Did the Virgin Mary Warn Rwanda’s Holiest Town of the Genocide?

Ten years before the brutal genocide, a religious fervor gripped Kibeho as dozens claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared to them. One of the chosen recalls her disturbing prophecy.

Nina Strochlic

Before Kibeho, a village spiraling up one of the area’s many hills, became a notorious killing ground during the Rwandan genocide, it was the country’s most celebrated holy spot. For nine years in the 1980s, it gained worldwide fame after a streak of schoolgirls claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to them with messages, including one that foreshadowed the country’s devastating genocide.

The road south to Kibeho, paved until it slides into dirt for the last hour stretch from the capital of Kigali, is peppered with signs pointing to “Kibeho Holy Place.” They lead through the sleepy town, where pairs of nuns can be spotted walking the streets in white-and-blue habits, to a stately brick church situated in a back clearing, crowning the village. The church’s brick facade is purposefully spotted with blue paint to mark the restored sections of the outside walls where Hutu militias had blasted holes to fire on the congregants barricaded inside during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. To its left, a small memorial holds the remains of 28,000 victims of the subsequent massacres.

On a dreary Friday morning in April, Aloys Ruhinguka is tilling the garden surrounding the cement-covered mass grave and a greenhouse-like shed that comprise the memorial. He’s a farmer in the area and doesn’t normally work at the site, but the usual gatekeeper found it too hard to be there during this week.

In the following two days, Kibeho will mark 20 years since the April 13 massacre that resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people in the area. The sector’s secretary general predicted the planned commemoration would attract a thousand people from all over the world. He wasn’t far off—the commemoration attracted hundreds of attendees, including families of those killed.

Ruhinguka unlocks the memorial shed. Inside, cabinets of bones three rows high are concealed by curtains pinned with ribbons and handwritten messages. There are neat stacks of femurs and units that contain whole bodies, still intact and starkly white. Rows of skulls cover the top of the cabinets.

He grew up not far from the village center, and remembers being 16 years old when he first watched as an 18-year-old girl named Nathalie Mukamazimpaka sat for hours, staring into the sun and relaying messages purportedly from the Virgin Mary. “She was saying a bad thing will happen in this country, and she was facing the sun and giving messages,” he gestures to the sun rising above his head. “She said many things but what I remember is that bad things will happen in this country.”

The religious pandemonium that engulfed Kibeho began on November 28, 1981, when Alphonsine Mumureke, a 16-year-old student at the local teacher’s training college, claimed the Virgin Mary had come to her in the school cafeteria. Two months later, fellow student Mukamazimpaka reported a similar experience. And, again, two months after that, Marie Claire Mukangango made a similar claim.

Soon the town was flooded with Rwandans and foreigners eager to observe the supernatural occurrences. The girls would disclose the arranged time for the Virgin Mary’s next appearance, and the media would set up speakers around the campus center where they would broadcast the messages relayed by the visionaries to the thousands who were gathered. Observers hoping for a sprinkle of holiness dragged jerry cans of water from a small river nearby and brought it to the girls to be blessed. They’d douse their homes or give it to the sick. “When she [Mukamazimpaka] finished receiving messages she’d fall down, and it was Mary saying goodbye,” Ruhinguka remembers.

Now 50 years old, Mukamazimpaka is wearing a muted dress and sunglasses as she makes her way to the church from the village center on an April afternoon, pausing to reminisce about her visions of 30-odd years ago. She describes the events with a serene demeanor and soft but rapid speech. “I can’t tell why, but she herself decided to come here and she decided to choose three of us.”

The girls relayed her messages to pray, love one another, and seek redemption to the community. Mukamazimpaka would sit for five hours staring straight at the sun. She would go 14 days without eating or drinking. “It’s like you get very powerful, become very strong, and you feel very happy to see her in front of you,” she remembers. The two other girls would do similarly impossible stunts.

But nine months after the Virgin Mary’s first apparition, they received a disturbing visit. On August 15, 1982, Mary appeared with a foreboding message. “When she came she was crying and says, ‘The world’s not very good and killing will happen in this country,’” Mukamazimpaka remembers. “Twelve years later it happened and we saw everything.” She repeats, “When she came on that day, she was crying.”

A few days after this fateful visit, each visionary reported seeing images of rivers of blood and headless corpses. According to genocide survivor and author Immaculée Ilibagiza, Alphonsine Mumureke, started screaming to the gathered crowd of 20,000, "'I see a river of blood! What does that mean? No, please! Why did you show me so much blood? Show me a clear stream of water, not this river of blood!” And then, “Why are those people killing each other? Why do they chop each other?"

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Inside the memorial, Ruhinguka, clad in work boots and a long-sleeve polo shirt, stands surrounded by bones, twirling the keys in one hand and gripping a guestbook in the other. He reveals that he was a survivor of the massacre that took place in the church just a few yards behind him. “We didn’t believe in what she was saying, but when it happened, we said, ‘She was right.’”

When the killing in Rwanda began, people from across the province streamed to Kibeho because it was the largest church in the region. “We thought no one could come here because it was a holy place,” Ruhinguka says.

It’s a common thread in the genocide narrative—the persecuted sought refuge in the country’s churches, only to find that the clergy just stood by or actively participated in their slaughter. During the national genocide commemoration in early April, President Paul Kagame charged that Belgian officials and the Catholic Church were complicit in fostering an environment of animosity that led to the genocide.

