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The schoolgirls who warned of Rwanda's genocide

Katori Hall’s play Our Lady of Kibeho is the story of three friends who insisted that they were visited by the Virgin Mary and told of the horror that lay ahead

The 16-year-old schoolgirl Alphonsine Mumureke said she was in the cafeteria of the Catholic boarding school Kibeho College, Rwanda, when she heard a voice “soft as air and sweeter than music”. She saw a beautiful woman – neither white nor black – floating above the floor in a flowing seamless dress, with a veil that covered her hair. She wore no shoes, just like Alphonsine and her classmates.

“Who are you?” Alphonsine asked. “I am the mother of the word,” replied the woman, whom Alphonsine immediately recognised as the Virgin Mary. Then she issued a terrible warning: Rwanda was going to become a hell on Earth in a conflict that would see the picturesque rivers of Kibeho village run red with blood.

It was 28 November 1981, and when Alphonsine reported what she had seen, her friends ridiculed her, her teachers scolded her and her village shunned her. But then another two students, Anathalie and Marie Claire – the three became known as “the Trinity” – insisted they too had been visited by the Virgin Mary and given the same apocalyptic warning.

Kibeho is a small parish nestled in Mubuga, the “land of the seven hills” in eastern Rwanda. It is the most famine-prone region of one of the world’s poorest countries, but so beautiful that locals say: “God comes on holiday here.”

Of course we now know that, a decade after the Trinity’s terrible visions, Rwanda was riven by a terrible genocide. During 100 days in 1994, up to a million of Rwanda’s population of just over seven million were murdered by the ruling Hutu government in an attempt to exterminate the Tutsi tribe.

Thousands of people were slaughtered in their churches, their decapitated bodies dumped into rivers. Colleagues, neighbours, friends and even family members slaughtered one another. Kibeho itself suffered two massacres. Thousands of citizens were brutally killed in the parish church and, a year later, on the esplanade where the apparitions had taken place. Most of the college’s students were murdered.

In 2001, after a 20-year investigation by the Vatican – and seven years after the genocide – the pope certified the apparitions as authentic. Tens of thousands of pilgrims now travel to Kibeho each year in search of benediction.

The extraordinary story of these three schoolgirls inspired my friend, the American playwright Katori Hall, to write Our Lady of Kibeho. I first worked with Katori in New York in 2006. Katori’s background as a journalist and an actor bring a rare sensibility to her plays, which combine a reporter’s eye for a good story and historical detail together with an understanding of how to craft characters that only an actor can experience. Back in London, I staged the world premiere of her play The Mountaintop, about the life and death of Martin Luther King, which went on to become the surprise winner of the best play award at the 2010 Oliviers and is now one of the most produced new plays in the US.

Gabrielle Brooks, Yasmin Mwanza and Pepter Lunkuse in rehearsals for Our Lady of Kibeho. Photograph: Idil Sukan

For Katori, Kibeho College symbolised the defining role the Catholic church has played in Rwanda’s education system and political life over the last century, including shaping its ideological divisions. It was the church that had helped implement the disastrous “racial” nationwide census, distinguishing Hutu from Tutsi in every neighbourhood.

Alone in their community, Alphonsine, Anathalie and Marie Claire understood the lessons that scripture offered against the growing hatred of their times. Young and powerless, their warnings went unheeded. Survivors of the tragedy describe burning churches, streets clotted with corpses, starving livestock, mass graves, lost orphans and famine and disease everywhere – the very things described by the three girls when recounting their terrible visions.

Fergal Keane, a BBC correspondent in Rwanda in 1994, found it difficult to capture the horror of what happened. “In writing about Rwanda, I am conscious that my words will always be unequal to the task … What I encountered was evil in a form that rendered me inarticulate.”

Most historical accounts of the genocide focus on either society or the state, the former exploring the longstanding racism in Rwandan society and the latter documenting the complex power struggles in government and the ways in which propaganda radiated from the capital to the provinces and inspired the violence. While Katori’s play touches on the political, economic and social, it is more interested in how religion can influence the personal and political behaviour of a nation.

What makes Katori’s play so moving is that it takes place at a time before the genocide, when there is still space for optimism in the lives of the schoolchildren it depicts.

Some of those children who survived have helped Katori in researching her play. They have noted that the power of Our Lady of Kibeho lies in its ability to stay true to the perspectives of Alphonsine, Anathalie and Marie Claire. Despite rumblings of the growing divide between Hutus and Tutsis, we lose ourselves in this story of these three young women who want to change the world they will inherit.

Whether the visions that they described were real or not, the schoolgirls’ testimony highlighted the daily injustices that they saw around them. Theirs was a protest against the moral, social and political decay of their community – a reminder that sometimes young people can sense tragedy ahead in a way that adults are incapable of.

In turbulent times when the voices of young people are so often ignored, Katori and I hope that the UK premiere of this extraordinary play will spark a conversation on ways to heal our own political, racial and religious divides.

On a summer morning in 2003, many of those who had participated in the genocidal killings walked out of prison into the sunshine, singing hymns, their freedom granted by the president. Survivors watched as those who had killed their families and friends returned to their villages, reoccupying homes that had been empty for almost a decade.

Today, Rwandans continue to confront on a daily basis the pain of memory, the power of reconciliation, the challenges of redemption and forgiveness and the ineradicability of loss. Two words hover over the nation’s collective psychology: never again.

• Our Lady of Kibeho is at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until 2 February.

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