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From Red Earth: A New Story of Hate and Healing in Rwanda

April 10, 2019 by

book cover of Denise Uwimana's From Red Earth

“Why is Plough bringing out a book on the Rwandan genocide?” a friend asks, “There are so many out there already!”

“I don’t read that kind of thing,” another says, “I can’t handle gory details.”

Their reactions bring me up short. It’s true, there are some excellent – and horrifying – books already out there. So why am I helping Denise Uwimana get her story onto paper? Is it a mistake to expend all this effort?

But I recall the challenge of Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations general who had been stationed in Rwanda in 1994, “to study this human tragedy and to contribute to our growing understanding of the genocide. If we do not understand what happened, how will we ever ensure it does not happen again?”

Also, I share Denise’s determination to tell her story so that those who died do not simply pass into oblivion, forgotten or unknown.

Truthfully, Denise’s book is not really about genocide, although that frames its context. Her book is about the resilience of the human spirit. Most of all, it is about the almost unimaginable power of forgiveness. She hopes it will encourage others engulfed in tragedy or trauma.

Denise’s book is not really about genocide, it’s about the resilience of the human spirit and the almost unimaginable power of forgiveness.

Working on this powerful book with Denise has turned us into sisters. That may sound far-fetched if you focus on things like nationality, skin color, or language. But we share the same faith, and hers has strengthened mine immeasurably. It was fun to realize that she and my husband were born on the same day. And we were both young mothers in 1994. On April 16 that year – the day genocide reached her town – my baby was turning one, while Denise’s third was about to be born. She has become one of my dearest friends.

Denise’s stature is slight, but her spirit radiates a rare strength. Singing is her happiness, and she burst into song each time she stepped into her kitchen to prepare us a drink or a meal, when we’d interrupt an intense session in the back room of her apartment in Kassell, Germany. When my train pulled out of Kassell, she ran beside it, laughing and waving, until she couldn’t keep up. And this is a woman who felt “like the inside of a fridge” for seven years, who was certain she would never smile or sing again.

But the source of her spirit is no surprise. Each morning at the start of our interview, Denise would drop to her knees, asking Jesus to be with us, to help us find words, and to guide the project for his purpose. “It’s not about me – it’s about You!” she’d finish the prayer.

Awareness of her ongoing prayers has upheld me through the months since – because her book is hands-down the hardest assignment I’ve ever had. Communication alone is a hurdle. After all, books are made of words, yet English is Denise’s sixth language! Face to face, understanding is no problem, because she talks with her hands, her eyes, her whole face. She jumps up to act out events, bringing every detail clearly before my mind’s eye. In the months when we’ve been unable to meet, however, phone calls and emails have been downright frustrating.

But by far the most difficult aspect of this project has been the background material I’ve had to immerse myself in. The Rwandan genocide was demonic beyond imagining. In the past, like my friend, I avoided “gory details.” This time, as a researcher, I cannot flit past the truly gruesome accounts. Instead, I’ve had to open my mind and senses to what happened – and wake at two o’clock in the morning with the resulting nightmares.

I have had to repent, because while Denise and her people experienced a hundred days in hell, I was living my normal life.

I have also had to repent, because while Denise and her people experienced a hundred days in hell, I was living my normal life. Sure, I was horrified to hear that two tribes were massacring each other with machetes in far-off Africa – which is how I perceived the genocide at the time. I hoped and prayed the violence would stop. But did I contact my congressman, my senators, or President Clinton? Did I phone or write to the UN in New York City, just a few hours’ drive from my home? No. I did nothing. And a million people were killed.

One of my shattering moments while editing Denise’s book was learning that the ghostwriter for Roméo Dallaire’s memoir Shake Hands with the Devil had taken her own life. I trembled. If learning what happened in Rwanda could contribute to someone’s committing suicide, how could I responsibly record what Denise was telling me?

But this is the difference: Dallaire’s book documents history. Denise’s does more. Yes, she accurately portrays the horrific Evil, but she emphasizes how Good overcame it. She describes how the most wounded souls found healing – and have become instruments of healing for others. She herself is one such soul. And anyone exposed to her faith and her joy has to believe that Good will have the last word.

So Plough is privileged to bring Denise’s story to the English-speaking world, and I feel honored to have been involved.


Helen Huleatt works for Plough Publishing and lives with her husband, Martin, at Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England.

 

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  • Dearest Helen! I will continue to pray for you and Denise as you encourage the book along. I will try to get our local independent bookstore to get it, and share it with our community.

    Rae Whitehead