Rwandans seek long-term peace

By  Darrell Epp, Catholic Register Special
  • June 5, 2009
{mosimage}Christ’s command to forgive seventy times seven may lose some of its poignancy if the worst thing you’ve had to forgive this week was a co-worker hurting your feelings.

Imagine, however, if the killer of your wife and children lives across the street, you both shop at the same stores, you see him every day. Now imagine that scene being replayed across the countryside 100,000 times.

This is the story of Rwanda.

Fifteen years ago, in an almost unimaginable frenzy, Rwandan Hutus picked up machetes and farming tools and in 100 days of rampage murdered an estimated 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbours. Desperate to break the violent cycle of revenge that precipitated the 1994 genocide, Rwandans are finding that Gospel teachings on forgiveness offer the only path to reconciliation in a country beginning to step from the shadow of one of the 20th century’s most monstrous crimes.

How could a country respond to, let alone recover from, such a nightmare? On the fifteenth anniversary of the mysterious plane crash that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and triggered the bloodletting, I visited the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha,Tanzania to find out.

Reminiscent of the post-World War 2 Nuremburg Trials, the ICTR is putting the genocide’s main architects and perpetrators on trial. I collected amazing stories from survivors who had been brought in to testify. Many of them are cynical about the value of the UN trials, calling them merely a money-making enterprise for bureaucrats. For them, far more urgent than punishing the ringleaders is the challenge of finding a way for the killers and survivors to live together peaceably.

To this end, after realizing that the normal court system was inadequate to process 100,000 killers and provide some sense of closure, Rwandans have turned to a startling form of grassroots justice called gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha). At gacaca courts, killers come face-to-face with survivors in rooms without the presence of any professional lawyers or judges.

The scene is being played out daily in more than 8,000 gacaca courts across the country. Survivors confront killers in a process that is focused on reconciliation not retribution.

Killers ask for forgiveness and usually receive it. There seems to be a pervading sense that man-made justice systems are unable to cope with tragedies of this scale, and that extraordinary acts of violence cry out for extraordinary acts of confession and forgiveness.

Gacaca has its critics. Some have questioned the sincerity of some requests for forgiveness because penitents are sometimes rewarded with lighter punishments. Some have questioned the sincerity of some of the bequests of forgiveness, since the government, invested so heavily in stopping future conflicts, has pressured victims to accept apologies.

But the Rwandans I spoke to were unanimous in declaring gacaca the best possible path to long-term peace, believing that true forgiveness supernaturally benefits not just the forgivee but also the forgiver.

For example, Lysianne (not her real name) survived the genocide by hiding in a Hutu neighbour’s attic. When order was restored, she found her crops had been harvested and stolen, along with her firewood, and her house had been completely destroyed. Years later, a tearful woman knocked on her door and confessed her role in destroying Lysianne’s house. Lysianne forgave her, and later, refused to even tell her children the woman’s name, insisting that sincere forgiveness was necessary for the children to have a brighter future.

During the days of the genocide, a Hutu named Deogratias helped herd Tutsis into compounds to await their execution. At night, however, he hid a Tutsi family in his house, saving their lives. When asked to explain this incomprehensible paradox, Deogratias is at a loss. He has no answers, but his desperate need for forgiveness at gacaca court is palpable.

Gacaca courts have recorded thousands of these emotional personal stories.

Implicit in the act of forgiveness is a waiver of a right for revenge. After gacaca hearings, killers and survivors are able to pass each other on the street, or even work together without incident — a fact that would astonish someone who was in the country in 1994-1995. In fact, my personal experience is that Rwanda today is one of Africa’s most peaceful and pleasant countries.

Few would argue that a contributing factor to this astonishing turnaround is the adherence by large numbers of Rwandans to Christian principles. Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian and most people attend service each Sunday. But during the genocide many Hutu Catholic priests were implicated directly or indirectly in the slaughter. That left many Rwandans distrustful of the Catholic church and protestantism has increased, particularly Pentecostalism.

Still, the reconciliation movement is not being fueled by church organizations. It is a grassroots process in which Jesus’ message of forgiveness is opening individual human hearts to extraordinary acts of pardon.

By following Christ’s command of limitless forgiveness, survivors are freed from the chains of hate that had been preventing them from seeing a hopeful future, and killers are freed from their guilt. Rwandans have discovered that when it comes to dealing with evil, even one of history’s greatest evils, peace does not come from revenge but it can be found in the writings of St. Paul—forgive one another, just as in Christ God forgave you.

(Darrell Epp is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ont. A collection of his poetry entitled Imaginary Maps will be published later this year by Signature Editions.)

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