ARTICLES

2009-10-20 // 17:09

The Shining Star of Kaduha

Milgitha

Kaduha is about 130 kilometers southeast of the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The first 40 kilometers to Gitarama are on a well built highway. After that, travelers turn onto a bumpy dirt road that is more of a dried-out riverbed. The drive-- in first gear, maximum second gear-- goes past mud huts, small settlements, fields and endless hills. Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills. Along the way, people walk on the side of the road, transporting a wide variety of things on bicycles or on their heads.

Kaduha is in the region of Nyamagabe, a poor area, where the average income of a family is about two dollars a day. The people live on farming-- vegetables, bananas, tea and coffee. It is a green countryside, and the fields reach high up to the hills. Everything seems peaceful, quiet and pleasant. An old proverb says, God comes to rest in Rwanda. And here in this amazing landscape, one can believe it.

Kaduha is a small city, which is more like a village. The Catholic Church is the center of the community. When asked about Sister Milgitha, locals point the way to her house. Sister Milgitha is a 75 year old nun of the order of the Clemensschwestern in Münster. She arrived in Kaduha in 1973, after the bishop of Butare asked her order for help in building up a health center in the region. The order of the Clemensschwestern normally doesn’t focus on missionary work, but Sister Milgitha and another sister were enthusiastic about the idea of going to Africa. The trained nurses wanted to help in a place where no other help was available.

Looking back, she says, she always wanted to help the poor. And where better than in the heart of Africa? Both sisters were put to the test when they came to Kaduha in the early 70s. There was no electricity, no phone, no TV, no radio, nothing of the modest comfort the sisters were used to. Nevertheless, Sister Milgitha was finally in a place she had always wanted to be.

With lots of energy, strength, courage and their unwavering belief in God, they faced the work and built up the “Centre de Sante,” a health center that reached the entire region. Patients still come from far away to get medical attention. Based on carefully kept records, the health ministry in Kigali recently declared the “Centre de Sante” as the best managed center in the country.

Sister Milgitha is proud of her lifework. She knows what she has accomplished over many years. Her story and that of her health center is the story of successful missionary work. Her engagement, the still far-reaching and working clinic, the many different support projects built up around the “Centre de Sante”— these are all testament to the commitment of a woman that has served the people. Though she drives once a week to Kigali to shop in the German store for groceries, Sister Milgitha also feels Rwandan in part. It is here that she feels at home. But the conversation with Sister Milgitha comes inevitably to the days and weeks in the spring of 1994, in those days, as she put it, “ when the devil reigned”.

It was during this time that the Hutu militias slaughtered about one million Tutsi -- men, women, and children; old and sick, young and healthy. For years there had been tensions in the area surrounding Kaduha. Something was in the air, remembers Sister Milgitha: strange, unexplained forest fires, the Tutsi minority discriminated against. Sister Milgitha also talks about French soldiers who trained young Hutus militarily in the woods around Kaduha.

Then came April of 1994. Around the 8th day of the month, riots broke out in the neighboring parish where several Tutsis were murdered. The priest was “beaten from head to toe, he had bruises all over”. In the following days more and more injured people came to the clinic. Some had burns; some were beaten. Finally a curfew was put in place. Next, the sister recalls how huts on the hill around Kaduha were burned down. More Tutsis approached the “Centre des Sante”. “They said, when they came to us: We are coming to church, because in the church we are safe and we are with God”. More refugees came by the hour to find a safe haven-- old people, children, sick ones.

Sister Milgitha and her workers tried to help where they could. The church benches were removed to make more space for the refugees. They prepared meals in the church, lived there and lingered in hope of a good end. “We prepared soup in big pots, so everyone could have a cup full of soup once a day. But with thousands more refugees arriving, in the end everyone just got a spoonful.” For three weeks they were singing and praying.

But it all changed on April 20, a day Sister Milgitha will never forget. “At 11 at night the church bells were ringing, thousands of refugees were praying. It was so hard and sad, so unbearable, you can’t put it in words,” the sister remembers with a fading voice. She and the other sister were told by advancing Hutus to stay in the house and not to come out. "We heard the screams and didn’t know what was going on. Around one o’clock we heard grenades, shots and muffled strokes and screams of people. We were sitting all alone in the house and weren’t even able to pray. We just sat there and thought: when is our time coming?” Things calmed down in the morning around 6.30, Sister Milgitha recalls. They thought it was over.

However, they then realized that the Hutus were running out of weapons for their murderous atrocities. They heard military vehicles coming, with more weapons. The butchering continued. “In the afternoon there was finally a heavy silence like of a graveyard”. The following morning the military chief of the operation came to say goodbye. He was on his way to Butare, where the next killings were scheduled to take place. The sisters could not even approach the door. They were afraid. Rain was pouring down. When they finally opened the door, they saw a river of blood rushing by their house from the church square above. At the church, were mountains of dead bodies; the doors to the church were piled up with slaughtered humans. Sister Milgitha and some of her workers walked between the dead to look for survivors, and were terrified by the horror they saw. They found a few children, though brutally injured, who they brought to their house.

During one trip to the church, from under a pile of dead bodies came a voice, “Milgitha”. “I was so terrified, but we tried right away to get her out from under there. But a group of Hutus saw what we were doing and came running with Machetes. We just ran and behind us we could hear them beating the head of that woman.” The Sisters and workers fled to the house and locked it again. Inside were the sick and injured clinic patients. Then a group of Hutus came and demanded that the Tutsis in the house be handed over. Sister Milgitha stood in their way and said: “I don’t know any Tutsis. I only know Rwandans. And you”, she looked at their leader, “ What do you want? You were sick recently and were cared for right here. Let me do my work taking care of the sick, not a matter of Hutu or Tutsi. If we weren’t here, who would take care of you?” The militias left.

Sister Milgitha is reflecting back, deeply touched by what she saw and experienced. Outside, the sun is setting and inside, the room is getting darker; on the wall a wooden cross. She talks in her native Westphalian dialect that she has kept after all these years. “Three hundred patients were saved in this house,” she says.

They didn’t have access to the hospital itself, where the militias were targeting the Tutsi patients, butchering even the children. “They just held up the kids like rabbits and slaughtered them with their machetes.”

All these experiences and memories and thoughts have changed her. “In this moment, when I saw these many, many butchered people right in front of me, I asked myself “is God still here?. Is God really present, where is he, why did he let this happen? And I still think about it today, why did he let this happen?” She also questions the role of priests and bishops, of good Christians who took part in the satanic work.

But Sister Milgitha didn’t just have to confront her own doubts. The survivors came to her and asked about God. “I told them, that our idol is Jesus. We see him everywhere on the cross, injured, dying. He was killed for all of us. Maybe the world needs a new Christ? Maybe all these people were the ones Christ, died for ? This has always uplifted me because I love the cross. The cross is the symbol of martyrdom.” Sister Milgitha believes that the cross is also the sign of hope, the sign of a new beginning.

On the bumpy way back to Kigali, the impressions run through my mind. Her descriptions of the horror, what happened in the church and in this country, just 15 years ago, is overwhelming. Where was God in those weeks of 1994? For sure he didn’t ‘come to rest’ during the time of war in Rwanda.

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