IT ALL began suddenly one day in April 1994. A plane crash killed the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda. Within hours violence of horrifying proportions engulfed Rwanda. In little more than three months, over 500,000 Rwandans—men, women, and children—were dead. Some people refer to the period as "the genocide."
Half of Rwanda's 7.5 million inhabitants had to flee. This included 2.4 million who sought refuge in neighboring countries. It was the largest and swiftest refugee exodus in modern history. Refugee camps were hastily established in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Tanzania, and Burundi. Some of these camps—the largest in the world—gave shelter to 200,000 people.
Among the refugees were many of Jehovah's Witnesses, a peace-loving people who apply Bible principles in their lives. In whatever land they live, they maintain strict neutrality and apply the principle embodied in these words of Isaiah 2:4: "They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore." Jehovah's Witnesses are widely recognized as a religious group that did not participate in the genocide in Rwanda.
Jesus Christ said that his followers are "no part of the world." Because they are "in the world," however, they cannot always escape the turmoil of the nations. (John 17:11, 14) During the genocide in Rwanda, some 400 Witnesses lost their lives. About 2,000 Witnesses and persons interested in the Kingdom message became refugees.
Does being no part of the world mean that Jehovah's Witnesses do nothing when calamity strikes? No. God's Word says: "If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day, yet a certain one of you says to them: 'Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,' but you do not give them the necessities for their body, of what benefit is it? Thus, too, faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself." (James 2:15-17) Love of neighbor also motivates the Witnesses to help those who do not share their religious views.—Matthew 22:37-40.
Although Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide yearned to help their fellow believers facing the calamitous situation in Rwanda, coordination of the relief effort was assigned to Western Europe. In the summer of 1994, a team of Witness volunteers from Europe rushed to help their Christian brothers and sisters in Africa. Well-organized camps and field hospitals were set up for the Rwandan refugees. Huge quantities of clothing, blankets, food, and Bible literature were flown in or shipped to them by other means. More than 7,000 afflicted persons—nearly three times the number of Jehovah's Witnesses in Rwanda at the time—benefited from the relief effort. By December of that year, thousands of refugees, including most of those who were Jehovah's Witnesses, returned to Rwanda to rebuild their lives.
War in Congo
In 1996, warfare erupted in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This area borders Rwanda and Burundi. Again there was raping and killing. Amid whizzing bullets and burning villages, people fled for their lives. Jehovah's Witnesses were caught in the turmoil, and about 50 died. Some were killed by stray bullets. Others were slain because they belonged to a particular ethnic group or were mistaken for enemies. One village where 150 Witnesses lived was destroyed by fire. In other villages dozens of houses and some Kingdom Halls were burned down. Deprived of homes and possessions, Witnesses fled to other areas and were helped by fellow worshipers there.
Hunger follows war, as crops are ruined, food reserves are looted, and supply lines are cut off. Available food is expensive. In Kisangani, at the beginning of May 1997, two pounds [1 kg] of potatoes cost about three dollars, far beyond the financial means of most people. The majority could afford to eat only one meal a day. Of course, disease follows food shortages. Malnutrition weakens the body's ability to ward off malaria, diarrheic diseases, and gastric problems. Particularly do children suffer and die.
Assessing the Need
Jehovah's Witnesses in Europe again swiftly responded to the need. By April 1997 a relief team of Witnesses that included two medical doctors had flown in with medicine and money. In Goma local Witnesses had already organized relief committees to assess the situation so that immediate aid could be given. The team explored the city and the surrounding areas. Messengers were sent out to obtain reports from more distant places. Information was also obtained from Kisangani, situated over 600 miles [1,000 km] west of Goma. Local brothers helped coordinate relief efforts in Goma, where some 700 Witnesses live.
One of the Christian elders in Goma said: "We were deeply moved to see our brothers who had come so far to help us. Before they came, we helped one another. Brothers had to flee from the countryside into Goma. Some had lost their homes, and they left their fields. We took them into our homes and shared our clothing and what little food we had. What we could do locally was not much. Some of us were suffering from malnutrition.
"The brothers from Europe, however, brought money that enabled us to buy food, which was scarce and very expensive. The food came at an important time, since many had nothing to eat in their homes. We distributed the food both to Witnesses and non-Witnesses. If the help had not come when it did, many more would have died, especially children. Jehovah saved his people. Non-Witnesses were very impressed. Many commented on our unity and love. Some acknowledged that ours is the true religion."
Though food was purchased locally and medicine was administered, more was required. There was a need for clothing and blankets, as well as greater supplies of food and medicine. Assistance was also needed to rebuild homes that had been destroyed.
People Give Generously
The brothers in Europe were again eager to help. The office of Jehovah's Witnesses at Louviers, France, sounded out the call in congregations in the Rhône Valley, Normandy, and part of the Paris area. Here another Scriptural principle came into play: "He that sows sparingly will also reap sparingly; and he that sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has resolved in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."—2 Corinthians 9:6, 7.
