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Forgiving the Unforgivable

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 and killed former neighbors, friends and classmates. In the everyday business of life—purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the ground 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 the 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 what if this time, they weren’t just releasing one, but 40,000?” For Antoine and his country, which has released some 60,000 prisoners since 2003, these questions are not hypothetical.

Fatuma Ndanziga, 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 which 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 ... 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. What sort of education do you give to people who confessed that they killed? What do we tell the victims?” she wondered.

For Gahigi, a Tutsi who lost 142 family members during the genocide, the question dripped with fear: “This time, will they kill us all?” The survivors could not imagine living side by side with their tormentors. Would Rwandan society, still barely functioning, now collapse entirely?

But even as survivors were tormented with fears and questions, so also were many of the offenders themselves. Saveri, one of the killers, recalls how he felt when he heard he would be released: “I was so overjoyed, but fear lingered also. How was I going to face a survivor and squarely look her in the eyes after I had wiped out her family?” This thought terrorized him.

Years later, these fears and questions continue. Each day Rwandans struggle to understand how to live together. Behind prison walls, perpetrators are urged to tell the truth publicly about their crimes and to make actual or symbolic restitution. Some survivors volunteer to enter the prisons and share the stories of their shattered lives, hoping to create empathy and shared understanding. In mud-walled homes, widows and survivors gather to share and to support one another.

An ancient form of justice, known as gacaca (pronounced “ga-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 truth-telling and confession. Together, the elders, the perpetrators and the community—including the survivors themselves—work out solutions. The solutions may involve 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 the 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 forgiveness. Survivors, once seething with rage, are moving toward forgiveness. While there are also still deep wounds—many that may never heal—there are also clear and unmistakable signs of hope, bearing witness to the possibility of reconciliation.

We in the West, just as Rwandans, desperately need to understand forgiveness. We live in a violent world filled with conflicts. Political polarization, terrorist attacks, racial tensions, immigration fears and school shootings define our national landscape. Meanwhile, privately, we struggle with broken marriages, splintered relationships and doubts that pierce us to the core.

Could there be a common road map to reconciliation? Could there be a shared future after unthinkable evil? If forgiveness is possible after genocide, then perhaps there is hope for the comparably smaller rifts that plague our relationships, our communities and our nations.

Taken from “As We Forgive” by Catherine Claire. Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Claire. Used by permission of Zondervan.

1 Comment

Elizabeth Hallman


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