It is risky—both historically and morally—to try to find a sliver of joy buried within a condition of absolute horror. But in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, I didn’t need to search. The tales of hope found me, almost mocking my worst fears. Reminding me that the human spirit is more powerful than its most formidable enemies. And that a belief in God can carry that spirit to remarkable places.

Chantal lost her husband, parents and brother in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. They were among nearly one million people killed. Pregnant and carrying her three-year-old on her back, Chantal escaped across the border to a refugee camp. In an act of forgiveness almost incomprehensible, Chantal now ministers at the bedside of the man who killed her mother.

Marcel‘s father was murdered and his mother is dying of AIDS. Marcel cares for his three younger brothers. He has no way to earn a living, but he knows how to have fun. He makes soccer balls out of dried husks and old plastic bags and rallies the village kids to play ball.

Etienne has three children, no job and no food. She and her children join the excitement as some Americans and local villagers build a home for a local family. Her children have not eaten in three days, but she says the festivity fills their bellies better than food.

At a Gikongoro Orphanage, 20 teenage boys live together in one room. Each boy lays out a mat on the dirt floor to sleep. Orphaned as infants in the genocide, these boys know there is little chance that someone will adopt a teenage boy. Yet they sing, they dance and they pray.

During the genocide, Emmanuel sought refuge at a French school, where the government promised protection. It was a trap. Emmanuel was shot in the head and thrown into a mass grave. He survived, crawling his way out under the cover of night. A decade later, Emmanuel returns every day to the school, now a genocide memorial, to share his story with visitors.

Like so many of their countrymen, the people in these stories have known pain and suffering intimately. Yet, they live on with dignity, with grace, with song and with humor. Even from the ashes of genocide comes the potential for love, laughter, and above all, forgiveness.

Lanie McNulty, 2009

From the Ashes of Rwanda