This month it is 20 years since Rwanda famously imploded, amidst a 100-day bloodbath of astonishing cruelty and brutality that left 800,000 people dead. It doesn’t seem that long ago, and in some ways twenty years is barely enough time to process an event so shocking in the depth and scope of its brutality.
The anniversary has brought much commentary around how the country has fared since. There are some hopeful signs. Both Western aid and foreign investment have lead to improvements in education and healthcare along with new homes and roads. The economy has grown steadily for several years.
Broken people are harder to mend. Ten years after the carnage, Rwandan jails were full and the justice system couldn’t cope with the demands of thousands of Hutus awaiting trial. The government established traditional village-based courts with a Truth and Reconciliation style process whereby perpetrators, if they confessed their crimes and helped locate bodies, would be given lesser sentences. Survivors were expected to offer forgiveness.
Not everyone could. You can read plenty of stories of Tutsi victims who suffered terribly and who display a completely understandable wish to see their tormentors suffer. But the astonishing thing is that so many others seem to believe, as Desmond Tutu constantly said of post-apartheid South Africa, “There’s no future without forgiveness.” Louis Rutaganira, who lost his wife and three children in the Rwandan genocide, said this week in The Guardian that he has found peace in a “painful but necessary” forgiveness.
It is, frankly, not easy to see how he and others have reached this “peace”. Revenge and hatred are natural responses when terrible harm is done to us. But there is wisdom to be found in seeking alternatives. As Miroslav Volf argues, revenge, far from being a release, actually enslaves and diminishes us. Forgiveness is not an exclusively a Christian idea, but it finds its sharpest articulation in the person of Jesus. His radical call to ‘love your enemies’; his famous words from the cross, ‘forgive them father for they don’t know what they are doing’; the prayer he taught, ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’, all point to a key part of his teaching and his life.
That he spoke into an atmosphere of an oppressed people for whom revenge was such an appealing thought makes him all the more remarkable. He turned the hope of revenge on its head; calling followers to not only forgo revenge, but to forgive without limits. Such forgiveness does not exclude justice and entails facing up to wrongs committed, as evidenced in the Truth and Reconciliation process. Mercy is only shown to those who admit their crimes.
Described, by Reinhold Niebuhr, as the ‘final form of love’, forgiveness remains the most powerful antidote to bitterness, destructive patterns of pay-back and recrimination, and paralysing resentment. It remains a vital element of much needed change in the lives of both individuals and communities.
Time will tell whether in Rwanda forgiveness becomes the dominant response of a deeply traumatised people. But it may be the best hope the country has.