© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After The Genocide, Author Witnessed How Rwandans Defined Forgiveness


It happened 25 years ago - up to 800,000 people in Rwanda killed - mostly from the minority Tutsi community, all of that over the course of just a hundred days. Today the hundreds of thousands of people who carried out those killings live among their victims. Journalist and author Philip Gourevitch has witnessed the unique way Rwandans have defined and navigated forgiveness after the massacre. And for the majority of Rwandans who are too young to remember what happened, he says the genocide often shaped their lives in similar ways.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: It's obviously a huge shadow over them. But the difference of not having direct memory changes the relationships. But you do feel that the weight of it on the young is quite differently distributed, that they feel it differently. But obviously, if you grew up an orphan or a child of rape or in a family where, instead of 50 people, there are five and they are deeply traumatized and impoverished - or you grew up in a family where you were carrying food to your father every day in prison and being looked at in the community as that boy, the child of a killer.

And then you both wind up, those two kids, let's say, in college from the same place. They recognize each other, and they find a way of relating to each other. That's pretty remarkable. And it happens on a regular basis. It's something that people talk about with a kind of sense of amazement at the same time as they talk about it with a shrug, as if it were normal. And I'm not sure which one gets them through better.

MARTIN: In order to navigate the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan government set up this nationwide reconciliation process. Can you describe how it worked?

GOUREVITCH: Essentially, there was a big question. Do you have trials? Do you hold everybody accountable or attempt to? Or do you essentially say - we're going to say this was the political order, and we're going to try and hold the people at the top accountable? And the rest, as we change the political system, we're not afraid of them.

And in Rwanda, there was the feeling - but no. There was a lot of agency in the local level. And the experience of the genocide was extremely localized. People were killed by neighbors. It was intimate. They knew each other. And to simply ignore that wouldn't work.

So they set up a system of community courts - without lawyers - to sort of repurpose a system that really had only been used for small claims mitigation in traditional Rwanda, called gacaca, and have open, communal - what we might call a town hall - format for trials. And then the idea was to hold people accountable and have a system of punishment. And this system banked very heavily on encouraging confession and rewarding it. But the confessions were supposed to be also verified by the community.

MARTIN: And what was the specific role of the victims or their surviving family members? They had to be there. And then, after verifying a certain account, were they expected to then make a public state of forgiveness or reconciliation?

GOUREVITCH: They weren't necessarily in a position to verify. Many of them knew that so-and-so was always said to have killed their family members. But they weren't direct witnesses because, by virtue of their survival, that usually meant that they were either somewhere else or well-hidden or had escaped or...

MARTIN: Not present, yeah.

GOUREVITCH: Yes. So in many cases, it's the testimony of other members of the community that would be specific and then these confessions, which were very, very graphic. And so the motto of the gacaca courts was, truth heals.

But as we know, truth can also be really traumatizing and, in this case, retraumatizing because, to go from the idea that - that person is the killer of my family, and I want him to answer for it - to then hearing him describe in quite gory detail and often quite coarsely how he'd gone about killing, let's say, your family members and, at that moment, be asked to accept and forgive him, that's an awful lot to ask at that moment.

But what's interesting to me, too, is - what does forgiveness mean? I mean, to some extent, when I went and I heard the word forgiveness, I thought it sort of meant you'd restore whatever the relationship was before.


GOUREVITCH: And they would say, no, that involves trust. That's a whole different thing. Forgiveness doesn't require trust. Forgiveness simply means letting go of the idea of getting even, forgoing the idea of revenge. Right? Now, even that's a big ask. But it means accepting coexistence.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, is there any way to determine if the gacaca reconciliation process was the reason why Rwanda was able to move forward? I mean, it was an exceptional, nationwide reckoning.

GOUREVITCH: There's never been as comprehensive a reckoning with such communal violence or mass atrocity. I think Rwandans at the time found it very tough. It created a lot of tension because it was an ongoing, multi-year confrontation with the past in the communities. I think in the aftermath of it, you find that the genocide is no longer an unaddressed, looming problem that, in a sense, is both behind and before them - that it was something that had to be done in order for whatever one might call reconciliation.

And one of the things that I often heard people say - you'd ask them how it was going. And they'd start to say, well, for me, it's really very tough still. You know, I'm not at all at ease with this or that or the other thing. But then they would say, even as they complained about much of what was being asked of them by having to live together, they would say - but you know, in general - in society, things are much better. I started to hear this, especially towards the end of gacaca and in the years since.

I took that as a very interesting thing - saying, well, you know, my pains are not gone; my struggles are not over. But the general balance is good. And that means that they felt like something had been gained even if they themselves were not fully at peace - in other words, that the societal peace had been served maybe better than any given individual peace.

MARTIN: It's a starting point.

GOUREVITCH: Yeah. Yeah, I think so - because one wants not to have to accept certain things. It feels like something should be unforgivable. And yet, confronted with that alternative, you can end up in a situation where, you know, just the urge for punitive resolution makes it impossible to continue.

MARTIN: Philip Gourevitch, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOUREVITCH: Thank you.


MARTIN: Philip Gourevitch is the author of the award-winning 1998 book "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.