Thousands joyfully seized the opportunity to give. Boxes and bags of clothes, shoes, and other items poured into the Kingdom Halls and then were transported to the branch office of Jehovah's Witnesses in France. There 400 volunteers were ready to take part in the next step of the "Help Zaire" operation. As the donated goods poured in, these volunteers sorted, folded, and packed the clothing into boxes that were stacked 30 to a pallet. Children had thought about their young brothers and sisters in Africa and had sent toys—shiny toy cars, spinning tops, dolls, and teddy bears. These were packed along with the items necessary for life. In all, nine 40-foot [12 m] containers were filled and shipped to Congo.
Since 1994, Jehovah's Witnesses in Europe alone have sent more than 190 tons of food, clothing, medicine, and other relief supplies to the Great Lakes region of Africa
How much aid has been sent to Central Africa with the help of thousands of Witnesses in Belgium, France, and Switzerland? By June 1997 the total amount was 1,100 pounds [500 kg] of medicine, 10 tons of high-protein biscuits, 20 tons of other foods, 90 tons of clothing, 18,500 pairs of shoes, and 1,000 blankets. Bible literature was also flown in. All of this was greatly appreciated, comforting the refugees and aiding them to endure their trials. The cost of the supplies totaled nearly $1,000,000, U.S. Such contributions were evidence of the brotherhood and love among those who serve Jehovah.
Distribution in Congo
As the goods began to reach Congo, two brothers and one sister came from France to work with the local relief committees. Regarding the gratitude shown by the Congolese Witnesses, Joseline said: "We received many letters of appreciation. One poor sister gave me a malachite ornament. Others gave us pictures of themselves. As we were leaving, sisters kissed me, hugged me, and wept. I wept too. Many made such comments as, 'Jehovah is good. Jehovah thinks about us.' So they recognized that the credit for this giving belonged to God. When we were distributing food, the brothers and sisters praised Jehovah with Kingdom songs. It was very touching."
A medical doctor named Loic was one member of the team. Many crowded into the Kingdom Hall and waited patiently for their turn to seek his help. Wanting to do something too, one Congolese sister made and contributed about 40 doughnuts for those waiting to see the doctor. Since about 80 people were waiting, each one received half a doughnut.
Aid to Non-Witnesses
This humanitarian aid was not given exclusively to Jehovah's Witnesses. Others also benefited, just as many did in 1994. This is in harmony with Galatians 6:10, which states: "Really, then, as long as we have time favorable for it, let us work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith."
The Witnesses distributed medicine and clothing to several primary schools and an orphanage near Goma. The orphanage is home to 85 children. On an earlier trip to assess the situation, the relief team visited the orphanage and promised to supply them with 50 boxes of high-protein biscuits, boxes of clothing, 100 blankets, medicine, and toys. The children lined up in the courtyard and sang for the visitors. Next they made a special request—might they have a football so that they could play soccer?
Several weeks later the relief team fulfilled their promise to bring supplies. Impressed by the generosity and by what he had read in the Bible literature he had been given, the director of the orphanage said that he was on the way to becoming one of Jehovah's Witnesses. And were the children given a football? "No," answered Claude, the coordinator of the relief team from France. "We gave them two footballs."
Aid was not limited to Congo. Thousands of refugees had fled from the war zone to a nearby country where three refugee camps had hastily been set up. Witnesses traveled there, too, in order to see what could be done. When this report was prepared, the camps sheltered 211,000 refugees, mostly from Congo. About 800 were Witnesses and their children and individuals interested in the good news of the Kingdom. An immediate problem in the camps was a lack of food. At one camp, there was sufficient food for only three days, and it included three-year-old beans.
Nevertheless, the Witnesses were in good spirits. Though they had little Bible literature, they conducted regular open-air meetings to build themselves up spiritually. They were also busy preaching the good news of God's Kingdom to others in the camps.—Matthew 24:14; Hebrews 10:24, 25.
Christian Love Put Into Practice
Among those who eagerly participated in the "Help Zaire" project in France was Ruth Danner. As a child, she was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps because of her Christian faith. She commented: "We were so happy to do something for our brothers and sisters in Africa! But there was something that made me doubly happy. In 1945, when we came back home from Germany, we had absolutely nothing. Even the clothing we wore was borrowed. Soon, though, we received material help from our spiritual brothers in America. So this relief effort allowed me to return the kindness shown to us so long ago. What a privilege it is to be part of such a large family of brothers who put Christian love into practice!"—John 13:34, 35.
The investigation team of Witnesses included a medical doctor. Though the authorities allowed them to spend only a few days at each camp, they held medical consultations. They left medicine and money with Christian elders. Thus, the brothers were able to survive. They also hoped that the Witnesses in the camps could soon return to their homeland.
What about the future? Jesus Christ foretold that our day would be one of great turmoil, a time marked by wars and food shortages. (Matthew 24:7) Jehovah's Witnesses know that God's Kingdom alone will end the suffering that now exists on the earth. Under its rule, our earthly home will become a paradise of peace, plenty, and everlasting happiness for obedient mankind. (Psalm 72:1, 3, 16) Meanwhile, the Witnesses will proclaim the good news of that heavenly Kingdom and will also continue to help fellow worshipers and others in times of need.
Soon—an earthly paradise