Voices of Reconciliation
In 1994, Rwanda stunned the world when years of ethnic tensions exploded into one of the swiftest genocides the world has ever seen. Between April and July 1994, nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, many at the hands of their own neighbors. (To read the details of the Rwandan genocide, click here for the Human Rights Watch backgrounder.)
In 2003, Rwanda shocked the world again when President Paul Kagame decided to release from prison tens of thousands of genocide perpetrators who had confessed to their crimes. With an enormous backlog of court cases, Kagame opted to resurrect a traditional Rwandan method of handling community injustices called the “Gacaca” court. Upwards of 70,000 genocide perpetrators went through this community trial in which they admitted guilt to their neighbors and many were allowed to re-integrate into society. Since that time, Rwanda has been living out a great national experiment of reconciliation. The government, together with countless religious and community organizations, has sought to knit back together this country of 9 million citizens after nearly 1 in 8 people were slaughtered in the genocide.
I traveled to Rwanda in August 2011 with filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson to document survivors and perpetrators of genocide who have reconciled and are living life together peacefully in the same community. Inspired by my “Voices of Haiti” photo essay, the portraits in this series capture a number of Rwandans who have been impacted by the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative, (AWFRI) a reconciliation organization born out of Hinson’s documentary “As We Forgive”, about two Rwandan women’s journey to forgive the killers of their families. The AWFRI, which is entirely led by Rwandans, utilizes the power of film to facilitate discussions and workshops on unity and reconciliation in public schools, prisons, churches and villages across Rwanda.
The following portraits depict Rwandan survivors and killers of the 1994 genocide who I asked to write on a found object a joint statement to the world.
Message: “Love is a weapon to destroy evil”
Gasperd, 35, (pictured right) locks arms with Innocent (named after he was forgiven), 38, (left), the man who killed his older brother during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Gasperd and Innocent later reconciled while attending a workshop hosted by the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative and today work together in an agricultural association. They are pictured in the exact spot where the murder took place.
Bernard and Ernestine.
Message: “We are all Rwandan.”
Bernard and Ernestine married after the 1994 genocide in which nearly all of Ernestine’s family members were murdered. Ernestine later forgave the killers of her family and married Bernard, a former “Hutu,” the ethnic group that largely perpetrated the genocide. Bernard and Ernestine are members of an association of reconciled survivors and ex-prisoners with the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative and are featured in Hinson’s upcoming documentary “Mama Rwanda” about women entrepreneurs in Rwanda.
Kaytani Senyana and Jean de Dieu Twizeremana.
Message: “Brothers in forgiveness.”
Kaytani Senyana, 60, (pictured right) lost 25 members of his family during the genocide, including his wife and seven children. Jean de Dieu Twizeremana, 41, the man who killed one of Kaytani’s brothers, begged him for forgiveness from prison and they have since reconciled.
Jean Damascene Nsengimana and Honore Karuranga.
Message: “Still best friends.”
Honore Karuranga, 31, (right) and Jean Damascene Nsengimana, 38, (left) were childhood best friends until the genocide erupted. Honore’s parents and five cousins were brutally killed. Later he discovered that Jean Damascene had participated in the murder of his cousins. Honore confronted Jean Damascene while in prison, and remarked, “Because I loved him very much, I wanted to forgive him. I wasn’t scared of him, but worried that he would be scared of me.” They are pictured at the scene of the murder. Jean Damascene is now helping Honore rebuild Honore’s farm and home that he helped destroy.
Jean Claude Nshizirungu and Anasta Kasieri.
Message: “Forgiveness releases fear.”
Anasta Kasieri (Pictured right), 45, survived the genocide by hiding in a banana tree while his entire family was chased by a mob into the lake (pictured here) and drowned. Jean Claude Nshizirungu (pictured left), 29, is the son of the leader of that mob. Although the father fled the country in fear, Jean Claude begged Anasta for forgiveness during the Gacaca trial, and Anasta, out of his Christian faith, forgave them all.
Rudoviko Niyongira and Francois Nshunguyinka.
Message: “Forgiveness is our greatest accomplishment.”
