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Power to forgive

Rwanda | On the 15th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide, restoration is slow but steady

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

What Rwandans call simply "the war" began on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it neared landing in the capital, Kigali. The crash unleashed long-stoked animosities between the country's Hutus and Tutsis as Hutu militias aided by the Rwandan army launched systematic massacres of Tutsis. Over the next 100 days, the Hutus-more populous but less prosperous than Tutsis-slaughtered over 800,000, mostly Tutsis.

Author Philip Gourevitch noted in his book on the Rwandan genocide that "the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

In his new book, Mirror to the Church (Zondervan, 2009), Emmanuel Katongole, the product of a mixed Hutu-Tutsi marriage and Catholic priest who now teaches at Duke University, documents the role that the church played in so swift a massacre. As parishioners fled to churches seeking refuge, the sanctuaries themselves became scenes of carnage, attackers hacking to death their victims while church leaders did nothing to stop them. "The victims knew their killers," writes Katongole. "They would call out to their killers by name and ask, 'Why do you kill us?' We must not overlook the intimacy of Rwanda's genocide."

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The story of Rwanda's recovery is likewise intimate. Working through village tribunals called gacaca, locals have themselves tried approximately 100,000 criminals associated with the genocide and along the way pursued reconciliation between killers and victims and resolution of property disputes. With the help of overseas faith-based and other organizations, churches are taking the lead in bringing healing and reconciliation where they showed neglect before.

"The gacaca system says we are responsible for taking care of our own situation versus we are waiting for someone to come take care of us," notes Fred Smith, president of The Gathering. Smith just completed a visit to 14 projects throughout Rwanda, and he said, "The village system provides a base for self-reliance," and with it Rwandans are recovering also their economic and moral base.

Smith and others credit President Paul Kagame with imposing a faith-based recovery on the country, which is 90 percent Christian. Kagame in 2005 famously asked pastor Rick Warren to help make Rwanda a "purpose-driven nation."

On the 15th anniversary of "the war," the stories of recovery are as painstaking as the massacres themselves were swift. Many told in a 2008 documentary, As We Forgive, have just been released in a book of the same title by Catherine Claire Larson (Zondervan, 2009). An edited chapter follows:

The Still Point

By Catherine Claire Larson

When the war ended, Chantal and Placide traveled back to Kivugiza, the only area they had ever considered home. Their own home had been burned to the ground, and for Chantal there were too many memories to return to her father's land. Plus, it would be better to stay close to the other survivors than near the border where raiding parties could attack. So Chantal and Placide built a tiny mud home with a thatched roof some kilometers outside of Ruhuha, tightly wedged between those of many other survivors.

They had nothing. Their cattle, their crops, and their possessions had all been stolen or demolished in the orgy of violence. And so they planted and tilled the fields, working each day from first light to setting sun.

The toll of the work hit Placide the hardest. He had never fully recovered from the attack he suffered in the genocide. When he finally found a doctor, the physician could only speculate that Placide might have severe internal damage, since the hospital equipment had also been demolished in the genocide. In the two years before he died, Placide provided Chantal with a roof for her head and her only comfort: two children.

For the next 10 years, Chantal eked out an existence on the land with two small children to care for. Out of her entire family-her mother, father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and six brothers and sisters-only one brother had survived the genocide, and now Chantal blamed the Hutu also for the death of her firstborn and her husband as well.

When Chantal found out, in 1997, that John [a Hutu involved in the deaths of her family] had returned from exile in Tanzania, it was a great pleasure to see him put in prison.

But while her own parents and siblings had been slaughtered, John had his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his land, and his home. So [Chantal] savored every evil thing she could imagine befalling them: a terrible sickness wiping out the entire family, a revenge attack, a slow and painful death in prison, a poisoning.

This was the Chantal that Pascal met when he first came to visit her in August of 2005, the year the authorities released John from prison.

Pascal too survived the genocide, but he lost his new bride, eight months pregnant at the time with what would have been his first child, to killers with no conscience. He also lost nearly every member of his extended family. . . . By the time Pascal knocked on Chantal's door, he had been mediating for almost five years. In 2003, he gathered 17 Hutu and Tutsi together in that area to train in reconciliation. Their first meeting was on a weekend. By the next weekend, attendance had risen to 40 participants. By the time he reached 50 participants, Pascal decided to start an organization devoted to reconciliation.

