In extreme situations, there are always stories of people of faith who act with extraordinary courage. For the movement of nonviolence and the continuation of the faith, we need to learn about these stories, examine them, and tell them in our churches, to our communities, and in our families.
The story of how the Catholic Benebikira Sisters in Rwanda saved children and rebuilt families during the genocide is one such story. Thank you to Kathleen Sullivan at NCR for her article:
It was during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which witnessed the murders of an estimated 800,000, that the Benebikira Sisters, at great risk to themselves, sheltered hundreds of orphans and others who sought refuge in their convents.
At the Benebikira motherhouse in the village of Save, the militia stormed the convent and demanded that the sisters, members of an order native to Rwanda, separate themselves by ethnic groups. The sisters refused — essentially signing their death warrants. The militia then looted all their food, cut the water lines, and told the sisters they would return to kill them.
At other convents, 20 sisters were killed when they stood up to militia. At their convent in Butare, the sisters hid 22 children and teens whose parents had been slaughtered by the Hutus, but soldiers found the children and carted them off to a certain death.
Benebikira Sr. M. Juvenal Mukamurama, who would later serve as mother general of the order from 1996 to 2008, was at the convent in Butare in 1994. In a recent interview she recalled the horrific day that the soldiers came.
“It was very sad,” Mukamurama said somberly. “They had orders [to take the children]. What danger can a 5-year-old child be?”
When the genocide ended, the sisters found themselves caring for some 350 orphans — most traumatized after witnessing the brutal murders of their parents. The sisters ran an orphanage, but they felt something was missing. The children “had food and clothing,” said Mukamurama, “but it was no life for them. Family is very important in our country. They needed a family. So we decided to build community houses and make families.”
The Benebikiras then built 39 houses and grouped the orphans into “families” of six to eight children. The sisters, who oversaw the network of community homes, found that the orphans found new life in these newly-formed family units.