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Rwanda - 11 years after the Genocide - the road is still long

Rwanda - 11 years after the Genocide - the road is still long

Fr Michael Lapsley,SSM

As a South African I sometimes feel impatient when visitors from other countries seem surprised that in 11 years of democracy we have not finished dealing with the legacy of apartheid. We have travelled so far and yet we have just begun. So it is with Rwanda 11 years on.

Despite great differences, Rwandese have shared with South Africans the big questions of how to build a different kind of society and how to deal with the past.

It was my third visit to Rwanda – each time hosted by World Vision. This time I was accompanied by Ndukenhle Mtshali, one of our facilitators from KwaZulu-natal. Our visit was superbly organised by World Vision staff member, Josephine Munyeli.

How would it be this time. I felt a need to ask people to pray for me and for the visit before I left.

In the days before the visit, someone had remarked that “gacaca”, * (a traditional form of justice which Rwanda has adopted and adapted to deal with the genocide), was not going well. How would you deal with the aftermath of genocide, I thought to myself. Rwandese friends had said that the 10th anniversary of the genocide was proving to be very traumatic. Now large numbers of perpetrators are being released into the community.

On arrival at the airport, a policeman ran after one of our welcoming party to ask to meet me. He noticed that I had artificial hands and wanted to discuss how to get a prosthesis as he only has one hand.

In a meeting with the World Vision director in Rwanda, Kofi Hagan, we talked about the challenge of acting today in such a way that prevents further war and genocide. I recalled how in South Africa our Truth Commission process asserted that apartheid was a crime against humanity but gave platforms to people whose rights had been violated on all sides of the conflict. Some have charged that “gacaca” provides an opportunity for Tutsi pain to be heard and acknowledged but not for Hutu. Kofi, who is himself a Ghanaian mused aloud as to whether he himself would have been able to forgive if he was a survivor of the genocide. How would I have acted if i had been a Tutsi? How would I have acted if I had been a Hutu? And what if I was of “mixed” parentage?

I recalled the words of Bertolt Brecht: “Woe is the land that has no heroes. Nay, woe is the land that needs heroes.” In situations of great injustice heroism is required to be a decent human being but most of us are not heroes.

What was clear, Kofi Hagan asserted is that a journey of healing was a prerequisite to effective development.

I was asked to meet with a group of several hundred adults who were in a reintegration centre and about to be released after years of imprisonment. The majority had been imprisoned because of their involvement in the genocide. Some had confessed to their involvement in the genocide. I spoke to them about what they carried inside themselves as a consequence of what they had done, of what had been done to them and what they failed to do, in the way of poisonous and lifegiving feelings. After I had also shared some of my own story, it was their turn. A couple of the questioners found it hard to comprehend how I as a white person had joined what they saw as a black struggle.

One older man said he had confessed to his involvement in the genocide and had asked to be forgiven. 
What advice could I give him? I suggested to him that he was returning to a society that was still hurting which would affect greatly how people responded. 
The only person I can change is myself.

Some would welcome him and accept his words of forgiveness, some would not and some would take a wait and see attitude – reserving judgement until they saw if the words of contrition were serious. I suggested to the group that they had an important role to play in creating either peace or war in the future.

An hour or two later, we were speaking with a group of widows of the genocide. Their loss included husbands, children, relatives. Some had children as a consequence of rape and some are HIV positive. They too have an important role to play in peace making or creating future nightmares depending on the messages which they passed on to their grand children. One woman named Mary spoke eloquently about the journey of healing with all its difficulties. She observed en passant that some of the story telling which happened was destructive and not life-giving. Another woman asked what the relationship was between forgiveness and justice. What do I gain from forgiving she asked?

I shared with the women some of my experiences with a group of perpetrators the same morning.

Our next visit was to meet a group of 1300 young adults on the eve of their release back into the community after years spent in prison. As we arrived they sang songs about returning home and not knowing who they would find. All of them were minors at the time they participated in the genocide. One young man said that he was ordered to kill people and threatened with dire consequences if he did not. He confessed to killing 28 people. To my mind, both a perpetrator but also a victim. After I spoke to them a number took the microphone and said that they were no longer killers and wanted to help build Rwanda. They said that I was the first non Rwandese to come and speak to them. As we left these young people were singing their hearts out about their commitment to rebuild Rwanda
with their own hands. I pray that they will find the space to make that contribution.

In the afternoon I spoke during a service at Kigali prison to several hundred prisoners.. Many of the prisoners belong to the category of those who helped organize the genocide and now face trials and the possibility of life in prison. There was time for one or two responses after I had spoken. One prisoner asserted that what had happened to me was all God's will. I replied that I had to disagree as I did not believe that God sent letter bombs or for that matter committed Genocide. These were evil acts. What is of God is the choice and the way in which we may respond. e.g. Through journeys of healing and peace making.

In response to a request I was asked to return the next day and speak with a dialogue group of about a hundred and fifty inmates. When we arrived at the prison the next morning we met with the head of the prison. It turned out that he had heard me speak in 1998. He asked that the meeting be opened to any prisoner who wished to attend and that loudspeakers be set up so that the address could be heard by all 6000 prisoners in the gaol.

