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?
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.
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
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.