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Imperceptible Change of Hearts
By Bethany Mahler

How do people live together in the wake of violent conflict? That is the question I came to Rwanda to answer. As a graduate student in the field of Conflict Transformation, what has always struck me about the Rwandan genocide is the intimacy of it. Overnight, neighbors killed neighbors, teachers turned on students, priests betrayed their parishioners. “How could one human being do such a thing?” you wonder, and more importantly now, thirteen years after the genocide, “How can these same human beings live next door to one another?” As a survivor, how do you rebuild a relationship with the person who tried to destroy who you are? As a perpetrator, how can you live from one day to the next with the shame of what you did and the constant fear of revenge? For many Rwandans, it is not an issue of whether or not you will have to face your attacker or your victim; in the close communities that pervade the densely-populated country of Rwanda, running into the “Other” can happen daily.

When I arrived in Rwanda in the summer of 2006, I was amazed by the normalcy of it all; the bustle of the marketplace, the constant flow of people on the roads, the ubiquitous sound of drums and singing that paced my steps. People seemed comfortable, even happy. Perhaps it was because Rwandans are so good at keeping up appearances or perhaps because it was just easier for me to believe, but I clung to this image. It was not until I attended my first Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop in September that I began to see the cracks in the walls. I met people at the workshop who hadn’t spoken to their next door neighbors in over a decade. There was one woman who was so traumatized that she rarely left her home; a released-prisoner who, until that day, had looked at all survivors as his enemy. I rapidly came to appreciate the immense distance that lies between peaceful coexistence and real reconciliation, between what I had seen on the surface and what lay just underneath. For many Rwandans, it is the difference between a life bound by compassion and humanity and a life overwhelmed by silence and fear.

“The Journey of Trust” is an activity that I had always called as “The Trust Walk.” I had done this particular team-building exercise at least once a year growing up—in school, at camp, whenever I was thrown into a new group. I had been partnered up, blind-folded, and led around the room so many times that I no longer thought about it; it became just another thing I had to do before I could move on to what was actually important. It was not until I stood in front of rows of survivors and released-prisoners at my first HROC workshop in Kibuye that I truly understood the heart of the game. As pairs of Rwandans guided one another outside the workshop room, down the gentle slope of the hill, and carefully over the small rocks nestled into the earth, the magnitude of what was happening suddenly became clear. 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.

So, how do people live together? In workshops across Rwanda, I found my answer. I can’t explain it to you, but I know that I have seen it and felt it. In trust walks and games, in the tenuous clasp of hands and the small, imperceptible change of hearts it is there and it is making all the difference.

Bethany Mahler is a candidate for a Master’s in Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training in Vermont. She worked at the Friends Peace House from the summer of 2006 to mid-October 2007 and was co-author of “Now I Am Human.”