Dispatches

The Day Sylvere Stared Down Genocide

A life of faith stands boldly, even in the presence of all the devils of hell.

“There are no devils left in hell; they’re all in Rwanda.”


Sylvere

I stared at the cover of Time magazine. The headline disturbed me, especially since I was on my way to that very place where, apparently, all the devils in hell had decided to congregate. 

Not long after the Rwandan genocide broke out 25 years ago, General Paul Rader, then international leader of The Salvation Army, formed a relief team to help orphaned Rwandan children. I was a young lieutenant, just starting my second year of Salvation Army officership. Since I had experience in children’s ministry and spoke French, I was appointed to join the team heading to that war-ravaged country, but I lacked confidence in my ability to help. What could I offer these suffering people who had lost so much?

That question lingered in my mind the day I met 10-year-old Sylvere in the Rwandan village of Kayenzi. His father, Damien, was the bourgmestre (mayor) of that community. Damien proudly introduced me to his young son, saying, “It is because of Sylvere that my entire family is alive today!”

Before the war began, Damien, a member of the threatened Tutsi tribe, had worked as the school teacher for Kayenzi’s children. When the genocide began, his family was initially protected from violence by their Hutu neighbors, because Damien, a gentle man of great faith, was known for treating all the children in his classroom kindly and fairly, whether Hutu or Tutsi. However, when a large group of outsider Hutu militia reached Kayenzi, things changed. 

One evening, a Hutu soldier burst into Damien’s house, rifle drawn, ready to kill the whole family. As the soldier took aim, the 10 of them huddled together, waiting for the inevitable. Suddenly, Sylvere exclaimed, “If you are going to kill us, do it quickly so we can all go to be with Jesus!”

Shocked at the boy’s boldness, the soldier gruffly asked how he knew they would go to heaven.

“Because we have repented, we have been forgiven,” Sylvere confidently responded. “We know we will be with Jesus.” Suddenly, the soldier stopped, lowered his rifle and quickly left the house without harming anyone.

It seemed he could do nothing in the face of Sylvere’s bold faith.

Damien’s family miraculously managed to escape Kayenzi, running in all directions. When the Salvation Army team arrived in Kayenzi, Damien had just confirmed that all of his children were still alive, something very few Tutsi parents could say at that terrible time.

The story of Sylvere’s bold faith reminded me of young David facing the giant Goliath, speaking his own bold words: “You are coming against me with the sword, spear and javelin, but I come against you in the Name of the LORD Almighty … ” (1 Samuel 17:45) 

Snapping a quick photo of Sylvere, I realized once again how God often chooses the weak to overcome and shame the strong. Sylvere’s bold faith encouraged me as I began a life-changing season of ministry to the children of Rwanda. I might have been young and inexperienced, but my God was powerful, and all He required to do miracles was my faith and obedience to Him.

Twenty-five years later, I still tell Sylvere’s story to young people I meet, reminding them not to let insecurity take over just because they are young or inexperienced, but to boldly “ … set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12), just as Sylvere did for me. A life of faith stands boldly, even in the presence of all the devils of hell. 

Lt. Colonel Lisa Smith, program secretary for the Western Territory, lives in Torrance, CA, with her husband Kyle, a New Zealand Salvationist she met while doing relief work in post-war Rwanda in 1994.

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