanda, but also the hope that has sprung, that someone can still speak about God even when they are risen from the ashes.”
Today Rwanda is gradually recovering from the genocide, Fr. Uwineza said, adding that reconciliation is a process that takes quite a long time to mend broken relationships, and that sometimes relationships may even never mend.
“Rwanda has made some strides and there has been a journey. If that goes with accountability and justice, it will be successful,” the Jesuit Priest said during the January 13 event that was broadcast on Capuchin TV Kenya.
He went on to provide a couple of images that he said best represent his native country, saying, “Rwanda today has two images. Rwanda is a cemetery and a construction site.”
“A cemetery in the sense that on almost every hill you have graves. You even have people we haven't discovered where they were put or who killed them; some families are even still hoping that they will see their relatives,” Fr. Uwineza explained.
He continued, “We have memorial sites that remind us where we have been. Keeping memory of those who have died is paramount in the process of reconciliation and healing.”
Rwanda is also a construction site, the Nairobi-based Jesuit Priest said, because the country “will take a long time to build reconciliation and forgiveness in the hearts of the people.”
Making reference to the role of the Gacaca courts in the process of reconciliation, a system of community justice in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, he said, “Many hearts were healed and even people who had never spoken to one another, began to speak.”
The 256-page book begins from personal childhood memories (Chapter I) on to the historical context before the Genocide of 1994 (Chapter II). This is followed by the dramatic survival during the genocide (Chapter III) and goes on to the fourth chapter that contains spiritual and theological reflections on forgiveness and hope.
Reflections on the Theological formation of Priests, and the identity of a Priest constitute the fifth and sixth chapters respectively.
Chapter VII resumes the proper autobiographic style of the “new life” of Fr. Uwineza in the United States in which he relates some of the memorable events of his Priestly ministry, including his speech during a United Nations meeting in New York and the International Conference in Rwanda.
A special chapter is dedicated to his “New Parents”, the couple of John and Anne Maloy, an experience that has marked his life until the present day.
The final chapter of the book, chapter nine and the Epilogue, speaks about the future and focuses on the vocation of a Theologian in post-genocide Rwanda.
Speaking during the January 13 book launch, the Jesuit Priest highlighted the importance of forgiveness following his encounter with the person who killed his siblings.
“Forgiveness really means many things, but for me it's a miracle. In the language of some of the scholars, is really doing the unimaginable,” Fr. Uwineza said, and added, “Forgiveness here may really entail a decision to decide to remember the wrong or the injury differently. Or at the same time, really deciding not to be a prisoner of the past.”
“When you are still unable to forgo or to let go, you too are a prisoner. And mind you, this is a process, so it's not the same for everyone,” he said.
Making reference to his personal experience, he said he drew inspiration from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, to be able to forgive.
In 2003, after his years of Jesuit Novitiate, Fr. Uwineza was commissioned to further his studies abroad and decided, before leaving, to return to his village to pray at the tombs of his relatives.
“Providentially, I met the man who killed my siblings and exhumed the remains of my father. Now, having been set free, it was now in a sense, a golden opportunity,” he recounted during the book launch.
The Jesuit Priest continued, “I met him at the graves of my parents and my siblings. He had been released from jail; released by the government but not yet released by my heart.”
“When I met him there, he knelt, and then he looked at me. He said, Marcel, you know what I did? Do you have space in your heart to forgive me,” he recalled, and added, “Mind you, at that moment I was wondering whether he meant it. Am I safe? It sounded like a movie with a really mixed reaction.”
Fr. Uwineza said he was “invaded by something higher than him. It's something we can't forgive on our own. There is a decision to make, but we're empowered by God.”
“I asked him to rise, then we embraced each other. At that moment, I felt like the chains had broken away from my leg. Like I too had been in prison. Now I was set free,” he recounted.
He added, “The Society of Jesus had given me some holiday allowance, so I took him to a nearby pub. We shared a drink and we were shedding tears.”
“Forgiveness sets you free. It's not an event, it's a process, so my experience may not be the experience of everyone, but I hope this inspires couples, often struggling in families, kids who can't forgive their parents, employees who can't forgive their employers. If by God's grace I was able to get to this level, there are other things we can let go,” he said during the January 13 event.
Also speaking during the book launch, Bishop Rodrigo Mejía Saldarriaga said the new book “is an original way of writing theology as an autobiography, something that is also at the origin of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.”
“The book of Father Uwineza, therefore, is not a novel but a real work of narrative theology, as late and beloved professor Laurenti Magesa explains in the Preface, perhaps the last writing of his life,” Bishop Mejia said in reference to the book that was published by the Nairobi-based Pauline Publications Africa.
The Vicar Apostolic emeritus of Soddo in Ethiopia further said, “The Father Marcel’s book was written honestly according to his own experience, his own point of view, his own sufferings in itself, and the value of an autobiography.”
“For Father Uwineza, there is a clear conviction that Rwanda, called in the past ‘the star of evangelization in Africa’, needs to be evangelized anew and differently,” Bishop Mejia said.
Making reference to the African Theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, the 84-year-old Bishop who retired in January 2014 said, “Christianity made little difference in Rwanda. Christianity seemed little more than an add-on, an inconsequential relish that did not radically affect people’s so-called natural identities nor the goals or purposes they pursued…This failure calls for a transformation of mind…Christianity is meant to shape a new identity within us by creating a new sense of ‘we’ – a new community that defies our usual categories of anthropology.”
“A transformation of minds implies the evangelization of the entire culture of a people, an agenda that may seem mission impossible for many. However, such is the main agenda, not only for Rwanda but for all cultures in our contemporary society,” he said.
The Nairobi-based Colombian-born Jesuit Bishop added, “The proposal of Father Uwineza, therefore, rejoins the ‘signs of the times’ for the life and mission of the Catholic Church today.”
On her part, Sr. Olga Massango who heads the marketing department of Paulines Publications Africa said the new book “is a blessing for the Church in Africa”.
“This book will help us in our learning of the reconciliation journey Father Marcel has gifted us,” Sr. Massango said.
The member of the Daughters of St. Paul said copies of the new book have been dispatched to several African countries.
The book that goes for US$10.00 is available at Pauline bookshops in Nairobi and Kisumu and in soft copy at www.paulinesafrica.org.