14 April 2014

Practicing Forgiveness in Rwanda

Written by 
Jean-Pierre Karenzi (perpetrator, left), Viviane Nyiramana (survivor, right) Jean-Pierre Karenzi (perpetrator, left), Viviane Nyiramana (survivor, right) http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.mwo4ml?_r=1


This past week the world remembered with sorrow and a twinge of guilt the tsunami of carnage that descended upon Rwanda twenty years ago. In just 100 days, over 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children had been massacred in cold blood.

A year or so later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed a mass rally brought together by Rwanda’s new leaders, challenging them “that the cycle of reprisal and counterreprisal ... had to be broken and that the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice.” Recalling this event in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, he lays out the central theme of his book:


“It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future” (p. 165).


I’ll come back to Desmond Tutu, but first, some words of hope about reconciliation and healing where genocide had torn society apart.


Portraits of reconciliation

I was inspired to write this blog upon reading the New York Times Magazine cover article (whence the picture above), “Portraits of Reconciliation.” Here we learn that, twenty years on, photographer Pieter Hugo spent several weeks in Rwanda in March 2014 capturing on film couples made up of perpetrator and survivor of the genocide, who had participated in counseling sessions over several months. Part of a national reconciliation campaign, these people had followed the curriculum offered by one particular NGO called AMI (French for “friend” and an acronym standing for “Association Modeste et Innocent”). They all had arrived at the point where the perpetrator asks the survivor for forgiveness and at least all seven survivors portrayed here (the rest are displayed in a wider exhibit in The Hague, Netherlands) had granted forgiveness in return.

To glimpse at these pairs is to peer into the both dark and luminous souls of fellow human beings, forcing us through their posture and words to confront our own demons of bitterness and resentment, while also catching a glimpse of hope and peace. How can we even imagine going through such a horrific experience ourselves? Yet, the collective portrait is all the more real as it is diverse. Each pair’s body language is different, and though likely a bit befuddled at the cultural cues (Americans would at least force a smile before the camera and they do not), we would notice too the spectrum along which people actually forgive. Some are obviously more at ease than others; some pairs even look like friends.

Considering that over 90 percent of Rwandans attend church regularly, I was surprised that the blurbs given by each person had precious few religious references. One person thanks God for the opportunity to be forgiven. Another, who had knelt down in prayer for her daughters whose bodies she discovered thrown into a latrine, decided to pardon the aggressor for two reasons – she could no longer recover her loved ones and she didn’t want to live a lonely life. Like most of the others, the reasoning was mostly pragmatic:


I wondered, if I was ill, who was going to stay by my bedside, and if I was in trouble and cried for help, who was going to rescue me? I preferred to grant pardon.”


But mostly, victims found that unforgiveness was an emotional ball and chain they could no longer afford. As this woman put it,


The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”


There is more to this picture. Organizations like AMI have been able to thrive, thanks to a favorable political and social climate. There is no doubt that the ex-rebel Tutsi leader who came in with his troops to stop the bloodletting twenty years ago has done a remarkable job in rebuilding his country, though he’s also a strongman with a spotty human rights record. Alan Cowell writes that  “President Paul Kagame … has sought to project his land as a haven of stability and a magnet for investment in a turbulent region. He has taken credit for creating a functioning health care system, raising living standards and improving women’s rights.”

Kagame, to his credit, has facilitated the role of the UN in the work of reconciliation. The New York Times recently editorialized that “Rwanda has done an impressive job of rebuilding its institutions and economy. To bring perpetrators of the genocide to justice, the United Nations has conducted more than 70 tribunal cases, Rwanda’s courts have tried up to 20,000 individuals, and the country’s Gacaca courts have handled some 1.2 million additional cases. Incredibly, Tutsis and Hutus, survivors and former killers, now live side by side.”

But some of the credit for this work of reconciliation must surely go to the architect and engineer of South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.


The benevolent shadow of the TRC

Emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela’s heartfelt pardon for his captors fueled his vision and courage to rebuild a new South Africa. As he put it himself, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." The hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in 1996, as Mandela prevailed upon his friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to put off his retirement in order to preside over the proceedings. Tutu wrote about these experiences in his aforementioned book, No Future Without Forgiveness.

As Tutu sees it, the TRC was a deliberate choice in contrast with two other models for dealing with egregious crimes against humanity. The first model, “Victors justice,” as exemplified at the close of World War II at the Nuremberg Trials, was a travesty of justice, mostly because both sides had committed war crimes. On the other hand, the solution chosen by Pinochet, Chile’s dictator, as he handed over the state to civilian authorities in 1990, Tutu dubbed “national amnesia” – a magisterial wave of the magic wand to make past atrocities vanish in thin air. He was granted amnesty and served as Minister of Defense until 1998. Argentina in 1983 had done no better to prosecute anyone responsible for the 3,000 or so people who disappeared under the previous regime.

