To Forgive: Rwanda Two Decades After the Genocide

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Forgiveness. It might be the hardest Christian virtue for the mind to grasp.

How can one forgive what seems to be unforgivable? And yet in modern Rwanda, the continued existence of the state is predicated on it.

For 100 bloody days between April and July 1994, spurred on by the extremist Hutu nationalist government, Rwandans slaughtered their neighbors with wanton cruelty. Machetes and garden tools were the preferred weapons as men, women, children and even babies were hacked to death in their homes, schools or in church sanctuaries where they had fled thinking they would find refuge.

Some 1 million people were killed, mostly members of the Tutsi minority. The United Nations proved utterly impotent to stop the slaughter. The world looked on passively. The killing only ended when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front seized military control of the country and established a coalition government with moderate Hutus. Thus began the process of piecing the country back together.

With the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide approaching, this reporter was part of a delegation of journalists that visited Rwanda in late October at the invitation of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States. We were there to look at the progress made and the road still to go on this incredible journey of forgiveness and the reconciliation of a people.

Boniface Hakizimana doesn’t look like an evil man. Small in stature, standing humbly barefoot in an outsized black and white mackinaw jacket next to the woman whose home he violated, he makes a startlingly forthright confession: “During the genocide I killed people,” he said. “I have (spent) 10 years in prison. Caritas and the Justice and Peace Commission came into the prison and trained us about unity, reconciliation and peace. Because of the crime I did, my conscience pushed me to confess and to ask for forgiveness.”

Viviane N’Habimana accepted her neighbor’s plea. “I forgive,” she said simply, clutching his hand. “It was difficult for me,” she acknowledged. But she proved her sincerity by helping to feed her impoverished neighbor’s family and even to feed him while he remained in prison. The two neighbors are part of a unique community healing and reconciliation program in Rugango Parish, Huye District in rural southern Rwanda, where former genocide perpetrators and genocide survivors now live side by side in apparent harmony.

Through the counseling she received from the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission’s healing and reconciliation program, she was able to find the strength to forgive. Since 2008 the commission, with the assistance of CRS, has worked to bring survivors and perpetrators to see beyond their distrust and hatred to their common humanity. The commission is an agency of the Episcopal Conference of Rwanda, the Catholic Church in Rwanda’s equivalent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It is difficult to bring these conflicting parties together but it is possible,” said Oswald Samvura, the program manager for the Church’s reconciliation effort. “It is a challenge in that one person can see in the other their enemy.”

Through the process, he explained, the two parties come to see their commonalities. “So, for example, in some of these groups you could find someone who survived the genocide admitting to himself that in the same room is the wife of a perpetrator who is in fact suffering more than he is.” Samvura said this slow and not painless process has been helped along “by a political environment of reconciliation by the government.”

The government, through its own National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, has gone to great lengths to move the healing process forward. The commission was established in 1999 by parliament with a mandate to “use all available means to mobilize Rwandans to reconcile and unite.”

There was really no alternative. Unlike Germany at the end of World War II, where the Jewish population had all but been eliminated or fled the country, thus permitting Germans to scrutinize their consciences in a kind of collective solitude, in Rwanda Tutsi and Hutu continue to live literally right next door to each other.

Homegrown approaches have been fundamental to the process including the now famous Gacaca Courts, a traditional Rwandan form of restorative justice in which confession and forgiveness are used to promote healing. The informal outdoor courts, convened under a shady tree, closed in June 2012 to mixed reviews from Rwandans and international human rights organizations.

“The Church works closely with the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission,” said Father Celestin Hakizimana, general secretary of the Episcopal Conference. “The state and their organization for justice and peace gets a lot from the Church’s Commission for justice and Peace because we are on the ground in these small communities.” In Rwanda 90 percent of the population is Christian, with 57 percent Catholic.

How far this tiny impoverished nation of 11 million people about the size of Maryland has come in 20 years can be dramatically illustrated by looking from where it has come. Apart from 1 million dead, the genocide left 300,000 orphans and non-accompanied minors, 500,000 widows and 3 million refugees.

The economic strides the government has made since are readily obvious to a visitor. Per capital gross domestic product at $1,136 has doubled in the last 10 to 15 years. Kigali, the capital, is immaculate and well maintained. The main thoroughfares are paved throughout most of the country. Corruption is not tolerated. Women’s representation in parliament stood at 64 percent after the last election. “Good governance” is a mantra one hears constantly. This, not the horrors depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda,” is the image the government is anxious to present to the world.

How well the scars of genocide have healed is harder to determine. The use of the words Hutu and Tutsi to describe Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups is now taboo, at least publicly. All call themselves Rwandans.

But to forgive is not to forget. There are memorial sites all over this beautiful nation of undulating hills and valleys. Every April 7, the day the killing began, is Genocide Remembrance Day. The official commemoration period runs 100 days through to Liberation Day July 4, which marks the end of the genocide. In school, children are taught what happened without sugarcoating.

Jean Damascene Gasanabo is director general of the National Research and Documentation Center on Genocide, a division of the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide.

“I think, even for small kids, we need to talk about it,” he said. “Why? Because they see the consequences everywhere! So we can’t hide the issue. The genocide happened everywhere and at all schools. There is a 10-year-old and he’s heard kids were killed in this school and in this classroom. You have to explain that.”

Children are brought to the memorial sites, even though some of them can be hard for an adult to walk through.

Approaching the memorial site at Murambi is a haunting experience. Up a gravel road, the low-slung beige brick buildings in the distance look vaguely sinister, like those of a concentration camp, which this unfinished technical school campus became. Looking at the surrounding hills you can understand why it was selected. It is virtually impossible to escape from. The strategic location also proves the genocide was no uncontrollable spontaneous bloodletting.

Thousands of Tutsi were murdered at the school. Perhaps jarring to a westerner’s sensibilities, some of the unburied bodies, preserved in lime, lie on wooden racks in what were to have become dorm rooms. You can still see traces of hair and clothing on some of the bodies splayed in grotesque positions, men, women and children too. A skeleton clutches a rosary. A man’s face, contorted into a death mask, cries out in silent anguish. These bleached corpses offer silent testimony to what happened here.

“It has to be known because there are those who are still negating the genocide,” said tour guide Gaspard Mukwiye, who as a teenager lost his parents and 10 brothers and sisters in the killing. He and his younger brother are the only survivors. “The genocide was not a crime against my family only. It’s a crime against humanity,” he stated. “It can not be repeated.”

The willowy young man paused a moment.

“I’m proud of being here,” he said softly, perhaps thinking of his family and the unknown dead in the outlying buildings. “I’m their voice.”

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