From the prison we went to a meeting with the commissioners of the Unity and Reconciliation Commission. I shared with the commissioners some of the learnings from healing of memories work 
during the last 10 years. During April of every year, Rwanda remembers the genocide. One of the most significant discussions was about whether or not the way the events are recalled contribute towards healing and reconciliation or encourage retraumatisation and even ethnic hatred. Destructive memory or lifegiving memory? How would it be if what was emphasized were the stories of those who acted with generosity, compassion and self sacrifice towards the “other”. Again we spoke of what needed to be done to help prevent the repetition of genocide. We give it our best shot, but there are no guarantees.

From Kigali we travelled for 4 hours to reach Kigufi on Lake Kivu near Gisenyi on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at a place of great beauty. It was here at a Benedictine convent that we held a healing of memories workshop followed by facilitator training for 26 pastors and church workers from a number of different churches and regions of Rwanda. The training was attended by 30 people including participants from the workshops which took place last year and in 1998.

At the beginning of the healing of memories we asked participants what memories and feelings the 
gacaca process had evoked in them. Clearly there is a great deal of ambivalence in many people. Even those who defend the process as a good way forward, concede that there is space for the system to be abused. The worry is how many people are in prison who should be free and how many are free who deserve to be incarcerated. The danger is the process can be used to settle old scores which have nothing to do with the genocide. Nevertheless it is clear that without such a process vast numbers of people would remain awaiting trial for the forseeable future.

During the training of facilitators participants had an opportunity to share what they had learnt and gained during the workshop.

Points made included:

  • knowing oneself
  • not to keep the hatred inside
  • all people are the same, we share common feelings
  • all people have been hurt in one way or the other
  • I have made a step towards healing
  • people can help each other on the journey to healing
  • to vomit “poison”
  • how a person feels after taking out the poison
  • about “bicycle theology”
  • the one who forgives is the one who gains
  • forgiveness is a process
  • to help others inperseverance
  • the benefit of talking the truth
  • to be listened to is the first step of healing
  • to listen not so much with the head as with the heart
  • the knowledge of how bad it is to judge people
  • to have more compassion
  • people are capable of being both victims and victimisers
  • to turn evil to good, darkness to life
  • how powerful it is, and beneficial it is to tell one's story in a safe space
  • burying and forgetting is not the same as healing
  • the pain of some people can be liberating to some other people

If that is what we learnt, what then is healing of memories?
We said healing of memories is:

  • a journey of healing
  • about dealing with the past.
  • a conversation about what is in us
  • a journey from victim to victory
  • remembering not only what happened to us but also to other people
  • a process of healing beginning with yourself
  • a journey of liberation and forgiveness of self and others
  • a journey of acceptance of the past
  • acknowledging and beginning to let go of that in the past which would destroy us and taking from 
    the past that which is lifegiving

At the conclusion of the facilitator training we made some initial plans for the future of healing of memories in Rwanda. It was agreed:

  • to identify key people to work with in different parts of the country
  • to define and strengthen the structure of partnership between the Institute for healing of memories, World Vision, faith based and other institutions and organisations in Rwanda .e.g. The Unity and reconciliation commission and AVEGA
  • develop a plan for capacity building
  • create a core team which was immediately elected.
  • to develop a representative team of facilitators in terms of age, gender and ethnicity

Target groups for future workshops include:

  • the representatives of gacaca
  • prisoners
  • survivors
  • local government leaders

It was suggested that as in South Africa healing of memories was a parallel process to the Truth and Reconciliaton Commission so it could run parallel to gacaca, A number of people emphasized that for cultural reasons Rwandese find it hard to share what is deep inside them, indeed the culture encourages the opposite. There was an emphasis made on the importance of working with young people and the need to train both young and older facilitators as it is not easy for young and old to mix together.

The night before we left Kigali, South African Ambassador to Kigali, Ezra Sigwela hosted a dinner in honour of our visit with a number of leaders of the faith community, Christian and Moslem. He has a vision of bringing an interfaith delegation to Rwanda for a seminar on South Africa's Day of reconciliation, December 16 to share with their Rwandese counterparts.

Our last meeting was with Anglican Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini. He shared with us that development and the opportunity for education are part of the peace dividend. In 1994 there was only one university, and now there is 10. Primary education and the first three years of secondary school are 

Many of the participants in the workshops had lived for substantial periods in the different countries that make up the Great Lakes region some whose families had left Rwanda two hundred years ago and others whose families had become refugees as a consequence of more recent conflicts.

It is clear that the past, present and future of Rwanda, Burundi and DRC are closely intertwined.
As Alfred Bizoza, a Rwandese completing studies in South Africa, put it, having himself lived in all three countries, they are like the 3 legs of an African cooking pot – if one leg breaks it affects the whole pot.

Together with World Vision in Rwanda we are exploring a longer term relationship whose next step may include a visit of one month in 2006.

I thank God for the privilege, albeit a heavy responsibility, of having the opportunity to listen and to share with the people of Rwanda

I thank God for all those, especially my brothers of the Society of the Sacred Mission in Lesotho and other family, colleagues and friends who prayerfully accompanied the visit to Rwanda.

· Gacaca:Kinyarwandan word meaning "justice on the grass". The traditional Rwandan practice in which trial occurs in a community gathering, the focus of which is on reconciliation of the community. On October 13, 2000, the Rwandan National Assembly passed a law establishing large scale "gacaca courts" to process the tens of thousands of cases of those accused of participating in the 1994 genocide. - Definition in context

About Us

The Institute for the Healing of Memories seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations. Our work is grounded in the belief that we are all in need of healing, because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

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    Cape Town, 7708, South Africa

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