Right now the memories Patrick Dolan and Matthew Gorman share of their trip to Rwanda run like an uncut film strip in their minds.
The editing will come later.
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But when they talk about their week-long, November journey to this land of mountain and mist which is still recovering 17 years later from unspeakable genocide, the unedited version of the film they will soon make emerges in a compelling manner.
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Listening to them, it’s possible to see in the mind’s eye, a landscape where wounds remain deep, where forgiveness sometimes, but not always, flows like balm in Gilead, where determination to build a good future for coming generations is strong and faith is everything.
Dolan, formerly associate director of the diocesan Department of Radio and Television, now an independent producer and diocesan consultant, and Gorman, an independent consultant, traveled to Rwanda Nov. 25 – Dec. 2. They went to record footage of the 30th anniversary celebration of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the small African village of Kibeho where they occurred for a possible documentary on the subject by genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza.
The filmmakers were among tens of thousands of faithful who gathered in the remote village for the major Rwandan commemoration of the anniversary of the only Vatican approved apparitions in Africa – Mass and veneration on the Nov. 28 feast day of Our Lady of Kibeho who appeared there with messages calling for conversion, love and repentance and what some have taken to be dire warnings of the 1994 genocide that claimed between 800,000 and one million lives.
Dolan and Gorman were there at the behest of Ilibagiza, who has dedicated her life to raising consciousness on the stain of mass killing world-wide by working for peace and reconciliation.
Ilibagiza is a noted speaker on the subject and author of a number of books including the best selling “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” on her journey of survival, faith and forgiveness.
She and Dolan had come to know each other during her appearances on the diocesan television programs Realfaith TV and The Catholic Corner.
In those appearances, Ilibagiza told the story of her own harrowing experiences during the genocide: how most of her family was slain during the upheaval and how she, herself, only escaped by finding sanctuary along with seven other women in the cramped bathroom of a local Protestant pastor’s house for 91 days, how she turned to prayer – especially the Rosary – to reclaim her life.
When she decided to attend the 30th anniversary commemorations of the apparitions in Kibeho in order to create a visual record that could be shared with a wide audience, Dolan, a talented videographer, came to mind. “When I asked him, he responded in five minutes. I know (the) film is going to be good for the message of Kibeho.
That message, she recently told a reporter, is that “the Virgin Mary wants to show you mercy and love regardless (of your sins). She will guide you with all her love.”
Gorman, a long time friend of Dolan’s, accepted his invitation just about as quickly to travel to the anniversary celebrations with Ilibagiza and what would be a small group of five pilgrims as a sound technician and all round assistant.
On many levels, an amazing journey
Amazing is the word most employed by Dolan and Gorman to describe the journey of faith to Kibeho which would put them in close proximity with not only the apparitions, but one of the visionaries and people with first-hand knowledge of the events surrounding the visions.
They would also encounter the landscape directly impacted by the mass killing, come face-to-face with survivors and those who slaughtered and see, through fresh eyes, a people determined to triumph over terrific evil.
Both said the adventure was illuminating as well as surprising on many levels.
“Before we got there, I pictured the village of Kibeho as being in a difficult to reach, remote area – with very few people,” said Dolan of their journey to the apparition site. “But we passed many farms and villages. I was taken with how populated it was along the road and among the hills and valleys.
The roads, the pair agreed, were in good condition making it difficult to visualize the scope of what they had only seen in photographs of the carnage of 17 years ago. “The road we traveled had once been blood soaked and covered with corpses,” said Dolan. “But you would never know it now.”
On Pilgrimage in Kibeho
The little group of pilgrims had come to join a crowd Ilibagiza estimates at 100,000 strong on Nov. 27 for the vigil at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Sorrows at Kibeho.
The visions there began Nov. 28, 1981 and lasted until Nov. 28, 1989. The Blessed Mother originally appeared numerous times to three teenage girls attending the Catholic boarding school in Kibeho. The longest series of visions were attributed to Alphonsine Mumureke who received the first vision which would be approved by the Vatican and the last.
The visions of Anathalie Mukamazimpaka, whom Dolan and Gorman would meet in Kibeho, began in January, 1982 and ended on Dec. 3, 1983. Marie Claire Mukangango had visions for six months, lasting from March 2, 1982 until Sept. 15, 1982. She would later be killed in the massacre at Kibeho in 1995.
Some today regard the visions as an ominous foreshadowing of the genocide particularly at that specific location in 1995, where Mukangano and others who had seen the visions, died.
