Twenty Years After Genocide, Church Helps Rwanda Heal

Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID

Gospel inspires peace efforts in 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 nose. 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.

Seeking Peace

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 and 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 heart 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.”