National Edition

20 years after genocide, Rwanda's survivors transcend horrors to forgive

By Megan Feldman

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 2 2014 2:49 p.m. MDT

Father Ubald Rugirangoga leads a retreat for reconciliation, peace and healing in Mushaka, Rwanda, on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In his office in western Rwanda, Father Ubald Rugirangoga keeps a sepia-toned black-and-white photo in a simple wooden frame. Unlike the beatific images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary gracing the walls nearby, there’s no transcendent joy in this one. It shows the priest, younger and wearing a dark coat, walking next to a mountain of corpses.

“Those were my people, my parishioners,” he said on a January evening earlier this year, gazing mournfully at the macabre tableau that he keeps as evidence of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, and as a reminder of why he works to ensure it will never happen again.

Some 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in just three months during the genocide, and among them were Father Rugirangoga’s mother and siblings and 45,000 of his parishioners. “I escaped miraculously,” he says. “I heard the mob was coming for me and hid at the bishop’s house, then fled into Congo and on to Europe until it was over.”

As Rwanda commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide this month, Father Rugirangoga is one of the country’s most influential icons of forgiveness and reconciliation. In addition to preaching throughout the tiny Central African nation, he has created an in-depth program to facilitate reconciliation among genocide victims and perpetrators.

Some 300 people have completed the six-month program he started five years ago in Mushaka Parish, a rural network of farming hamlets nestled in the lush, hill-studded terrain near the Congolese border. While discussing apology, restitution and forgiveness from a Christian perspective (more than 90 percent of Rwandans are Catholic, and many of the Mushaka participants learn of the class through church), the 16 course facilitators provide a forum for a sort of group therapy experience grounded in sharing and empathetic listening.

Victims, who often go through the course with the perpetrators who hurt them or killed their family members, have the opportunity to ask previously unanswered questions about how their loved ones died so they can have closure, while perpetrators listen to victims talk about the impact of the violence. Ultimately, they apologize and provide some sort of restitution.

“It’s not just about words, it’s about action,” said facilitator Aloys Uwemeyimana, a Hutu who saved 122 Tutsis during the slaughter by hiding them in his parish room and guiding them over the border to Congo at night. Some perpetrators help their victims cultivate crops, while others give them goats or other valuable animals.

The power of reconciliation

In addition to the one-on-one reconciliation process, every graduating class at the Mushaka parish creates a development project to collaborate on, the most recent being a communal vegetable garden. Graduates say the process has helped them heal and get along with their neighbors, a meaningful accomplishment in a country where genocide convicts are regularly completing sentences and being returned to their communities.

Jeanne Mukantwal, 40, was horrified to see her husband’s killer when he returned from prison. Seeing him triggered the trauma of being widowed at 20 while pregnant with her son. Yet the killer, Innocent Gashema, insisted on apologizing repeatedly and helping her work her land. He kept helping, even when she ignored him, and when she heard Father Rugirangoga describe the reconciliation program at church, she asked Gashema to do it with her. He agreed.

“I eventually forgave him, and it has helped me a lot,” she said on a recent rainy afternoon. She and her son stood talking with Gashema, and the three of them cut a striking image: Mukantwal in her orange traditional dress, talking and smiling with her shy 20-year-old and the tall, gangly man who killed his father.

Her son had been struggling in school, she said, but when he met Gashema and learned more about his father’s death (she had kept the details from him) it gave him closure and he began to improve, attending class and passing the standard exams.

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