Peter Tassi looked into the eyes of those gathered around him – survivors and offspring of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that some now say may have taken more than a million lives.
“You are from the superpower, from paradise,” they told the Hamilton Catholic high school chaplain. “Where were you in 1994 with your planes and your bombs? Why didn’t you come to help us?”
“It chokes me up,” he says now, back in the safe confines of Canada and far from the site of that almost unimaginable horror. “What do you say? I just said, ‘I’m sorry we didn’t come.'”
Despite the passage of 10 years, Tassi says the genocide remains on the minds of the people all the time. “Many of the kids in (one) orphanage survived, while their parents were killed. They have songs about it; they talk and pray about it. They’re people of great resilience and hope, but it has had a great impact upon them.”
And although they are puzzled over the lack of a response from the West – parts of which were only too eager to move militarily into far less deadly zones such as Iraq and the former Yugoslavia – Rwandans have exhibited an amazing ability to forgive. While murderers of their family members and fellow townsfolk may still live among them, they are quick to say that, “We are no longer Hutu and Tutsi (the dominant tribes in the country). We are Rwandans.”
“They have an unbelievable capacity to forgive,” says Tassi. “I’ve found that with the poor all over the world.”
Gratitude was another quality that struck Tassi about the people. “They are so grateful for a drop of water. Their lives are almost more prosperous than ours. Their gratitude is infinite.”
During breaks in his chaplaincy work, Tassi has taken time to become somewhat of a world traveller and short-term missionary, visiting places such as Rwanda, Haiti, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The experiences have given him an up close and personal opportunity to truly see how “the other half lives.”
It was shortly after the genocide that Tassi was introduced to Father Hermann Schulz, a Catholic priest who ran a church, orphanage and youth centre in the Rwandan village of Musha. Schulz, now 64, was forced to flee Rwanda just before the genocide began, but after a year of grieving, and in solidarity with the people he had been sent to serve, he returned to Rwanda to begin the task of cleaning up and rebuilding the facilities, which had largely been destroyed.
Almost 1,300 women and children were killed inside Schulz’s church, where they had vainly fled for refuge. A sombre memorial remains in place in an extension to the church today, consisting of rows of skulls and bones of the dead.
Schulz had arrived in Rwanda in 1979, sent by a Salesian order that told him he was going to the poorest country to which they could send a priest. Starting with just a tent, the industrious priest went on to build a youth centre that offered food, education and the teaching of trades.
During their meeting, Schulz invited Tassi to visit Rwanda, but it took about a decade before Tassi could summon the resources to make the trip there. He found that the priest had reset in motion an operation that was serving hundreds of children and families. Medicine, livestock and food were being provided. Houses were being built.
Despite the exciting new developments – and despite the fact that he had not even been onsite when the genocide occurred – the ghosts of the past haunted Tassi during his time in Rwanda, and to some extent, continue to do so.
“I’m haunted by nightmares. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t revisit in my mind the children that suffer. I have vivid memories … Those visions never leave you.”
“When I’m in these countries, I don’t sleep at night,” he adds. “I can’t sleep. I’m tormented … I ask, ‘How can (God) allow it? How could He be a loving God and allow this?’ You just can’t figure it out. It torments you.”
Part of the answer to his question was provided by the Rwandan people, who told him that it was not God who carried the guns, grenades and machetes that killed the people. It was human beings.
Another part of the answer is being provided by missionaries like Fr. Schulz, who Tassi says allow him to maintain his faith in God and a hopeful vision of the future. “If these people, who suffer like this, can live with such hope, faith and love for God, and missionaries can risk their lives and live in such conditions, am I going to give up hope and faith? I won’t do it. If they can do it, I can do it.”
Tassi says that what genocide victims, the poor throughout the world and missionaries ask is that those in more affluent nations pray for them. “If they know we think of and pray for them, they’re very grateful.” The furnishing of financial support and teaching about the missions are two other things they would like to see happen, he says.
To that end, a fundraising concert was held recently at Bishop Ryan High School in Hamilton, featuring musical talent of various styles from the area. Related expenses, such as cleanup crews, sound reinforcement and insurance, were provided free of charge. A video of the work in Rwanda was shown, while performers including Fern Viola, Kid Rasta and the Peacemakers, Heralds of the Gospel and the choirs of Bishop Ryan and St. Thomas More high schools displayed their talents.
Although organizers had set a modest goal of $15,000 in support of Fr. Shultz’s work in Rwanda, they were gratified to find that the community opened its wallets to the tune of about $30,000, with donations still trickling in.