As a young girl growing up here in the hills above the local monastery of the Benedictines, Regine Niyonsaba sometimes caught sight of the nuns, immaculate in their white habits, heads covered discreetly in the chocolate-brown scarves of the Belgian order.
While the nuns rarely left the monastery compound, each time Niyonsaba saw them she dreamed of one day entering the order, living in the impeccable monastery with like-minded sisters, and away from the uniform wretchedness of the poverty that otherwise defined life in this rural commune, barely five miles west of the southern university town of Butare.
At the age of 20, she enrolled as a novice.
But five years later her tranquil world of prayer and meditation was shattered at the outset of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which the government mobilized the Hutu majority to exterminate members of the minority Tutsi, such as herself.
Like thousands of other Tutsi fleeing the bloodbath, Niyonsaba's family had sought refuge in the monastery compound. But the mother superior, a Hutu whipped up by the official incitement to murder, had invited in the militias and local officials carrying out the genocide, saying the presence of the refugees was a threat to her domain.
The mother superior, Sister Gertrude Mukangango, insisted that the relatives of nuns also be expelled from their sanctuary in the monastery's guest quarters, knowing full well that she was sending them to their deaths, as numerous witnesses, human rights organizations and Belgian prosecutors would later establish.
Niyonsaba's father and brother already had been killed elsewhere in the monastery compound in the preceding 15 days, along with nearly 7,000 others.
And now, on May 6, 1994, under the gun of a police officer, Niyonsaba followed her mother and two younger sisters down a footpath to a banana grove on the far side of the compound. They were accompanied by another nun, Sister Fortunata Mukagasana, whose relatives also were slated for execution that Monday afternoon.
The police officer, Francois-Xavier Munyeshyaka, was in fact doing Niyonsaba's family a favor of sorts. In consideration for a sum of 7,000 Rwandan francs, he had agreed to shoot the novice's mother and sisters rather than leave their fates in the hands of the militia, who favored the use of machetes and nail-studded clubs.
"We asked him why he was killing our families. Why? He said the mission he was given was that no nun should be killed, but all the others must die," Niyonsaba recalled recently. "We buried them at the spot where they were killed."
Dazed from the execution, Niyonsaba stumbled back to her quarters and locked herself in. But since that afternoon in the banana grove, Niyonsaba knew that her days as a nun were numbered and, soon after the genocide ended, she walked away from it all.
"Ever since," says Niyonsaba, now 35, "I lost hope in the spiritual life. I lost faith in my life as a nun."
The massacre at Sovu monastery has recast the lives of many of its nuns who survived the genocide. The trauma cut some loose from their religious moorings and sent them to seek the less exalted experiences of the secular life. Yet others profess even more fervor for their faith, seeing it as the price to pay for having been spared. Nine of the original 36 nuns were killed during the genocide. Six remain, and the rest quit the order.
The travails of the nuns in many respects reflect the spiritual wilderness many Rwandans inhabit today.
Ten years after the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed, the question of personal faith has become a profoundly disorienting one for many in Africa's most overwhelmingly Christian -- and overwhelmingly Catholic -- country. The moral crisis triggered by the decimation has compelled many survivors to re-examine their relationship with the church -- and with Christianity in general.
Aiding and Abetting
Some of the worst massacres occurred right inside churches and parish compounds, many with the active collaboration of priests.
Many other priests risked everything to save lives, and more than 200 of them were believed murdered along with their parishioners. One particularly courageous priest, Father Boniface Senyenzi, who was Hutu, stood steadfast with the thousands who sought refuge in the Roman Catholic Church in the lakeside city of Kibuye. He was killed, along with 11,400 people in the church.