What strikes me about Rwanda is the way forgiveness is viewed as an active process without a concrete end. There is a general belief that forgiveness, while it is agonizing, in its deepest and more pure form, requires work both on the part of the perpetrator and survivor. At home, there can be a stigma about sharing details of traumatic events, so they are often reserved for a protective inner circle. In Rwanda, sharing stories is woven into the fabric of the healing process and is something many feel comfortable enough to do. While these ideas sound right, there was a moment when I sat in a front yard with a woman baring deeply indented machete scars on her head and shoulder next to the man who caused them, when I wondered if I was capable of this type of forgiveness.
As the woman talked, she told me she wanted to share her story. She wanted me to know that forgiveness wasn’t a gift to a her perpetrator, although they have a strong friendship today. Instead, she actively pursues forgiveness as a gift to herself and a legacy for her children. She told me that, “Our time on earth is short, and in the end, I will not be asked to account for his decisions. I will be asked to account for my own. The genocide happened, but I lived to tell my story. I was sick with trauma for years, but the only medicine that worked for me was forgiveness.” As the man shared, he talked about the difficulty of seeking forgiveness – and how even after he was granted leniency through the Gacaca courts by seeking formal forgiveness, it was essential for his healing to pursue deep relationships that fight for authentic forgiveness. While their life stories are very different, forgiveness is a healing climax with empowering benefits.
Another thing I have heard from many Rwandans is that to truly understand reconciliation after unimaginable atrocities committed during the Genocide, I need to understand Rwandan culture of interconnectedness and the very explicit post-Genocide reconciliation and healing plans that President Kagame continues to focus on today.
During his recent Humans of New York interview, President Kagame reflected on the challenge of pursuing justice for crimes that were so great. While he recognized the hardship of this path, he noted that, “Only forgiveness can heal this nation. The burden rests with the survivors because they are the only ones with something to give.”
One place where I saw this process in action was through participation in Umuganda which is Rwanda’s mandatory monthly community service held on the last Saturday morning each month. The word “mandatory” always has a negative connotation to me – so I suggested to Higiro Issa, who coordinated my role on this day, that this activity would be hard to sell back home – closing down all businesses and requiring every citizen – including leaders – to stop everything to serve others seemed out of bounds. Issa said, “People follow laws, right? If it was the law, they would do it. Eventually, people would understand that it was important and see the value of this time together.
I was able to see this value as I participated with an organization named “Truth Prevails” who understand that Umuganda can also play a role in the reconciliation process. On this Saturday morning, village members of Nyamata Sector, Bugesera District, Eastern Province Rwanda, continued their ongoing process of building six houses for genocide survivors. People worked hand in hand, often knee deep in rainy mud, both inside and outside the houses in progress, to cement walls and cover floors. From any distance, you would think this was a group of friends who have shared a lifetime of neighborly memories instead of a mix of people who live with cutting memories of how their lives were tragically intertwined.
Throughout the morning, people moved with the unison of a seasoned team – carrying each other’s supplies, sharing the workload, providing impromptu training, and participating in casual chatter. There was robust power in the way the village children and teens sat nearby casually watching everyone they knew working together for the common good of others. “We cannot not model.”
When I met with Elnestin and Patrick, leaders of Truth Prevails, during the week before our Umuganda service, they shared how they created this organization because forgiveness doesn’t just happen. They said it is a messy process and they have found shared community engagement as a key to success. Patrick, who spent ten years in jail for crimes committed during the genocide, talked about the deep guilt he felt about his role as a soldier in the defeated army. While he recognizes that many of his decisions were steeped in lies of Tutsi threats by leaders, he lived in shame during ten years in prison remembering the crimes he committed. He only smiled deeply during our conversation when he talked about how being forgiven was beyond his imagination. Being encouraged by Gacaca Courts to admit the details of his crimes was liberating, but still left him living with intense guilt. The relationships he has developed through Truth Prevails made forgiveness more than words to him. They give him an opportunity to build solidarity and actively fight the ideology of genocide that separates people and eases the pathway to discrimination.
Again and again, I have heard that genocide is not one abrupt event, but the culmination of many small actions and decisions made over a course of time. Forgiveness is the same…an active process that requires commitment and hard work.
Through the example of Rwanda, I have learned that the heavy burden of weaving cultural forgiveness for our past can be a roadmap to progress. What we do matters.
(Pictures shared with permission)