Among the throngs who came to the commemoration were several thousand who traveled upwards of 100 miles on foot, praying and “mortifying” themselves along the way, as Ilibagiza said, in ongoing devotion to the Blessed Mother that would continue throughout the pilgrimage.
Dolan and Gorman described the thousands who came as completely focused on the Blessed Mother and more than willing to brave the elements to show it.
“Where the shrine is, there is very little cover,” Dolan said. “The church sleeps 1,500 and that many people did sleep inside. The others slept outside around the shrine and it would rain on and off but they were not troubled by it,” Gorman said.
“Their clothes would get wet and then they would get dry again and then wet again but it didn’t bother them,” Gorman said. “Many of them brought food – they would cook vegetables and the like. Despite the weather, spirits were good.”
In some instances, such as an encounter with a church choir that had walked at least 100 miles to the event over four days, Dolan and Gorman were rewarded with song. “They wanted so much to sing in front of the camera, ” Dolan said. “We were going to record one song but ended up recording five. They sang in wonderful harmonies.”
“During the vigil late at night, the young people came out singing in front of the altar and sang and sang and prayed,” said Gorman. “You saw such a connection with them to Mary.
“You sensed that they were in her presence, singing and dancing and sleeping on the floor,” Gorman said.
A high point of their stay was visiting with visionary Anathalie Mukamazimpaka who welcomed them in a small meeting room attached to her living quarters at the Kibeho shrine which is known as Our Lady of Sorrows.
Dressed in clothing imprinted with images of Our Lady of Kibeho and speaking Kinyarwanda – a dialect of the Rwanda-Rundi, the official language of Rwanda – the soft-spoken visionary conveyed her impressions of the meaning of the apparitions as Immaculee translated.
In the footage Dolan shot of the meeting, Mukangango described the virgin she beheld as “such a mother that she surpasses every mother. She is much purer in love, how she loves us…she is a mother to everybody, Catholic and non-Catholic, the sinner and the non-sinner, the one who is sad, the one who is lonely.”
About seeing her in the form of an apparition, Mukangango poignantly described the “joy she leaves with you that cannot go away…but on the other hand, there is (the) pain of not seeing her…so, not seeing her has a cross. When you are with her, you feel ‘full,’ you do not want anything. It is everything you ever wanted to feel.”
Thirty years on, a delicate balance
Recalling the sights they saw in the memorials, especially one in a Kigali church, is hard, they said. “They have the clothes there that the victims were killed in. In Kibeho, you learn that between 5,000 and 10,000 were killed,” Dolan said. “People are still coming to a recognition of that.”
The realization of the loss came into sharp focus as they traveled with Ilibagiza to her family home and the parsonage she hid in. “You understand what a miracle her life is,” Gorman said.
They are still processing the faith of people who suffered so much and remain so strong in belief.
And, they are processing the after affects of the calamity – the wounds that have yet to heal after 17 years and may never heal.
Ilibagiza lost 26 family members in the genocide, still she has the ability to forgive and to try to build bridges of reconciliation.
Dolan and Gorman were moved at her efforts to do just that during a brief encounter between Ilibagiza and a woman who lost many family members and two of the men who participated in the slaughter.
“I tried to build a bridge,” said Ilibagiza, recalling the meeting. “Maybe it will take a life time to get to a place where people (can heal),” she said, describing how she encouraged the two men to seek forgiveness from the woman, who, truth be told, gave it grudgingly.
Gorman tells of how Ilibagiza tried to reconcile the trio, “to build a bridge to overcome the divide of the events of 17 years ago and get them not to harbor hatred.”
He recalled that one of the men said he was “told to kill and now he is upset because he has no friends, no neighbors. They were all killed in the slaughter. The woman listened but she turned her face. You can tell she cannot forgive.”
Still, Ilibagiza said, she will continue to work for reconciliation, a difficult task in a nation long beset by ethnic conflict.
Both Dolan and Gorman said the journey had a profound effect on them and their faith.
“I was raised Catholic and was an altar boy, Catholic school educated,” Gorman said. “I never really lost my faith when I grew up, though I did fall away from the Church. What this trip has done has awakened a deep sense of faith, a deep appreciation of it. It has grounded me, brought me back to earth and put a lot of perspective in my life.”
Dolan said the trip put him keenly in touch with the fact that it was just the geography of being born in America and not Kibeho that made the difference between his life and the lives of those in Rwanda.
“Trips like this helped me to see God’s purpose in every human being – whether in the United States or Kibeho. While we may have been born into different situations, it’s what we do with the opportunities we are given that matters most to God,” said Dolan.