In Kibeho, a similar tale played out as the church became a killing ground. (Bishop Augustin Misago, who oversaw Kibeho’s diocese and the apparitions, was later tried and acquitted of genocidal crimes.) On April 13, 1994, a group of the Hutu Interahamwe, including police, soldiers, and civilians, arrived in the town to weed out the Tutsi population. The church, a school, and the surrounding area were attacked, and the church was lit on fire.

In a claim fitting for a man from this village, Ruhinguka attributes his survival to a miracle. After the massacre, he says, the genocidaires made Kibeho their base from which they carried out exterminations. The area was part of the French-led Operation Turquoise, a mission to control and protect the area, but nothing was done to halt the carnage in Kibeho. The French soldiers arrived to the village the day after the massacre, Ruhinguka says, and they protected the killers. “They didn’t touch them.”

The tragedy was, many thought, just as the visionaries had predicted more than a decade earlier. “When the killing started, I said, ‘This is the time of killing, and the Mother was announcing this a long time ago,’” Mukamazimpaka says.

“She said if you don't love each other, if you don’t change your mind, this is what will happen,” says Father Norbert Nsengiyumva, a man with a wide-smile and brightly patterned shirt who serves as one of the town’s priests. “People didn't believe in that, but they realized that it was true when it happened.”

The church massacre wasn’t the end of Kibeho’s suffering. In 1995, almost one year later to the day, Rwanda’s holy city was once again the site of bloodshed. After rebels from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) halted the genocide, Hutus, including genocidaires and others responsible for the carnage, assembled a large refugee camp in the village, fearing reprisal from the Tutsi liberators. Despite the presence of Australian and African peacekeepers, an RPF slaughter left an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 refugees dead, many of them innocent civilians and children.

Before the visions started in 1981, Kibeho was a normal village, Father Norbert says, leaning back in his chair in a small room in front of the priests’ quarters. Once word of the apparitions spread, visitors began to come from all corners of the world. Soon, the apparitions had become contagious, with more than 30 boys and girls in Kibeho and the surrounding villages reporting visions of the Virgin Mary. The flood of holy appearances, including reports of visits from Jesus, bred suspicion from observers and even religious authorities. “Human beings can’t explain what was going on,” Father Norbert says.

So, a few months after the first sighting, two commissions were formed to investigate the claims and messages of eight of the visionaries that were deemed the most authentic; one committee was comprised of doctors and the other of theologians. The medical team literally poked and prodded the girls while they were in trances, seeing if physical pain could wake them. The theologians checked the messages against established church beliefs.

The official inquiries ended in 1989, but their findings weren’t released until 2001, when Bishop Misago announced a "declaration on the definitive judgment," asserting that, “Yes, the Virgin Mary appeared at Kibeho on November 28th, 1981 and in the months that followed.” His decision applied only to the three women who reported the first apparitions and was based on their mental health, the content of their messages, and “the frightening visions of August 15th, 1982, which proved to be prophetic due to the human dramas in Rwanda and throughout the country of the Great Lake region in recent years.”

In 2006, to mark the 25th anniversary of the visions, Bishop Misago said, "Today we can say that the Rwandan tragedy was predicted, but I remember that on August 15, 1982, on the feast of the Assumption, instead of seeing a joyful Virgin, the seers witnessed terrible, frightening visions of corpses bleeding profusely, abandoned on the hills without burial. Nobody knew what these horrifying images meant.”

Marie Claire Mukangango was killed in the church. Alphonsine Mumureke left in 1994 during the genocide and never came back. But Mukamazimpaka, on what she says was an order from the Virgin Mary, has stayed in Kibeho, except for two years during the genocide when she was ordered to leave by the bishop.

Today, she lives in a small one-story house on the church grounds, directly across from the dormitory where she received her first private apparition. The dormitory has since been converted into a small chapel, filled with polished wooden stools and a statue of Mary in the corner. In the middle of the courtyard, where the public apparitions took place, a large shrine is encircled by benches.

After the 2001 commission ruling, Kibeho began to build the church that the Virgin Mary had requested, finishing the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in 2003. But they didn’t have the capacity to build to the dimensions she asked for, Father Norbert laments, so this church will be knocked down once they raise funds for a bigger one.

The public apparitions stopped in late 1989, when Alphonsine announced she was told that Mary would no longer appear publicly. Mukamazimpaka also last reported seeing an apparition in 1989. Father Norbert is not sure if their efforts will bring Mary back to the community, or if she’ll ever return. “There are many things she asked for that we didn’t do yet, so it’d be better if we do it and then she comes.”

But the visitors are still coming. Each year, on August 15, during the Assumption of the Virgin, which happens to be on the same day the visionaries predicted the bloodshed of the genocide, and on November 28, the official commemoration of when the apparitions began, thousands stream back into Kibeho. Last year, more than 20,000 pilgrims visited for the November anniversary.

Kibeho itself has remained devout. Sunday services at each of the two churches attract some 800 worshippers each, with five priests tending to the flock. There have been recent reports of apparitions, Father Norbert says, but shrugs them off, saying “there’s no proof.”

Thirty-three years after she began seeing visions, Mukamazimpaka stands framed by the new church the Virgin Mary’s messages created. She speaks with conviction that the predictions she received could have prevented the bloodshed of the genocide. “If people listened to the message during that time when they were following what I was saying nothing would happen. But people were keeping their distance from the message, this is why it happened...They didn’t listen and it happened,” Mukamazimpaka says. “If you get a message to be good and love each other and you say no, bad things happen.”

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from Rwanda.