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Rwanda moves toward reconciliation

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When the killer of your family lives across the street

Imagine if the killer of your spouse and children lived across the street from you. You see him every day, you shop at the same stores. Imagine that scene being repeated across the country, many thousands of times.

This is the story of Rwanda.

Rwandan refugees formed a river of people travelling home through Gisenyi, Rwanda, during the massive repatriation of Rwandans in November 1996 from camps in DR Congo [then named Zaire], where they had fled following the 1994 genocide.

Fifteen years ago, on April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, Rwanda.

Habyarimana’s assassination proved to be the trigger for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. In an inexplicable frenzy and with the most low-tech weapons, Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days. During that season of genocide, people of Rwanda often say, “God went on vacation.”

In an effort to prevent future ethnic violence, the current president, Paul Kagame, has forbidden people from identifying themselves by their tribal affiliation. “We must all be Rwandans now,” he has said.

Today, though Rwanda is still poor, its economy is booming and it has one of the lowest crime rates in all of Africa. About these astounding improvements, the taciturn Kagame says, “So far, so good.” Questions of justice and reconciliation, however, continue to haunt the country.

At the tribunal

On the 15th anniversary of the plane crash, I went to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, where the United Nations is trying 92 men identified as the genocide’s architects. I sat in on court proceedings at which the prosecution was gathering witness testimony again a military commander accused of complicity in an April 22, 1994 massacre of Tutsis who had taken refuge inside a church in Kibuye.

Evidence at the ICTR is primarily the 15-year-old memories of eyewitnesses. Each side calls its own witnesses, often leaving it hard to discern when someone is, as one frustrated lawyer put it, “lying through his teeth.” Grilling by the defense lawyers has left many victims, who were already cynical about the Arusha courts, feeling as if they were the ones on trial.

Rwanda’s relationship with the ICTR is complicated. Rwanda knows the transnational resources of the UN’s International Criminal Court (ICC) were necessary to punish the ringleaders, since they had fled to countries around the globe. “Without the existence of this tribunal,” a UN spokesperson I interviewed insisted, “the people who are the big fish, the leaders of the genocide, would never have been brought to justice, and so the Rwandans realize that, in our own way, our work is contributing to their national reconciliation process.” Of the 92 people indicted, he told me, 79 have been arrested and the trials of 46 completed.

At the same time, many Rwandans blame the genocide’s high death toll on the  UN’s own failure to act decisively during that fateful April. Many also view the ICTR as just another money-making exercise for UN bureaucrats – living, as they see it, in luxury on the back of their tragedy.

Small fish

A further and more practical problem for the Rwandan people, however, is that the genocide wasn’t simply about the 92 ringleaders: tens of thousands of Hutus, from all walks of life, picked up machetes and butchered their friends and neighbours with chilling and robotic efficiency. Throughout the land, these people – the “small fish” – continue to live across the street from genocide survivors, providing a constant painful reminder of the slaughter. What about them?

The Rwandan government realized their current justice system would require an estimated 200 years to process all the genocide’s perpetrators. In 2001, they turned to a traditional communal justice system called gacaca (pronounced gaCHAcha). This system is village-based and consists of communal tribunals, presided over by “people of integrity” or judges elected by the population.

The accused are given a chance to confess their crimes, and offered a reduced prison term in exchange for service in the community. If they plead “not guilty,” they are tried, with testimony heard on both sides, and the tribunal pronounces guilt or innocence.

Significantly, gacaca is focused less on punishment and more on the equally-important issues of healing and catharsis. At thousands of gacaca courts, survivors come face to face with killers. In most cases, as killers confess, they are forgiven by the family of their victims.

Unusual by international standards and not without its critics, there is general agreement that gacaca is the best approach for a country that desperately wants to conquer the ghosts of the past by a project of nationwide forgiveness.

Statistically an overwhelmingly “Christian” country (65 percent Catholic, 15 percent Protestant), Rwanda has been called by destiny and sheer necessity to embark on daily application of some of Christ’s hardest teachings. Rwandans seem willing, as difficult as it may be, to embrace this project of nationwide forgiveness, to move toward reconciliation.

Their experience demonstrates that the words of Jesus are not merely pleasant-sounding platitudes, but in fact the only strategy that works in a country beginning to step out of the shadow of one of the last century’s most monstrous massacres.

—Darrell Epp attended ICTR proceedings in Arusha, Tanzania, while visiting friends who work there in grief counselling and translating.Darrell attends an Associated Gospel church in Hamilton, Ont. His poetry collection, Imaginary Maps (Signature Editions), will be published later this year.


Stories and Scars

Mennonite Central Committee partners with Friends Peace House, founded by the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda in 1995. Its gacaca and reintegration program distributes material aid to former prisoners and survivors alike, and provides workshops in which they meet to listen to one another and learn about reconciliation from a biblical perspective. The following story concerns another of its ministries, Femmes en Dialogue (Women in Dialogue, or FED), and comes from a report by Doug Hiebert in the April-June 2009 MCC Peace Office Newsletter. (Read the entire article and others on MCC work in Rwanda and Burundi at mcc.org/respub/pon/.)


Nyiransabimana Seraphine (orange scarf), 43, part of Women in Dialogue, during an interview in her home in Kigali, Rwanda.

Seraphine is a Hutu. Her husband is in prison, accused of acts of genocide. Antoinette is a survivor, and much of her family was killed. Both women were participants in one of the first FED seminars… These two women initially wanted nothing to do with each other. To make matters worse, Seraphine was sure that Antoinette was continuing to look down on her in a haughty sort of way. They refused to greet each other and, in fact, Antoinette wanted to take revenge on Seraphine for the deaths of her family.

However, as the seminar progressed, both women’s hearts began to be softened. Near the end, both women shared their stories. Antoinette told how she and her family had been attacked by a group of men with machetes and left for dead. Miraculously she survived… She pulled down her shirt at the nape of her neck to reveal a deep, ugly scar. This explained her “haughty” look: some nerves had been severed in the attack and she had lost some motion in her neck.

As Antoinette told her story and showed her scars, Seraphine’s walls of hatred and emotion broke down and the two of them embraced as they forgave one another. Now, these women visit one another, eat together, and work shoulder to shoulder. They have also encouraged others to reconcile.

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