Twenty Years After Genocide, Church Helps Rwanda Heal
Some remarkable stories of reconciliation, such as the one between a genocide survivor and the neighbor who murdered her husband, inspire hope for Rwanda's future.
KIGALI, Rwanda — Boniface Hakizimana lives in a rural area of Southern Rwanda. He lives peacefully with the widow next door, Viviane N'Habimana. They help each other and support each other when difficulties arise.
At first glance, this arrangement might not appear extraordinary. However, this harmonious relationship is anything but typical, because Hakizimana is responsible for the murder of N’Habimana’s husband 20 years ago.
April 7, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. The causes of the violence were complex — fueled by decades of ethnic tension dating back to Belgian colonialism and fostered through hate-filled propaganda broadcast by political extremists.
In the spring of 1994, the tension erupted into frenzied bloodshed, as members of the Hutu ethnic majority took up machetes and turned on their minority Tutsi neighbors, butchering relatives, friends, classmates and colleagues based on the color of their skin and the width of their noses. It is estimated that up to 1 million people were slaughtered in just 100 days, while the outside world largely looked the other way.
The result was a country left in shambles, the very social fabric of the nation destroyed. The last 20 years in Rwanda has been the story of a people pursuing a nearly impossible task: picking themselves back up, rebuilding their lives and learning how to forge the bonds of trust and forgiveness.
Hakizimana admits that he killed people, including N’Habimana’s husband, during the genocide. While serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the violence, the Gospel message touched his conscience, and he found a desire to be reconciled.
Upon being released from prison, however, he was shocked to discover that his wife and N’Habimana were already “living in peace and harmony,” despite the fact that he had killed the neighboring woman’s husband. The two women had both found themselves alone after the genocide — one woman’s husband dead and the other’s imprisoned — and they had learned to support and care for each other.
Even more surprising, N’Habimana had been contributing part of the retribution money she received after the genocide in order to ensure that her husband’s killer had been adequately fed while he was in prison. Overwhelmed by this act of mercy, Hakizimana apologized for his crime, and N’Habimana forgave him.
Hakizimana and N’Habimana are just two of many individuals who have found peace through a reconciliation program run through a partnership of the local Church and government. The program united perpetrators and victims, bringing them together to talk and listen to one another and to learn how to seek and grant forgiveness.
For many of the survivors, this has not been an easy process.
“After the genocide, I hated everybody in the community,” confessed one woman. Another said that she was so traumatized at first that she was incapable of seeing those around her as human. Other survivors said they had their faith shaken and found themselves struggling to pray, questioning how a good God could allow such evil.
But those who have gradually learned to open their hearts — often with the help of a friend or neighbor or through the outreach of a priest or nun — have developed the capacity for reconciliation and healing.
Perpetrators say that apologizing and receiving forgiveness has lifted a burden from their hearts and allowed them to rest, while victims say that granting forgiveness allows them to heal and move forward with their lives.
They emphasize that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened. But in the words of one survivor, “We forgive because we know that God also forgives.”
Participants in the reconciliation program say that their neighbors who have chosen not to seek or grant forgiveness still live in anger and bitterness. Some say they have been approached by other people who see the peace they have achieved in their lives and want to know how to attain it for themselves as well.
This reconciliation model, instituted largely through the Catholic Church, is now being examined as a possible template for other conflicts, and peace-building efforts are now taking place on a regional level, seeking to promote a culture of peace across borders.
The Church and the Genocide
Members of the Church were not exempt from the hatred and violence that enveloped the small African country in the spring of 1994; clergy members were included in the ranks of both perpetrators and victims. In some cases, Hutu priests, bishops and religious helped to hide and protect Tutsis. In other cases, they took up arms against them, ushering them into church buildings with false promises of security and then trapping and betraying them, facilitating their massacre.
However, survivor Gaspard Mukwiye, who was 19 years old at the time of the genocide, warns against placing blame on the Church as a whole.
