Wednesday, October 10, 2012

K is for KIBEHO

The Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Kibeho
Kibeho is a town not far from my village. In fact, it’s the largest town in my district, and it’s famous around the world! Every year, tens of thousands of people descend on Kibeho to worship Nyina wa Jambo – literally translated “Mother of the Word”.

Celebrations on Assumption Day
There have been several reported visions of the Virgin Mary in Kibeho, mostly by school students in the area. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s some students reported having seen the Virgin standing over a river of blood, asking them to pray for Rwanda and the difficult times to come. From what I've been told, local and international Catholic church leaders came to investigate the apparitions and they were later officially approved. 

The last recorded apparition of the Virgin Mary is reported to have been in May 1994 (while the genocide was still occurring). The Virgin’s “message”, that President Habyarimana was with her in heaven, was broadcasted over Radio Rwanda at the time and largely interpreted as supporting the genocide. This apparition has of course met more skeptics and less approval.

Still, the earlier apparitions have attracted thousands of devout Catholics from all over the world to Kibeho. There is a hotel run by nuns in town, which government officials use constantly for various district meetings. They serve delicious tea. Several churches and chapels have been errected, and the town has certainly prospered from its international attention.

Kibeho, like almost every other town and city in Rwanda, suffered during the 1994 Genocide—and not only from a controversial Marian apparition. Thousands of Tutsis were killed in Kibeho, the largest massacre occurring at the cathedral. Here, after several days of shooting and violent attacks, the killers were said to have become tired and just set the holy house on fire to take care of the rest. Ninety schoolchildren were slaughtered after a priest told them not to worry, that the police would look after them.

What is much more unusual (and certainly much less publicized) about Kibeho, is what happened after the genocide.

When the Rwandese Patriotic Army, led by General Paul Kagame, took over Rwanda and ended the genocide, thousands of Rwandans who had participated (actively and passively) in the genocide began to flee. The fear of retribution was actively instilled by the Interahamwe and genocide leaders, who wanted to escape Rwanda hidden among masses in “internally displaced persons camp” set up by the French during Operation Tourquise.

Within a year, a majority of people in these camps went home peacefully, but some just moved on to other camps—several to Kibeho. In April 1995, The Rwandan Patriotic Army attempted to close the last IDP camp at Kibeho, where many men, women, and children remained.

Official reports from the government conclude that around 2,000 people were killed while attempting to close down the camp. In his book “Africa’s World War”, Gerard Prunier estimates the real figure to be  between 20,000 and 30,000.

Last year, I attended a wedding ceremony at the Cathedral in Kibeho, where thousands of Tutsi were killed. The bride was a friend of mine, the headmistress at my village’s local secondary school. She is an orphan from the genocide.

Although the particular devoutness to the Virgin Mary stands out a bit, Kibeho is otherwise a very “normal” town. I had been to Kibeho several times before I learned of the massacres that occurred (both in 1994 against Tutsi and 1995 against Hutu), and only then I read about them in books written by Westerners—none of my Rwandan friends or colleagues have spoken to me about it. 

Virgin Mary Chapel in Kibeho

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