Reconciliation: A National Story

By Bill Long on January 14, 2019


Few of us over 40 can forget the graphic images and sense of international helplessness as nearly 1 million people (out of a population of 7 million), mostly of the Tutsi ethnic group, were slain in reprisal for their suspected collaboration in the assassination of the Hutu President of Rwanda in 1994.  The bloodbath continued from April - July 1994, until a Tutsi-led army trained in neighboring Uganda intervened to take control of the devasted country.  Tensions had existed between these groups since colonial days, when the Belgian colonists gave authority to the Tutsi, who were about 15% of the population.  Now everything was coming to a horrendous, nightmarish head.

Next year is the 25th anniversary of this carnage, universally recognized as a modern genocide.  By now the population of the country has risen to 12 million, nearly 1/3 of whom were not even born when the events of 1994 took place.  Though stories of those events no doubt are known to every Rwandan child, none of these young people at least bear the physical scars of that event.

Following these events, a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was established.  In 2000 a Presiden was elected whose principal goal was to establish a process by which national reconciliation could take place.  Many, for good reason, were skeptical.  People questioned the validity of a top-down reconciliation process that required participants in the process to accept an "official narrative" of the genocide.  Many felt that there was a stigma if you didn't say you were involved in the reconciliation process.  Then, there were many who refused to participate.  As one survivor said, "Reconciliation is never going to happen - at least for me."


Yet some dramatic events have happened in the past 20 years that suggest that the skeptics may not have the last word.  Importantly, legally, were a few things.  First was the sentencing to prison of those actually found guilty of crimes.  Second was the passage of a law reducing sentences if a convicted person would write to a person against whom he had perpetrated violence andn express remorse.  Third, because the judicial system became overcrowded, the country reinstated a pre-colonial institution called the gacaca, a village court whose mandate it was to rebuild the community through their work.  Finally, on the government's initiative, all reference to two contrasting ethnic groups (Tutsi, Hutu) was dropped in favor of "Rwandan."

Then, the international community responded.  Two Christian non-profit organizations familiar to Americans, Prison Followship and World Vision, became involved.  Most often noted is the effort of Prison Fellowship Rwanda to establish six "reconciliation villages," where perpetrators and victims, after extensive screening, live next to each other and learn the rudiments of forgiveness and rebuilding a country together.  These reconciliation villages now house about 3,000 people.  Certainly this is a mere fraction of the current Rwandan population, but they hold out hope that the lofty and usually elusive concept of reconciliation might actually bear fruit.

Reconciliation, or learning to balance justice and healing, or retribution and forgiveness, not only doesn't happen overnight, but it doesn't happen in 25 years.  Yet, a survey of Rwandans recently suggested that nmore than 90%of Rwandans believe that reconciliation is working.  The skeptics may indeed have the last word, but for now the dominant tone is that the country is rebuilding itself, one relationship at a time.