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?”
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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.
Last month, 6,000 miles away from their homeland, the Benebikira Sisters were honored with the Courage of Conscience Award by the Peace Abbey, a Boston-area multifaith retreat and teaching center dedicated to nonviolence, peacemaking and social justice.
The women were cited for “their courage, faith and integrity during the genocide in 1994.”
“When so many of Rwanda’s religious leaders failed their people during the 1994 genocide, this group of Rwandan women stood up for truth,” said Sr. Ann Fox, a Boston nun who has befriended the Benebikira nuns and who spoke at the award ceremony. “To stand up for truth during the Rwandan genocide had dire consequences. For the Benebikira nuns it meant putting their entire congregation of sisters at risk of being killed for their refusal to separate themselves into ethnic groups and for their insistence on sheltering those seeking refuge.
“During the years before the genocide, during the 100 days of the genocide and after, the Benebikira Sisters lived together as one, as Rwandan women religious dedicated to peace and service to the poor.”
Mukamurama responded: “It is nice to know people appreciate what we did and what we do. We do not do the work to be appreciated, but this appreciation does give us encouragement.”
Mukamurama, along with Sr. M. Anna Beata Murekatete and Sr. M. Josepha Mukabayire, attended the Courage of Conscience Award ceremony held Sept. 26 on the grounds of the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Mass. “The sisters told us it was the first time they had publicly been acknowledged for the courage and faith they displayed during the genocide, and they were very touched,” said Dot Walsh, program coordinator at the Peace Abbey.
Other notable past recipients of the Courage of Conscience Award include Mother Teresa, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Benjamin Spock, Rosa Parks, Arlo Guthrie, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jesuit Fr. John Dear and Dorothy Day.
Benebikira means “Daughters of Mary” in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda. About 56 percent of Rwanda’s population of more than 10 million is categorized as Catholic. Founded in 1919, the Benebikira Order today has about 380 women religious whose primary mission is education. They run two preschools, eight primary schools, three vocational schools and 13 secondary boarding schools in Rwanda and Burundi. Since the genocide, they have opened four new schools.
Prior to 1994, it was unheard of for women to study at the university level. In 2009, the Benebikiras opened the doors to a 350-room dormitory that they financed and built for women to attend the National University of Rwanda in Butare.
In the same country that once spawned humanity’s ultimate evil against humanity, the Benebikira Sisters have cultivated unity and peace. In their schools, students are not asked about their ethnicity or their families’ role in the genocide. A son or daughter of one the killers might be seated next to a son or daughter of one of his victims. The children study together and play together. In the village of community homes, Hutu has married Tutsi.
The Benebikira Sisters also have stepped in to help with the emotional and spiritual recovery of the survivors. Rwanda lacks the proper social services resources to provide counseling for a population that is now facing the prospect of living alongside the perpetrators of the violence. “It is unbelievable, but it is the reality,” said Mukamurama, who explained the perpetrators are returning to the villages after having served their time in jail.
Murekatete has established the Ministry of Hope, Healing and Reconciliation in Rwanda to provide pastoral counseling for those affected by the genocide and to train young adults to serve as peer counselors.
The Benebikira Sisters’ ministry of education, reconciliation and hope in Rwanda has captured the attention of some in America.
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“It has been a privilege for the Paraclete Foundation to bring the Benebikira Sisters to Boston to stay with us for studies, to learn from them, and to work with them in Rwanda. Their spirituality and the expression of their faith are formed by their Rwandan culture. They are one with their people, sharing their Christian faith that calls them to be a people of hope and a voice for justice and love,” said Fox, who has made more than a dozen trips to Rwanda.
“Rwanda wants to move forward,” said Mukamurama, who is marking her 40th anniversary as a Benebikira sister. “We want to build our country, our relationships, a new life. We are no longer seen as Tutsi or Hutu. We live together. We are no longer separate. We are Rwandans.”
[Kathleen L. Sullivan writes from Boston.]
More information about the Benebikira Sisters can be found at
www.benebikira.org and paraclete.org/rwanda.html