Mar­ti Ensign, a mem­ber of our Min­istry Team, was in Cen­tral Africa in April 1994 when the air­plane car­ry­ing the pres­i­dents of Rwan­da and Burun­di was shot down. Rep­re­sent­ing Mis­sion­ary Avi­a­tion Fel­low­ship, she crossed the bor­der just as ani­mosi­ties between the Tut­sis and Hutus cli­maxed and the blood­shed start­ed. With her hus­band, Len, Mar­ti spent years in that region as a med­ical mis­sion­ary. Fol­low­ing is a par­tial account of what she saw, felt, and expe­ri­enced on her vis­it there again in July 1994.

The refugee camp and orphan­age are set on a ridge in the moun­tains of Rwan­da, just inside the bor­der with Ugan­da. It is reached by a road that West­ern­ers would label impass­able,” but our ancient Lan­drover did an able job of trans­port­ing us although bone-bruised by the time we descend­ed down out of her filthy inte­ri­ors. Dry sea­son had coat­ed the road with an inch or two of tal­cum pow­der dust that now cov­ered everything.

As we tried to walk toward the makeshift build­ing that served as the orphan­age,” we were sur­round­ed by hun­dreds of ragged chil­dren — all of whom want­ed either to be picked up or at least to hold our hand. African chil­dren are used to being held when they are small. If they are not on their moth­er’s back, they are gen­er­al­ly being car­ried around by broth­ers, sis­ters, aun­ties, or cousins in the large extend­ed fam­i­ly rugo.

I could see that the worn-out work­ers had been doing their best, but the num­ber are just too over­whelm­ing. Warned of our com­ing, they had tried to clean things up, but you can imag­ine! Water is scarce; dia­pers are unknown, and dysen­tery is rampant.

The few chil­dren we did man­age to pick up whim­pered so pathet­i­cal­ly when we put them down that it became unbear­able even to try. I angri­ly asked the doc­tor in charge of the orphan­age why the var­i­ous African Aide work­ers I saw sit­ting around on the edge of the cots just star­ing off into space were not active­ly hold­ing and car­ing for these lit­tle ones.

Well, Mar­ti,” he said, these girls are all from the camp. They have just been bereaved of almost every­one and every­thing they’ve ever loved. They actu­al­ly need some­one to hold and com­fort them in their grief.” Yes,” I thought, and me, too.”

I’d lis­tened to reports of our hos­pi­tal being ran­sacked and loot­ed, our nurs­es, and even one of our Rwandaise doc­tors being killed, and thought how much effort, how much mon­ey it took to get one of these nation­als trained to that lev­el. I’d heard the sto­ry of our cook whom we had hired as a young gar­den boy and lat­er trained to cook, how he and his wife and his elder­ly par­ents, and the chil­dren who were still liv­ing in his home, had been killed. I, too, was bereaved, and I should understand.

It’s awful enough to hear the sta­tis­tics and see the media pic­tures, but to have lived years among these good peo­ple, to have per­formed their wed­dings and deliv­ered their chil­dren, and to have felt that they were indeed mem­bers of our fam­i­ly, made the grief almost incapacitating.

What we could actu­al­ly do seemed so small and insignif­i­cant in the scope of the need. The doc­tor on our team saw some patients, and we asked ques­tions to try to ascer­tain how we could best get help after we came home, then we left, sobbing.

It was gen­uine­ly trau­mat­ic to dri­ve through the trashed and desert­ed streets of the once proud city of Kigali. Four years ago when we were there, it was a clean and bustling mar­ket­place. Because of a pro­gram call mugan­da” every cit­i­zen was oblig­ed to give one half day a week to the coun­try. From the pres­i­dent and his cab­i­net, the bish­ops and pas­tors, to the school chil­dren six years and above; every­one gave their half day. City streets were cleaned up, hill­sides ter­raced to stop ero­sion, roads repaired. The Rwandaise were just­ly proud of their efforts, and both nation­al spir­it and the econ­o­my was at an all-time high. Then the inva­sion from Ugan­da by Tut­si refugees began to desta­bi­lize the coun­try in 1991. The results are so wide­ly known that almost any edu­cat­ed per­son in the world knows about the Rwan­da tragedy, the scope of which has nev­er been seen before.

Now we drove around wrecked and burned vehi­cles left in the streets, near­ly every glass win­dow in cars and build­ings bro­ken out. I thought how dif­fi­cult it had been to get one box of win­dow glass or one vehi­cle trans­port­ed into this tiny, land-locked coun­try. Now every­thing seemed destroyed. Even the Unit­ed Nations head­quar­ters had no run­ning water, no elec­tric­i­ty, no tele­phones. Any NGO (non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion) work­ers who come into the city to help must bring their own food and drink­ing water, all bed­ding and toi­letries with them.

We went to one man­sion aban­doned in the first days of trou­ble by the ex-patri­ot own­ers and now used as hous­ing by one of the NGOs. Box­es of bot­tled drink­ing water and scant food sup­plies sat about on the floor. When we walked to the end of the gar­den near its wall, we saw the mass grave of those who had tried to find refuge in this place. The two scrawny and tick infest­ed Ger­man shep­herds had dug some of the human bones up and they lay scat­tered near­by. None of us could swal­low lunch.

We des­per­ate­ly cried out to God, what can we do?” The dan­ger is to let what we can’t do pre­vent us from doing what we can. As we spoke to African church lead­ers, aide and gov­ern­ment work­ers, the one word that reoc­curred over and over was hope­less.”

One doc­tor broke down com­plete­ly. He had worked two days with very lit­tle sleep and very lit­tle to eat, sewing up machete wounds, set­ting bro­ken bones, and per­form­ing ampu­ta­tions. And just when he thought the crises was over, sol­diers came in and shot and killed every one of his patients. No won­der his despair!!

To com­fort us, the Lord sent many to tell of mirac­u­lous escapes; of the preser­va­tion of entire fam­i­lies. They told of Hutus who pro­tect­ed and hid their Tut­si friends at the per­il of their own lives and Tut­sis who hid Hutus.

As we sought the Lord, two things became clear. One, that a lov­ing Heav­en­ly Father who knows more in detail and depth than we do, grieves over the suf­fer­ing of this nation and most par­tic­u­lar­ly his Body, the Church, in this place. The sec­ond is that if Jesus him­self said that no small spar­row falls to the ground with­out the Father’s notice and care,” then there is not one Rwan­da orphan, not one griev­ing par­ent or spouse, not one mis­sion­ary who has lost every earth­ly pos­ses­sion, that is beyond his ten­der love and care.

Maybe there is a third thing that emerges as a deep con­vic­tion. We must do some­thing. Pray, most cer­tain­ly, but we must also give out of our abun­dance. We must real­ly care and we must go out and help if it is at all possible.

Mar­ti and Len live in Olympia, Wash­ing­ton. She was Direc­tor of the Depart­ment of Women in Med­i­cine and Den­tistry for the Chris­t­ian Medical/​Dental Society.

Text First Published October 1994

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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