"The most difficult part was that you couldn't hide anywhere. We had nowhere to run."
In April 1994, the Rwandan genocide shocked the world—and pierced the heart of Catholic Relief Services. In 100 days, more than 800,000 people were massacred: neighbor killing neighbor, friend killing friend.
"The most difficult part was that you couldn't hide anywhere," says Jeanne Sinunuayabo, a Tutsi, whose two oldest sons were killed by a neighbor, a Hutu who was a friend of the family. "These were people that knew our moves. We had nowhere to run."
The tragedy was particularly personal for CRS, and we took it hard. Five CRS staff members and countless friends and relatives were killed.
CRS had been working in Rwanda since 1960, investing millions in education, maternal and child health, and agricultural development. But we were so focused on the details of our work that we failed to acknowledge the effects of ancient cultural and political tensions all around us.
After a period of mourning, prayer and reflection, we came to an understanding that has shaped our work ever since. We realized that sustainable development is impossible in the absence of peace and justice for all people. It was a rediscovery of Catholic social teaching.
Since then, we've returned to our roots and rediscovered how our own Catholic traditions can advance human development and human dignity in the world. Catholic social teaching has become fundamental to every aspect of our work through our guiding principles, and peacebuilding has become ingrained in what we do.
Because of the violence and instability in Rwanda just after the genocide, CRS launched an emergency response from neighboring Burundi for several months, sending food and supplies to 400,000 Rwandans. Upon returning to a devastated Rwanda in July 1994, we began working with Caritas Internationalis to provide food and medicine, and help people return home.
As our Rwandan brothers and sisters began to rebuild their lives, the hardest part was forgiving their neighbors. Since 1996, CRS and Caritas have been teaching priests in five Rwandan dioceses how to talk about reconciliation with their parishioners. They also work with volunteers, who visit Rwandans and discuss the importance of forgiveness and conflict resolution.
It took many years, but Jeanne has forgiven the neighbor who killed her sons. She visits him regularly in prison, where he is serving a 27-year sentence.
"People discovered the power of their own capacity to come together to make decisions."
October 1998 was supposed to bring the rainy season in Central America to a close. Instead, a year's worth of rain poured down in 5 days.
Hurricane Mitch barreled from the Atlantic Ocean with searing wind gusts up to 180 miles per hour. It hovered over Honduras for more than 3 days. Raging floods followed, then landslides. Honduras and Nicaragua caught the brunt of damage, followed by El Salvador and Guatemala.
The death toll climbed to more than 10,000. More than 3.4 million people were affected. Damage to livelihoods, homes and crops was immense. Hardest hit were rural, mountain-dwelling families who had little to begin with.
The ability of CRS to respond began with an outpouring of support from Catholic parishes across the United States. Approximately $83 million was raised for Hurricane Mitch, a new record for private donations for a single disaster.
But Mitch became a defining moment for another reason. The countries affected were among the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. To help build back better, CRS introduced a three-tiered approach to emergency response that includes saving lives, sustaining livelihoods and rebuilding communities.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, CRS worked with many local organizations on projects to rebuild housing, restart health services, reconstruct water systems and repair bridges in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. These efforts helped nearly 5 million people.
"After the hurricane, we made a vow with the Church and communities that our first priority was to get the kids back in school," said Doug Ryan, CRS country representative in Honduras at the time. Ryan said this work ushered in a new sense of self-sufficiency in the community.
"People discovered the power of their own capacity to come together to make decisions, that mobilizing around the immediate cause—getting their kids back to school—could translate into a broader capacity to participate in the hundreds of other decisions affecting their lives."Back to Top