Gordon Self

March 31, 2014

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Triggered the night of April 6, 1994, Hutu extremists retaliated over the assassination of President Habyarimana by killing local Tutsis blamed for the attack.

Mounting ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority erupted in widespread violence that engulfed the country. For the next 100 days approximately 800,000 Tutsi, Twa and Hutu moderates were killed.

Tutsi survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza describes in her book, Left to Tell, about hiding with seven other women in a small bathroom concealed behind a wardrobe. During those 91 days of hiding she frequently overheard marauding gangs of extremists inside the very bedroom of the house in which the bathroom was concealed, searching for remaining Tutsis to machete to death. While she survived, nearly her entire family was murdered.


Those who have read Immaculée's moving account or seen other biographies or films on the Rwandan genocide can only imagine the horrifying madness when ethnic differences spin out of control. The evil of "ethnic cleansing" widely reported just two years earlier during the Balkan crisis continues to unfold today in Syria and elsewhere.

While genocide, thank God, is hopefully something readers will never have to witness, the root of such conflict lies very close to all of us – in the human heart. Morally, whenever we demonize the "other" in our lives we give foothold to evil that, if magnified under certain conditions, can lead anyone to lash out.

We can stop seeing the human being before us as a person worthy of respect, and start reducing them to a mere object to justify our disregard of their intrinsic dignity. The murder of thousands of Rwandans by extremists was justified as simply putting "cockroaches" underfoot.

I have never met a person who referred to another human being in such despicable terms. But I admit to my own shame that I have laughed at jokes of bad taste in times past that caricatured a person in less than respectful terms. I have made sweeping judgments about "others" when I have become frustrated by their perceived incompetence or ignorance.

When we complain around the proverbial water cooler about "those guys," we need to remember these people are also trying to live with integrity, as imperfect and prone to error as we all are.

In recent months it seems tribal conflict also exists here in Alberta, and where you would expect it least. Take, for example, health care. This is fundamentally a ministry of providing quality, compassionate care to vulnerable human beings, but even this ministry is not immune to conflict, sometimes pitting one group against another.


We can blame "those guys" of the other tribe for everything that is wrong with the health system, painting all doctors, nurses, unions, advocacy groups, regulatory bodies, government officials or administrators like myself in broad brush strokes, making it easier to summarily dismiss them.

These are not the only "tribes" we bash and label, either. "Those guys" may be the co-workers on the other side of the hospital hallway, or the other unit, facility or zone, but tribally, a world apart. We do not always strive to reach out and build relationships in pursuit of the common good.

Even if on rare occasions and after careful discernment, a person must be banned from a health facility for the safety and well-being of others, it is important the focus be on the disruptive behaviour and not a person's character.


There are always two sides to a story, and whenever conflict erupts, all parties must resist personalizing the conflict and instead mutually seek to problem solve and find creative solutions. We must find the Rwandan in both Hutu and Tutsi.

I do not suggest that conflict in health care or our everyday lives could ever be compared to the type of horrific manifestations of violence that leads to genocide.

But I do claim, morally, that as long as we remain tribal in our thinking, failing to take personal responsibility for our behaviour, to reach out to others in respecting divergent points of view, to diffuse conflict when it begins, and to seek reconciliation like Immaculée Ilibagiza when people have been hurt, we will continue to perpetuate violence in our world and in our hearts.

As Gandhi challenges, we have to be the change we wish to see in the world, and there is no better time to reflect on our moral obligations and the ethical choices we make than during Lent.

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at