Immaculee Ilibagiza survived the Rwandan genocide in a cramped bathroom where she and seven other women clung to life – and faith – as their own neighbors plunged into a bloodbath that shocked the world.
April 7, 2012 marked the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a tragedy in which more than 800,000 people lost their lives during 100 days of bloodshed. The genocide was sparked by the death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, who was killed when his plane was shot down over the Kigali airport. Habyarimana's death marked the beginning of over three months of vicious attacks against the Tutsi population in Rwanda. When the genocide ended, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been brutally murdered – Immaculee's family among them. The country was a wasteland of death and despair.
The survivors of the genocide were few, and Immaculee was one of them. For her, the end of the genocide marked the beginning of a journey she could never have imagined. Immaculee, like many Rwandans, chose to meet with and forgive the individuals who killed her family. Her first book, Left to Tell, chronicles her story of survival and ultimately forgiveness. It's a journey that many Rwandans are making, 18 years after the genocide.
Today, Rwanda is still recovering from the cataclysmic tragedy that rocked the country. Justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness are themes mingling alongside anger, grief, and bitterness. For many Rwandans, finding forgiveness in the wake of the genocide has resulted in changed lives and hope for the future. But for most victims, recovery from the pain is a work in progress.
Finding justice in the post-genocide nation has been a complicated process. Rwanda's justice system buckled under the enormous weight of over 2 million cases resulting from the genocide. The government responded by bringing back a controversial form of justice – the Gacaca court (pronounced Ga-cha-cha). In the Gacaca setting, survivors have the opportunity to confront perpetrators, and defendants can offer acts of service to the families of their victims. The whole scenario of the Gacaca court differs markedly from a traditional trial. Victims raise their hands and ask questions; defendants break down and confess, victims cry. Anger and relief and forgiveness are among the range of emotions expressed.
Defendants are sometimes offered lighter sentences in exchange for confession, enabling families of genocide victims to finally learn the fate of their loved ones. In spite of Rwanda's limited options for justice – the country couldn't afford the number of trials that needed to take place, and the government said that it would take 200 years to try all the cases within the traditional court system – Gacaca has been widely criticized. Human rights agencies say that the system does not provide fair trials, since defendants have no representation. The setting can be both emotional and dangerous. There have been reports of witnesses being killed.
But for many Rwandans, Gacaca represents a form of traditional justice that has been appropriate and manageable under the circumstances. Ndinga is one individual who feels that the Gacaca courts have served a purpose in his nation. As a defendant, he was grateful for the opportunity to be tried in his village, among the individuals he had harmed the most. “To go in front of the family [of people] you have killed – it's very hard, but it's better to explain to them because we want forgiveness,” he says.
In June of this year, the Gacaca courts will shut down permanently. The last of Rwanda's genocide cases are in the midst of being tried. The end of the Gacaca courts is significant, but the work of reconciliation continues across the country. Nonprofit organizations throughout Rwanda are endeavoring to foster forgiveness and reconciliation among victims and perpetrators who now find themselves living as neighbors in the slowly recovering nation.
Today, 93 percent of Rwandans identify themselves as Christians, and reconciliation efforts are largely promoted by churches throughout the country. Laura Waters Hinson's film “As We Forgive” has spawned a nationwide movement of transparency and reconciliation in Rwanda. The “As We Forgive” Rwanda Initiative (AWFRI) focuses on training pastors and conducting workshops in churches demonstrating the power of forgiveness and the relief of reconciliation. “As our teams train leaders in biblical teaching on forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation and in best practices for generating community reconciliation, each leader is empowered to [to reach] his or her sphere of influence, teaching others to utilize our reconciliation tools to promote a grassroots movement of reconciliation,” according to the Rwanda Initiative website. Within the group's workshops, the response by participants has been overwhelmingly positive. Around 90 percent of participants have said that they “believe forgiveness is a worthwhile response to rebuild communities in post-genocide Rwanda.”
For perpetrators, the workshops have proven to initiate powerful contact points with victims. “I wrote to the Gacaca court and confessed my crimes,” says Basabe, one perpetrator during the genocide. “But I was still burdened by my sins because I wanted to meet with the person I directly offended. After the AWFRI program, I felt empowered to meet her and I was able to repent and receive her forgiveness face-to-face. Now I am at peace.”
For Immaculee Ilibagiza, the memories of the genocide are still fresh in her mind. As a New York Times bestselling author, she speaks regularly of her experiences, and recounts the power of forgiveness in her life. “Saturday April 7, will mark the 18th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda,” Ilibagiza recently posted on her Facebook page. “I still remember it like it was yesterday. ... While I miss my parents greatly, I can’t help but to feel the joy of knowing that even in the darkest hour, God’s love is even more palpable. Suffering has a way of opening your eyes to another level.”
Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].
Publication date: April 13, 2012