Learning the Art of Reconciliation from Rwanda

As I descended the steps on a rainy afternoon, my mind was flooded with countless overwhelming emotions. It was the day after Easter, and I was entering the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. We had arrived in Rwanda two days earlier for an African Regional Conference and had spent the day before celebrating the resurrection of Christ with an energetic Rwandan congregation. The change of tone between the two days was extremely jarring. I tried to prepare myself beforehand but experiencing the memorial was not something that I could prepare for. At the memorial, there were feelings of pain, healing, guilt, and a million other emotions. Adding to it was the fact that we were there during the time of remembrance, the anniversary of the 100-day time period that the genocide took place. So there I was, walking around in that context, amidst people paying respect to loved ones, trying not get overwhelmed. I did the only thing I could do at the time. I saved all my thoughts and feelings, held them in for a few days, and then processed them when I felt ready to do so.

At the memorial, there was a genocide museum that depicted events and the experiences of individuals. We heard stories of people whose neighbors, friends, and even some family members had turned against them, resulting in the deaths of loved ones. We heard about people that fled to churches to find sanctuary and instead found what a Rwandan minister we talked to referred to as “a slaughter house.” We heard about bodies being dumped all over the country, making identifying all the bodies impossible. It is also hard to identify everyone because there were cases where entire families were completely killed off, so there wasn’t anyone that could identify them. At the memorial site in Kigali, over 250,000 thousand are buried but only 40,000 have been identified. In total, at the end of the 100-day time period, around 1 million Rwandans were killed.

The genocide left the country in a tremendous amount of pain, with many long lasting effects. One of the survivors said that she is incapable of trusting anyone anymore and I can’t blame her. We also heard about perpetrators that have guilt, and many of them may keep that guilt for their entire lives. Many children became orphaned and had to grow up without their families. This massive pain in the country needed a response. It was decided that, for healing to occur, reconciliation had to happen.

The concept of reconciliation and forgiveness is a difficult one for me to process. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to open up to people about my feelings and to forgive you need to admit that you’ve been hurt, often to the one that hurt you. That often brings up the event and all of the pain involved with it, and I’d much rather move past it and bury everything. I understand that my way of handling pain is not healthy, and I’m working on changing it. So, with my own personal feelings on forgiveness out in the open, I find it incredible to see the amount of forgiveness that has happened here.

One place where reconciliation is happening is with the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda (EPR.) After the genocide, the EPR had, like many churches in Rwanda, a complicated history with the genocide. They had lost 16 reverends and many church members. There were also reverends that betrayed their church members and were involved in their executions. The EPR, and most churches in Rwanda, where not the same church before 1994. After a few changes to the church leadership, the EPR started the process of reconciliation. First, they recognized the need to reconcile with itself. In 1996, the EPR made a public confession of complacency and involvement with the genocide. They are one of the only local church governments in Rwanda that has confessed to its involvement and they did that in 1996.

They also decided that speaking words wasn’t enough. Some of the programs they did included shelters for widows, scholarship funds for orphans, restoration of the Theological Seminary in Butare (which was completely destroyed), creating dialogue between the new leadership of the church and those that were exiled to the DRC, and the construction of memorial sites at two churches that lost a significant amount of church members. Reconciliation through the church is not finalized and it might not be. It is a process that will take time, but it will prevent this sort of tragedy in the future.

Another example of forgiveness and reconciliation here in Rwanda is The Light Group. The Light Group is a 45-member group containing 17 survivors and 28 perpetrators. The ground work for them was laid in 2007, when perpetrators were starting to be released from jail for their crimes. Pastor Jerome started to train elders and church members to be peace keepers with the intention of trying to help resolve conflict in the community and church. To further the reconciliation, they decided to create a peace keeping group of both perpetrators and survivors. As you can imagine, this concept is one that has taken years to fruition and there is still opposition to the idea of it. The group does a variety of activities together. They go to different events telling their testimonies, visit each others’ houses, and take turns tilling each others’ land. We had the opportunity to meet with three members of The Light Group. Two of them are survivors and one of them is a convicted perpetrator that spent years in jail for his crimes for murder.

The first survivor that we talked to lost her husband, most of her children, and her house in the genocide. On top of the great pain and sadness during that time, there was also great uncertainty. She told us that it was a long journey because she was alone, and she didn’t know if one of her children was alive or not. She told us that she prayed and remained near to God. In the aftermath, the government gave them shelters but their conditions were extremely challenging. She eventually received the peace keepers training. She talks about how this was the most important thing she has received in the aftermath, even more so than the government shelters. She told us that she forgives the perpetrator because God forgives us all, but that didn’t make it easy. She described the act of a survivor going into the house of a perpetrator, knowing what they did and often who they did it to, as Gods miracle. She then dropped a bomb shell on us and said that the man sitting next to her actively participated in the murder of members of her family. Now years later, they are go to each other’s parties and speak at events together. She says that she has hope. She sees it in her three surviving children, that are all married with children, and she sees it from The Light Group.

The perpetrator began his talk by telling us that he participated in the genocide. He accepts these things, because he did them openly. He then stated, “as long as I’m alive, I continue to ask God to forgive me and to forgive all Rwandans.” While in jail, the prisoners didn’t think that they would be released from jail or if they did, they thought they would be released into the forest. They thought that they would live in the forest like animals because they did not see themselves as human beings anymore.  They were shocked when they found out that they would be allowed to return to their community. He told us that the church made the process easier and helped in ways that they might not have had otherwise. In the culture, it is accepted as the norm to keep secrets from the rest of the world, but the light group is about being very open about a shameful event in their lives. He said that it has changed him. He is now married, not only to a Tutsi, but to a member of the first woman’s family. He says that inter-marriages, like his, are the vision of a united Rwanda.

The last survivor showed us how difficult the process is and how events that happened 23 years ago can still feel like they happened yesterday. She lost all of her children, including a baby of 2 months. She told us that she has not yet arrived at healing, but she is on the way there through the group. Her brief time of sharing was extremely impactful, since it was one of the most visible examples of the continued pain that is still experienced daily by so many survivors.

The whole experience has given me a lot to reflect on and I’m sure that I will still be reflecting on it for years. I think the impact it had on me is best exemplified by this blog. I have been struggling to write a blog for over three months and, immediately after experiencing Rwanda, I felt a strong tug on my heart to unload and share. I think one thing that Rwanda has taught me is the price of staying silent about my life and feelings. It is something that I struggle with but with their example, and maybe a little help from you all, I think I can start to change my ways. I’d like to end with a phrase told to us about the genocide. I think it can be applied to all of our lives about the things we don’t want to share to the world. The Reverend Dr. Pascal Bataringaya said that the genocide needs to be talked about because “forgetting means silence and death. [The phrase] ‘never again’ will have no meaning.”

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