Rudoviko Niyongira (right), 59, fled his home in 1994 after receiving a death threat, only to return shortly to find his wife and three children already dead. His neighbor and friend, Francois Nshunguyinka, 73, was one of the culprits in the murder, for which he spent seven years in prison. Wracked with guilt throughout his incarceration, Francois begged Rudoviko for forgiveness and later started a community reconciliation organization. Today, the two men have become friends and their families frequently spend time together.
Ernest Burakigarama and Xavier Ngirumwami.
Message: “We restored our humanity.”
Xavier Ngirumwami (right), 48, survived the genocide by hiding alone in houses and forests to evade the killers. Ernest Burakigarama (Left), 48, was part of a group that murdered eight of Xavier’s family members. Afterwards, he quickly admitted his guilt to the local authorities and spent 13 years in prison, after which time, Xavier decided to forgive him. They are pictured outside the house where Xavier hid during the violence.
Chantale Umbereyimfura and John Nzabonimpa.
Message: “Shared past, shared future.”
Chantale Umbereyimfura (left), 39, never thought she would forgive John Nzabonimpa, 63, the close family friend who brutally beat her father to death. 14 years after the murder, Chantale and John agreed to attend a healing and reconciliation workshop together. A year later, Chantale publicly forgave John in front of their entire community, saying that her heart had been “set free.” John and Chantale’s story is featured in the student Academy Award-winning documentary As We Forgive. (hyperlink to www.asweforgivemovie.com)
Clementine Mukansanga and Celestin Munyampundu.
Message: “Hearts unburdened.”
Clementine Mukansanga, 31, endured years of rage after the family friend that live in her home, Celestin Munyampundu, 38, killed her mother, three siblings, an aunt and an uncle. During his seven years in prison, Celestin was impacted by various ministers who taught him about the need to repent and ask for forgiveness. Later, he begged Clementine for pardon but it look more than a year for her to agree. Clementine said, “When I finally forgave, I felt so lighthearted that I cried.” Today, the two remain friends and Celestin helps Clementine with household work.
Jean Baptiste Ngendananimana and Jeremy Hakizimana.
Message: “Truth is freedom”
Jean Baptiste Ngendananimana, 35, (right) did not discover until the middle of Jeremy Hakizimana’s murder trial that he, in fact, had killed one of his brothers. Jean Baptiste had lost both of his parents and seven siblings in the conflict. When the truth emerged, Jean Baptiste forgave Jeremy, 36, soon after, remarking that he felt such freedom in simply knowing the truth about how his brother had died. Today, Jean Baptiste and Jeremy live next door to each other.
Innocent Kagenza and Leonard Habimeza.
Message: “Working together united us.”
Innocent Kagenza, 54, (left) fled to Burundi after his wife, three children and father were killed in the genocide. He later testified against Leonard Habimeza, 41, (right), one of the murderers, sending him to prison for nine years. After Leonard’s release, both men joined a local reconciliation organization and slowly reconciled through working together to help rebuild homes that were destroyed in the genocide.
Charles Munyeshema and Emmanuel Ruzindana.
Message: “There’s a reason to celebrate.”
A decade after the genocide, Charles Munyeshema, 56, (right) made a deal with his former friend Emmanuel Ruzindana, 54: “Tell me how many people you killed and who they were, and I’ll forgive you.” Charles had lost his wife and seven children in the genocide, as well as numerous other relatives, and Emmanuel had been among the killers. The night that Charles forgave Emmanuel, their two families came together for a huge celebration. Now remarried with children, Charles recently named Emmanuel as the godparent of his son.
People's capacity for forgiveness is incredible! Have you read "Left to Tell"? It's an amazing forgiveness story that took place during the genocide
I read your piece in forgiveness and you nailed it. There are wonderful stories here in the US about people forgiving the killers of their loved ones. Perhaps these stories could be found and documented here in the US. Thanks for putting yourself out there and being tender to the things of God.
what a beautiful story I wish I could truly understand. to forgive those who killed the ones you love... all i would be able to think about is how I would make that person suffer. Perhaps I am no better then the ones who committed the murders and only half the man that forgives. I love what you do and please keep doing it!