Radical mercy in the heart of Rwanda

A Rwandan genocide survivor holds hands with the man who killed her family, in a sign of forgiveness and solidarity.

A Rwandan genocide survivor holds hands with the man who killed her family, in a sign of forgiveness and solidarity.

“We forgive because we know that God also forgives.”

These are the words of a woman whose family members were killed during the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.

Her words are incredible, but they are not unique. The most moving part of my recent trip to Rwanda was witnessing the unbelievable forgiveness that is taking place there.

I watched another woman embrace the man who had killed her family, in a gesture of solidarity and forgiveness, and I found myself overwhelmed. The idea of forgiving the person who brutally murdered your entire family is unfathomable to me. But as I listened to the testimonies of people across the country, that is what I heard, again and again.

This coming spring marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Approximately one million people were slaughtered over the course of 100 days, simply for being Tutsi.

Unlike many prominent genocides throughout history, this one was carried out locally. This was not a centralized group sweeping through the country killing Tutsis. Rather, perpetrators and victims often belonged to the same village – in many cases they were classmates, co-workers, even next door neighbors. I heard stories of how friends turned their backs on each other, caught up in the hatred that enveloped the country, and committed unspeakable crimes against their loved ones.

In a country as community-based as Rwanda, this is a significant detail. The village is a crucial social unit for Rwandans, and forgiveness is more difficult under these terms. You cannot simply forgive the people who killed your family and move on, hoping to never see them again. You know you will encounter them regularly – at the market, at church, at school. The community is so tight-knit that this interaction is inevitable. You are not forgiving a stranger, but a neighbor who has harmed you irreparably.

This challenge is immense, but the people of Rwanda have risen to the occasion. Many of the victims acknowledged that the process took time, and it was not easy, but eventually they learned how to fight hatred and resentment, developing the capacity for mercy.

In some cases, victims forgave the reparation debt legally owed to them, realizing that the perpetrators could not afford to pay it. In another case, a woman used the retribution money she received for her husband’s death to help feed and support the man who killed him.

Meanwhile, many perpetrators were moved to regret their heinous crimes and found the courage to ask forgiveness. Eventually, they were able to forgive themselves as well.

One man, visibly touched, described his shock at being released from prison after 10 years to find that his wife was living in peace with the widow next door, whose husband he had murdered. The two women had been supporting each other during his time in jail.

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A genocide perpetrator and survivor stand side-by-side in Rwanda.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the dead. Nor does it mean ignoring the pain that accompanies evil. For some, it took a long time to return to faith and prayer. They found themselves questioning whether God was truly with them. Eventually, with the support of those around them, they found a way to rebuild.

For victims, granting forgiveness means letting go of the hurt and anger over past actions. One woman recounted that in her traumatized state after the genocide, she did not even feel human and struggled to see other people as human. Through prayer and outreach, she was gradually able to heal, aided by those who were there to listen and remain close to her.

For the perpetrators, receiving forgiveness is receiving the ability to change their lives and move forward rather than remaining caught in a trap of shame and guilt. One man said that upon requesting and receiving forgiveness, the immense burden that had been on his heart for years was lifted, and he could finally rest.

Those perpetrators who have not asked for forgiveness – and those victims who refuse to grant it – still live in anger and strife. The people we talked to said that their neighbors see their life and are drawn to it, sometimes approaching them to ask how they achieved peace.

The struggle to rebuild Rwanda is not over. There is still a need for healing, trust and reconciliation. But the forgiveness that has taken place so far in the country is shocking to me. I cannot imagine having my entire family brutally slaughtered and being able to live in peace with the people who had killed them. Yet the individuals who shared their testimonies with my group were at peace. It was profoundly apparent, particularly among the perpetrators. They had the courage to look into our eyes and admit their crimes, while at the same time maintaining a sense of dignity and self-worth that can only come from the certainty of being forgiven.

What a beautiful example for the whole world, including myself. This trip has sparked a personal examination of conscience – how often am I willing to forgive? Or how many times do I instead prefer to hold a grudge, refusing forgiveness over an offense (or even a perceived offense) rather than letting go?

I came to Rwanda expecting to see people overwhelmed with shame and guilt at their actions, or else trapped in the pain of loss from 20 years ago. And I’m sure many people are. But these people were at peace. They had found a way to move forward, experiencing a profound mercy rooted in the merciful love of Christ. They forgive because they know God also forgives.