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Editorial Comment

Why We Should “Love Thy Neighbor”
By Angela Forcier

Why I Do What I Do: Life in Bududa, Uganda
By Barbara Wybar

HROC and the Batwa Ethnic Group in Rwanda
By Theoneste Bizimana

Living Abundantly
By Deborah Dakin

A Bumpy Road to Mediation By George Brose

Applying These Teachings: Testimonies from Congo
By Zawadi Nikuze

Reconciliation?
By David Zarembka

Reaching a Common Reconciliation
By Adrien Niyongabo

Welcome Back
By Dorcas Nyambura

 

 

Reconciliation?
By David Zarembka

David Zarembka is the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams and lives in Lumakanda, western Kenya.

Do you really believe that reconciliation is possible between mortal enemies? Is revenge and retaliation a basic human trait that makes true reconciliation remarkably unlikely? Is Nelson Mandela considered an icon because he did not seek revenge against the white apartheid community when he became President of South Africa in 1994?

Venancie Nyirabyimana is a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In 2007, she attended a Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop sponsored by the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) of the Friends Peace Teams. Before the workshop she said that she didn’t think she could ever forgive the killers. The workshop was also attended by the Hutu man whom she witnessed killing her two brothers with a machete and her younger sister with a spear. He had just been released from prison. On the third day of the workshop, there is a trust walk done in pairs and one person is blindfolded and the other leads the “blind” person around, then they switch places. Here is what Venancie said when she was, by chance, paired up with the man who killed her siblings:

During the trust walk, the person who killed my family was my partner. I was shaking because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down. But he also had fear and he took me gently, kindly. I asked, “Will you lead me in peace?” After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him.

Before the trust walk, Venancie illustrated one the basic attitudes that impedes reconciliation. This is the dichotomous world view of Good versus Evil (which in religious terms is God versus Satan). This leads people to want to adopt the role of the Rescuer who helps the Victim and condemns the Perpetrator. Reconciliation demands that this simplistic worldview be reexamined.

Bethany Mahler attended this workshop and wrote:

When you come from a place of comfort and security, where there was always someone to tuck you in at night, trust is easily built because there is no reason not to trust. In Rwanda, there is every reason not to trust. To behold a shy, widowed woman close her eyes and offer her hand to the man that destroyed her once-happy life was singularly beautiful. This small movement, this slight touch was everything. You imagine there is that kind of strength and benevolence in the world, but you rarely get to witness it. That day in September, I saw a world transformed through the eyes of every Rwandan in that room, a transformation in the richest, most profound sense of the word.

The Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities program (HROC) originated in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and in Burundi near the end of the civil war. Its purpose was, and is, to bring together both sides of a terrible tragedy so that the cycle of violence might be broken enabling Hutu and Tutsi to again live together in peace and tranquility. Over time the program has developed these six principles:

1. In every person, there is something that is good.

2. Each person and society has the inner capacity to heal, and an inherent intuition of how to recover from trauma. Sometimes the wounds are so profound that people or communities need support to rediscover that inner capacity.

3. Both victims and perpetrators of violence can experience trauma and its after-effects.

4. Healing from trauma requires that a person’s inner good and wisdom is sought and shared with others. It is through this effort that trust can begin to be restored.

5. When violence has been experienced at both a personal level and a community level, efforts to heal and rebuild the country must also happen at both the individual and community level.

6. Healing individuals from trauma and building peace between groups is deeply connected. It is not possible to do one without the other. Therefore, trauma healing and peace building efforts must happen simultaneously.

HROC workshops are three days long with half the participants from one side of the divide and the other half from the opposing side. The curriculum was created to introduce participants to the concept of trauma, to build a sense of trust and community within the workshop, to facilitate initial expressions of grief and mourning, and to establish concrete ways to deal with anger. Using Judith Herman’s stages of recovery as a conceptual framework, HROC participants are moved through the four stages of 1) Establishing Safety, 2) Remembrance and Mourning, 3) Reconnection with Community, and 4) Finding Commonality. It is a participatory approach which utilizes culturally-appropriate games, song, prayer, and discussions to empower people to find their own meaning within the teachings. Participants are asked about and encouraged to share their experiences, which then become the basis for the learning. It is an environment where there are no wrong answers; where a person’s knowledge and opinions are valid and real even if s/he cannot read and write.

