Forgiveness and a Thread to Follow

The following post is based on a talk that MS English teacher, Robbi Hart, delivered to the Upper School.  Robbi’s words are a reflection of her time spent in Rwanda this past summer as a part of GFA’s Faculty Travel Grant program.  More information about GFA’s budding relationship with the IEE Teacher Training Program in Rwanda will follow in the coming weeks.


By:  Robbi Hart (MS English)

Could you forgive a person that murdered your family?  What would it take?  How long would it last?  How fragile would it be?  Those questions haunted me for months after I watched the IEE film As We Forgive and, ultimately, led to my journey to Rwanda this past summer on a GFA travel grant.  While my trip was, equally importantly, designed to forge a partnership between our school and the IEE Teacher Training Program, my first pull to this tiny country, ignored by the world in 1994 when it experienced the worst genocide since World War II, was to witness the reconciliation process firsthand.

During a period of 100 days close to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women, and children were killed in Rwanda, most of them slaughtered with machetes and crude farming tools by their very own neighbors. By the time the massacre ended, one-fifth of the country’s population was dead, two out of three surviving women were infected with HIV/AIDS, and a country that previously did not have the word “orphan” in its vocabulary was left with over 400,000 orphans and more than 85,000 households headed by children. A new term, ihahamuka, had to be coined to describe the complex psychological disorders resulting from the genocide.

Most of the world assumed that Rwanda would become a poster child for self-destruction; however, it has instead become a symbol of reconciliation and rebirth, a phoenix rising from the ashes.  In the aftermath of the genocide, faced with 120,000 prisoners he could no longer detain, President Paul Kagame had to find a way to reintegrate the perpetrators of the genocide into their original homes and communities, often living next door to their victims.

He and Bishop Rucyahana came up with a specially crafted solution – using local courts, called Gacacas, where killers stood before their neighbors, confessed their crimes, and in turn were offered forgiveness. He had to replace centuries of European Imperialism that sought to create divisions between Tutsis and Hutus with a new national identity as united Rwandans.

Bishop John Rucyahana, founder of Prison Fellowship International, architect of the Reconciliation process, and Minister of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, is, apart from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, one of the most influential men in Africa, but through a friend of Patti Hiller, I was able to arrange a meeting.  As we sat under a bamboo gazebo sipping ginger-spiced African tea, my small foursome learned how the reconciliation process is working and what the Rwandan people can teach the world. When I asked the bishop if he had a message for our students back home, he said, “Tell them, I have the choice not to forgive, to hold onto bitterness and anger and rage.  But I also have the choice to forgive and to move on, and through that forgiveness to bless the children of the perpetrators.  Rwanda is our country.  Nobody can do it for us.  Forgiveness is our responsibility.”

His honesty and generosity in sharing both the pain and the promise of Rwanda was found in everyone I encountered during my visit.  Guma Alexandre, with PFI Restorative Justice, cleared an entire day to allow us to interview former prisoners, attend a 2-hour village reconciliation meeting, and visit genocide memorials at Nyamata and Ntarama.  The images of those memorials – where blood-stained clothing lines the church benches, mortar shells lie strewn beside family photos and maimed skulls, and statues of the Virgin Mary watch with hands folded in prayer – are not forgotten.  Yet they are mysteriously and powerfully woven into a firm resolve of “Never again” and a message of forgiveness and understanding.

Matteus, a former Hutu prisoner who killed his neighbor’s family, stands next to the only survivor of that family.  Her forehead bears the deep imprints of the masus, or nail-studded clubs, that were used to try to kill her.  After 9 years in prison and 13 reconciliation meetings over 2 years, Matteus has been accepted back into the community and now makes bricks out of water and soil.  Sitting beside them under the shade of a banana tree, listening to a language I did not know, their acceptance, even affection, for one another was palpable.

The first night I arrived in Rwanda was the last night of the 100-day mourning period.  I stayed awake most of the night listening to music from nearby churches, blaring radios, people in the streets, and guard dogs barking.  Because so few could bury their dead, this 100-day period is kept sacred still, 17 years later, to allow the healing to continue.  It is followed by an even more important commemoration, the Day of Liberation.  On that day I was fortunate to join 40,000 Rwandans gathered in the Amohoro Stadium to recall the blessings, remember the scars, and hear President Kagame renew his government’s pledge to build unity, transparency, and prosperity.

At the end of my journey to Rwanda I found that my camera, memories, and journals were filled not with images of pain and suffering, anger and self-pity, but instead with reassurances of gratitude, hope, and understanding.  I returned to my heavy questions, no longer haunted.  If Rwandans can reconcile with those who have slaughtered their own families, how much more can we forgive the offenses in our lives? One high school student, after viewing a more recent film from Rwanda (Kinyarwandan), said it best: “Perhaps forgiveness is the final stage of human evolution.”  I believe it can be.

My journey to Rwanda started with a quote I held onto from my eighth grade term paper on Cry, The Beloved Country: “I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering.” Although that quote and that book were powerful, I felt skeptical, and I feared that another quote from the book might prove more true – “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they (the whites of South Africa) have turned to loving, they will find we (the blacks) are turned to hating.”  Experiences in South Africa and Rwanda have shown the world that while human beings are capable of horrific hatred and suffering, they are also capable of unbelievable grace and compassion, even forgiveness.

I offer you that thread of hope to take with you today.  Read, explore, and find other places in this fractured world where they are building new ties and hope.  Then share the news so we can all carry the thread, feel the promise, and shoulder the responsibility.

Forgiveness and a Thread to Follow

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