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