“It’s not good to generalize,” he emphasized, noting that the killing was not done in the Church’s name, even though some priests and bishops were involved.
“I don’t blame the Church as an institution,” he said. “I blame people individually.”
In the past two decades, the Catholic Church has been a major factor in rebuilding the country.
Deogratias Nzabonimpa, director of administration and finance for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission of Rwanda, explained that “the churches have played a big role” in promoting healing and forgiveness among the people.
A strongly religious country, nearly 100% of Rwandans attend religious services weekly. The majority of the country — roughly 57% — is Catholic, and another 37% identify as Protestant or Seventh-Day Adventist. A devotion to the Divine Mercy of Jesus is widespread, and the image of Divine Mercy is displayed prominently in many churches, office buildings and homes. Many Rwandans cite their faith as a reason to pursue reconciliation and forgiveness after the genocide.
In addition, it was the Catholic Church that suggested the revival of the Gacaca court system after the genocide. These communal courts had been an element of traditional Rwandan culture, but the Church suggested transforming them to help process the tens of thousands of criminal cases that arose following the genocide.
With the nation’s justice system heavily overburdened, it would have taken more than a century for the cases to be heard in the conventional court system. The Gacaca courts utilized public trials in the community with well-respected elders serving as judges. They helped to facilitate justice for both victims and perpetrators in the wake of the violence.
Cooperation Bears Fruit
Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has played a critical role in helping with peace-building efforts in the country. Following the genocide, the organization worked closely with the local Church and government to implement reconciliation programs and structures — many at the parish level — and train some 40,000 leaders in conflict resolution and peace efforts.
Present in the country for more than 50 years, Catholic Relief Services has worked in recent years to focus on overall quality of life improvement. At the community level, the agency teaches bio-intensive agricultural techniques to help rural Rwandans improve their production, diversify income and fight malnutrition.
Such programs bring together perpetrators and victims, encouraging cooperation, communication and solidarity and further working to heal wounds and bring about reconciliation.
“CRS is a child of the Church,” said Father Celestin Hakizimana, general secretary of the Rwandan bishops’ conference. “In some ways, CRS is here as a sister Church to represent the Church in America.”
Father Hakizimana described the current relationship between Church and state in Rwanda as generally good. Efforts are ongoing to repair relationships that were damaged during the genocide, and the Church is dealing with modern challenges, including a recent law to legalize abortion, which the bishops vocally opposed.
Although obstacles do exist, the Church in Rwanda is strong, Father Hakizimana said. With the help of Catholic Relief Services, the national bishops’ conference has improved its structure and organization, and many dioceses are working with the international agency to strengthen their efficiency, professionalism and financial management capabilities.
In addition, Father Hakizimana explained that he knows the Church is growing, “because every Sunday, there are baptisms.”
As of October 2013, the seminaries in the small country were filled to capacity, with 530 men studying in major seminaries. Church leaders have been forced to limit the number of applicants, while one facility is being expanded. As Rwanda works to rebuild, the local Church grows as well.
Looking to the Future
Two decades after being ravaged by unimaginable violence, the small African country now looks to the future with hope. While wounds from the past remain, the people have taken important steps toward healing.
“Forgiveness is a process,” stressed Bishop Smaragde Mbonyintege of Kabgayi.
Reconciliation is not as simple as merely asking for forgiveness and receiving it immediately, he explained, adding that it would be unrealistic to expect all the nation’s wounds to be healed in 20 years.
“The people have scars on their hearts,” he said. “To rebuild a person who has been destroyed is not as easy as rebuilding a house that has been destroyed.”
Pope Francis addressed a message of hope and reconciliation to Rwanda on April 6, during his Sunday Angelus remarks in St. Peter’s Square.
“I want to express my paternal closeness to the Rwandan people, encouraging them to continue, with determination and hope, the process of reconciliation that has already manifested its fruit,” said the Pope.
“To everyone I say: Don’t be afraid! Build your society on the rock of the Gospel, in love and in harmony, because only like this can you build lasting peace!”