20 years after genocide, Rwanda's survivors transcend horrors to forgive
Learning to forgive
Father Rugirangoga’s community efforts were born of his own genocide experience. Within months of losing his family and parishioners, he made a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, France. While he prayed, grief-stricken and inconsolable, he had a revelation: the only way such a monstrous wound could be healed, and such horrific crimes could be prevented, was through true forgiveness and apology.
He began preaching about reconciliation in the late '90s, even visiting prisons to talk to the hundreds of thousands of genocide convicts about how to repent, forgive themselves and apologize to their victims’ families.
During a 2005 prison visit, a man approached the priest. “He said, ‘Father, I have something to tell you: I killed your mother,’” Father Rugirangoga said. The prisoner wept and begged for the priest’s forgiveness.
For a moment, Father Rugirangoga felt shock and anger pin him in place. But then he thought of his epiphany at Lourdes, his promise to be merciful and Jesus’ exhortation to love one's enemies. He took a deep breath and embraced the man.
Later, he began mentoring the prisoner’s children, who were motherless and living with impoverished relatives. The daughter, Gisele, recently visited Father Rugirangoga, who calls her “daughter” and is helping her attend medical school in neighboring Burundi.
The priest’s Mushaka graduates tell similar tales. Gratien Nyaminani, an elderly man with a graying beard and sad eyes, returned from prison to discover that his daughter, upon hearing Father Rugirangoga preaching, had offered her housekeeping and farming services to the woman he had widowed. While living in the widow’s home and helping her in penance for Nyaminani’s crimes, the young woman fell in love with the widow’s son, and they are now married with two children.
“In prison, I couldn’t imagine ever being forgiven,” Nyaminani said, awestruck by the fact that he killed his grandchildren’s other grandfather, and yet they and their parents accept him. “Imagine: They call me grandfather!”
Philippe Ngirente, a program facilitator, said he forgave the man who killed his father, and doing so helped him complete his grief and move forward. When he and his wife discovered, through a community justice tribunal, that the man responsible for the murder was a distant relative of Ngirente’s wife, they were shocked.
The killer, a farmer named Teresphore Uzabakiriho, was shocked, too. He said he recalled only that he’d killed an old man and didn’t know that in the years since, that man’s son married his cousin. After apologizing to Ngirente and his wife, Uzabakiriho visited Ngirente’s four sisters to apologize to them, too.
Responsibility and restitution
Taking responsibility for one’s crimes is an important part of the Mushaka program. One recent morning, a woman named Anathalie Mukandagogora shared a problem with her class at the parish: She’d forgiven her mother’s killer, she said, but she was having trouble with the man who killed her father.
“I am ready to forgive him, too,” she said, “but he is not receptive.”
A tiny man named Nicola Nikuze volunteered to visit the convict in prison in hope of changing his mind. Nikuze, 53, spent years in prison for killing one of his neighbors as part of the Interhamwe militia.
“Afterwards, we celebrated by drinking beer — I didn’t feel anything,” Nikuze said, his eyes welling. “But then, I began to feel guilty and wonder, ‘Why did I do that?’”
He apologized to the man’s widow and began helping her gather firewood and maintain her home. “Now we live peacefully,” he said. “My calling now is to help former Interhamwe take responsibility for what they did and repair the damage however they can.”
As events are held throughout Rwanda this month to commemorate the genocide, Father Rugirangoga and his Mushaka graduates acknowledge the progress they’ve made but say there is still much more to be done.
“There has been no mass violence for almost 20 years, which is a big accomplishment,” Father Rugirangoga said. “But there are still so many wounds to be healed.”
Megan Feldman is an adjunct professor of journalism and public relations at Metro State University in Denver.
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