Instead, the TRC’s third way offered amnesty only to those who would confess their crimes publically. Tell the truth in exchange for freedom, make some reparations and the stage is set (hopefully) for forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, in practice, it never was that easy. The white community, both Afrikaners and English descendants, consistently ranked it more favorably in the polls than did the indigenous population. In the end, only one out of twelve of those convicted in court was released. Still, South Africa’s TRC, though not the first of its kind, became the model for other such efforts in dozens of other countries since then.

Archbishop Tutu’s 1995 speech in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) anticipated the actual setting up of the TRC. Retributive justice (victors punishing the loosers à la Nuremberg), as opposed to restorative justice, offers little hope for justice, and hence, for crimes to be exposed, solemnly processed in justice and in people’s minds, and potentially forgiven, one person at a time. After all, states can only do so much to create a climate conducive to reconciliation. There must be a personal dimension, in which individuals buy into the difficult yet highly rewarding task of forgiveness and healing.

I want to end with another important ingredient in the task of forgiveness. We saw that, at least in the limited testimonies provided in “Portraits of Reconciliation,” the faith element in leading to forgiveness was underrepresented. Most of the decisions in evidence was based on practical reasoning. Forgiveness and reconciliation bring both inner peace and foster greater harmony in society. But don’t be too quick to rule out faith!



From Rwanda to Israel-Palestine

Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, Palestinian civil society (and among Israelis too) is brimming with NGOs dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. I’ve mentioned Sami Awad before, founder of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem where I used to teach. Sami’s organizational values are rooted in the belief that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. More than that, HLT members “believe that the Holy Land will one day become a global model for peace, justice, equality and reconciliation between peoples.” Sami, a Palestinian Christian, wanted to understand what Jesus meant by “love your enemy.” He felt God told him that if he was serious about this, he would have to understand from within the suffering of the Jewish people.

So he bought an airline ticket to Germany and spent twelve days visiting several Nazi concentration camps. He even spent one night in a gas chamber. It was life-changing, to say the least! One should not throw around the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” lightly, he cautions.

Another Palestinian you should meet is the young Muslim man, Ali Abu Awwad, whom the New York-based Synergos Institute classifies among the most influential “Arab world social innovators”. Since 2005 this young man has spoken to countless groups around the world with a 65-year-old Israeli woman, originally from South Africa, Robi Damelin.

This pairing up, unlike the Rwanda portraits, was not about perpetrator/survivor reconciliation. Rather, it was about a Palestinian and an Israeli who had both lost immediate family members in the conflict. Ali’s brother was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier and he was himself badly wounded by a settler’s bullets. Robi’s 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper. That’s how they met. They had joined several hundred others like themselves in the Parents Circle Families Forum. Understandably, they don’t agree much about the politics of the conflict, but they all believe that there will be no peace without reconciliation between the two peoples.

I urge you to watch their 5-minute presentation at the Summerset House in London, then to read this 2009 article based on an interview of them at the same time. During that interview in a London coffee shop, they told the journalist that the first step toward reconciliation was “to recognize the suffering of the other side.” When you do that, then you are ready to compromise and allow some dreams to die for the sake of peace. Then Robi, as someone who personally struggled against the Apartheid regime in her native South Africa, offered the hope “that the Bereaved Families Forum could inspire a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Israel and Palestine.”

Yet more than just fellow campaigners for peace, Robi and Ali had truly adopted each other as mother and son. I tear up (and I smile!) every time I see that clip. In Ali’s words,


“I have found in Robi what I didn't get from my own mother," said Awwad. "She knows what kind of clothes I like, the people I like, and she advises me on all these things. She even knows what food I like.”

‘Shrimps,’ said Damelin, laughing. ‘He is addicted to shrimps.’”


I promised a religious dimension to reconciliation in this section. It was evident in Sami’s case, but not in Robi and Ali’s. Yet they spoke in many mosques together, including the London Central Mosque. As I’m trying to show on this website, a peace discourse rooted in faith is more likely to touch and impel a larger audience to action. As the Qur’an puts it,


“The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah. Certainly He does not love wrongdoers” (Q. 42:40).


I write this during the Christian Holy Week. This Friday we meditate on Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross. He who told his followers to love their enemies and forgive those who persecute them prayed these words during his own torture, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Peace in Syria, the Central African Republic, Israel-Palestine and elsewhere will always be possible where people on both sides are willing to embrace each other’s suffering, to speak the truth about past crimes, to forgive and make reparations. Then reconciliation and peace will have a chance to flourish. Let’s commit to this ourselves and pray for God’s power to lead us in this grueling yet glorious task.