But does this work? Here is the testimony of Muhutu Juvenal, a 60 year old Hutu from Burundi:

I was put into prison in 1998 accused of having participated in the killings of Tutsi in my neighborhood. My wife, knowing how false that accusation was, could not resist and got seriously depressed. Up to now, nine years later, she is crazy. I am not sure if she will recover! Though I was waiting for the death penalty, I got released in 2005. Really this was a miracle for me! I could not believe that I was acquitted.

I attended my first HROC workshop in July 2006. This was my first time to be face to face with Tutsi, after my release from prison. It is true that no Tutsi came to my home and said that I should be arrested again. But inside of me, I kept this grudge in my heart against them. The time we met in HROC workshop, I could not tell you how it came to me to think that we would be arguing over my issue. Contrary, we were led in wonderful discussions where we learned about things that wounded us, shared our burdens, and so on. I discovered that it is when you sit with someone and share with him that you understand that the person is not garbage. Once you have stored sweet words in your heart, they stick there and they help you to eliminate the bitterness. It is amusing to see how people in the community started trusting me. They often come to me asking for advice in the conflicts they may have because they are, for sure, witnesses of the goodness that is within me. They are the first ones to obviously notice the real change that took place in me. I want to keep being the model in my neighborhood. I committed myself in assisting those in conflicts for I know what prison is like and I would never wish that any one else would live what I lived there. It is woeful!

When people see their children fighting with each other because of ethnicity, they begin to think, “When these children grow up, will there be another cycle of violence, worse than the last one?” “Worse than the genocide” is hard for me to imagine. But the next round will not be genocide, rather a mutual slaughter so perhaps it will be much worse. People with this experience realize that reconciliation and return to normal living with the neighbor (enemy) is essential for long term peace. As Salvator Ndayziga from Burundi says, “We adults ought to find ways to get along together as different ethnicities so that our children would start from there”.

Sylvain Toyi, a Hutu from Burundi, makes another point:

Before the workshop, I liked to be alone most of the time. My heart was exhausted from carrying all the bad stuff I had. After the workshop, I remember that is when I slept more deeply than any other single night since 1993.

This is a frequent comment. People who have been carrying around anger, bitterness, hostility, and fear for years talk about how a great load or burden has been lifted off of them when they realize that reconciliation is both possible and necessary. When reconciliation occurs, people report feeling that they have rejoined the human family. Frequently their first step is to stop beating/screaming at their spouse, children, family, and neighbors. It is these who are closest at hand who suffer from the anger and bitterness of those traumatized by events.

However, this reconciliation is not supported by everyone. For example, after one of the HROC workshops in Cyangugu, on the southern edge of Lake Kivu in Rwanda, some participants who wished to reconcile encountered much hostility and resistance from others in their villages. As a result, the Rwandan Government had to supply guards at night to protect Beatrice Mukayiranga, a Tutsi survivor, and Samuel Komezusense, a Hutu perpetrator, who had become reconciled. Theophile Nyirinkindi, the local Friend’s pastor, reports that it took two or three days after the HROC workshop to negotiate the end of fighting in the community between those supporting and opposing reconciliation.

In the United States, think about the death penalty and its “closure”. Think of why millions of people are currently in US prisons. Think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Think of the ongoing hostility from the time of slavery. Think of the genocide of the Native Americans. In each case, we, as Americans, have not moved beyond the anger, fear, bitterness, and hostility towards a renewed world of reconciliation and tranquility. We have much to learn from the survivors, perpetrators and bystanders of the violence in Rwanda and Burundi.

Note: Most of the examples and quotes in this article come from the African Great Lakes Initiative publication, “Now I Am Human: Testimonies from the Healing Companions Program in Rwanda and Burundi,” by Bethany Mahler and Florence Ntakarutimana in Rwanda and Adrien Niyongabo in Burundi. The complete report can be found on the AGLI webpage, http://aglionline.org/publications/articles.htm.