The Common Good
January 2009

Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

by Catherine Claire Larson | January 2009

In this excerpt from the book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda (Zondervan), we learn of the power of reconciliation as demonstrated in the lives of many ...

In this excerpt from the book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda (Zondervan), we learn of the power of reconciliation as demonstrated in the lives of many Rwandans who have survived the genocide and are now working to mend damages of war and bring greater healing to their land.

The gash across the face of Emmanuel Mahuro, a 17-year-old Rwandan native, is no longer an open wound. Today, like a jagged boundary line on a map, a scar juts down the plateau of his forehead, across the bridge of his nose, and up the slope of his right cheek. It is impossible to look into Emmanuel’s eyes without seeing this deep cut, a mark of division etched across his face—and the face of Rwanda—15 years after the genocide.

My first reaction to such scars is to avert my eyes. But to look away from Emmanuel’s scars is to look away from him. Strangely, as my eyes adjust to Emmanuel’s face, there is an impulse, not to recoil, but to follow the line of the scar across his skin.

Emmanuel’s scar testifies to two realities. It is a witness to the human capacity for evil. To look at it is to hear it scream the brutality of an April that aches in the memory of an entire people. Yet his scar testifies to another truth: the stunning capacity of humans to heal from the unthinkable. To trace that scar is to discover the hope of a people who, despite losing everything, are finding a way to forge a common future for Rwanda.

Rwanda’s wounds, like Emmanuel’s, are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates. In the everyday business of life—purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the group to make urwagwa, and hauling harvested sorghum to the market—survivors commonly meet the eyes of people who shattered their former lives. How can they live together? This is not a philosophical question, but a practical one that confronts Rwandans daily.

In some shape or form, all Rwandans ask this question. Some, like Antoine Rutayisire, himself a survivor, put the question starkly: “If they told you that a murderer was to be released into your neighborhood, how would you feel? But if this time, they weren’t just releasing one, but 40,000?”

Fatuma Ndangiza, executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, began wrestling in earnest with the questions on Jan. 10, 2003, when the president first decided to provisionally release 40,000 of the 120,000 Rwandans held in egregiously overcrowded prisons. Even with a fully functional legal system, something that had been wiped out with the slaughter of many Tutsi in 1994, the backlog of cases would have taken over 200 years. “I was driving in the car around one o’clock, when I heard President Kagame say that these people who are going to be released have to be taken to the Reconciliation Commission for reeducation before going back to the community.” At first, Fatuma thought the president was crazy. “What sort of education do you give to people who confessed that they killed? What do we tell the victims?” she wondered. …

An ancient form of justice, known as gacaca (pronounced “gah-cha-cha?), unfolds on grassy fields under wild fig trees, called umuvumu, where trusted elders, men and women of integrity, hear cases. Unlike the Western court system, where the best strategy can be to deny guilt until the government proves it beyond a reasonable doubt, gacaca works best if there is a truth telling and confession. Together the elders, the perpetrators, and the community—including the survivors themselves—work out solutions. The solutions may involved more prison time or require the offenders to return to the place of their crime and participate in community service and reconciliation. Gacaca strives to bring justice and peace into communities that have been shattered.

Sometimes this process even paves the way for moving beyond justice to reconciliation. Some perpetrators, whose hearts are truly changed, are eager to go beyond what is required of them. Hands that once swung machetes in violence now smooth mud bricks in peace as they voluntarily build homes for their victims. Survivors, once seething with rage, are moving toward forgiveness. While there are still deep wounds—many that may never heal—there are also clear and unmistakable signs of hope, bearing witness to the possibility of reconciliation.

Taken from As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda by Catherine Claire Larson. Copyright 2008 by Catherine Claire Larson. Used by permission of Zondervan. To pre-order your copy of As We Forgive, click As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

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