So it was that only a few days after John's release, Pascal invited him to share a drink with him. John feared him at first, knowing that Pascal was not only a Tutsi, but a former RPF soldier. Over a couple of bottles of Fanta, Pascal asked John about his attitude toward his crime. John shared how in prison he had come to see the evil of his actions and how he had asked for God's forgiveness. Pascal inquired whether John would be ready to ask for Chantal's forgiveness as her father's only surviving child in the area.

When Chantal opened her door, she saw a familiar face. Pascal had grown up in that village with her and they had played together when they were just children. She had seen him over the years since returning from Burundi, but this was the first time he had come to visit her at home.

Over the weeks that followed Pascal dropped by frequently, and little by little they exchanged stories of survival and loss. Even having someone simply to ask about her story was a comfort to Chantal.

Pascal visited Chantal many times over the next several months, listening, pointing Chantal toward God for healing, and encouraging her to consider meeting with John. A year after his first visit, in August of 2006, Chantal agreed to see John. "I can go there and discuss," she told Pascal, "because I respect you as a brother. But don't talk to me about reconciliation."

Chantal slept fitfully the night before the meeting. She had followed Pascal's advice and spent the previous day in prayer, as best she knew how for someone who had not prayed in 12 years. She could sense that because of this she was far more at peace than she would have been otherwise, but still she wasn't ready to forgive.

John shifted in his chair uncomfortably and then spoke, letting his eyes only have fleeting contact with Chantal's own before settling his gaze on the ground again.

"Chantal, thank you for this moment. I sinned against you terribly by killing your father, a man I lived beside and even shared drinks with. I even prepared the feast when you received the sacrament of confirmation in the church. But the archenemy of good, the Evil One, embedded in my life, and I committed this horrible sin of killing your father. I'm falling before you begging for mercy for the sin I committed."

"How did you kill my father?" asked Chantal.

"A gentleman by the name of Sebugabo took your father with a young boy and girl early in the morning."

"You're lying," said Chantal. . . . "How long has it been since you came out of prison?"

"About nine months since I came out."

"And all these nine months you had no clue where I live?"

"I knew where you lived, but I was afraid."

"Fear?"

"Fear of one's crime."

"You could have tried to see whether I would have sent you back or welcomed you or called these people around to hear what you had to say."

"Forgive me."

"I will not forgive you on the account that you didn't counsel yourself to come and it had to take this mediator for you to come."

. . ."It's true, but have mercy upon me."

"It's painful for someone like me who had a big family, but today I'm alone. I can't even go back to where we used to live.

. . ."I'm begging you, be merciful."

"It's painful for an old man with gray hair like you. You never even bothered to come and ask for forgiveness."

Leaving their meeting that day, John felt discouraged. He entreated Pascal to continue talking to Chantal. At the same time, he sensed an important first step had been taken. The encounter had relieved a lot of fear. He knew afterward that he could meet Chantal on the street and bear to see her, and that a door of communication had been opened. He knew that he could visit her and offer to help her with her chores, and that he could begin to show her that his repentance was real.

Immediately after the encounter, Chantal seemed worse off than before. Nightmares tormented her sleep. And her days were haunted again by memories of the past. But on the Sunday after she met with John, she also went to church again for the first time since the genocide. She could not explain what had drawn her there, but in church one day, she found herself thinking, "Maybe if God forgives, he can help me also to forgive."

Pascal too continued to visit. One day as they were talking, Chantal told Pascal that she had begun to pray again.

Pascal said, "But I want you to know, forgiveness has a source. You can honestly say to God, 'I have no strength in me to forgive John. But you, O Lord, have the power to forgive. Give me the power to forgive him.' And God will help you. I believe he will help you."

Chantal thought deeply about Pascal's words. And when he left that day, she began to pray, just as he said. "God, I have no strength in me to forgive John. But you, O Lord, have the power to forgive. Give me the power to forgive him."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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