Acts of Reconciliation in Rwanda

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
                                                                                             – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms


The New York Times Magazine published a photo essay of case studies of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda, two decades after the genocide there. The photos show a Hutu perpetrator with his Tutsi victim, along with a brief description of their individual stories of violence and the long road to asking for forgiveness. In the above picture, the woman, Vivianne, says of her former perpetrator, Jean Pierre:

“He killed my father and three brothers. He did these killings with other people, but he came alone to me and asked for pardon. He and a group of other offenders who had been in prison helped me build a house with a covered roof. I was afraid of him — now I have granted him pardon, things have become normal, and in my mind I feel clear.”

All of the reconciliation stories are incredibly moving, especially considering the severity of the transgressions: murder, rape, looting, destruction of homes. I also wonder how common these acts of forgiveness are. All of the stories shown have a male transgressor, and nearly all have a woman as the person doing the forgiving. Are Tutsi men less likely to have survived, less likely to be approached for forgiveness, or less likely to forgive once asked? It’s not possible to know from these accounts.

Forgiveness seems to be a complex, and often slow, psychological process. Dave Cullen said that in his research into the Columbine school shootings, he felt that the most important lesson about its aftermath was that forgiveness and healing should not be rushed. Instead, it has to run its course. In Rwanda, twenty years have passed, and there are probably practical reasons for reconciliation, since neighbors must somehow learn to live together again and because the scale of devastation to lives and psychological well-being was so widespread. In other places, it might be easier to just move far away, although that would not provide the potential sense of relief that might come with overcoming the past. That option might not be feasible for most Rwandans.    

In the video above the late, admirable Alison des Forges of Human Rights Watch said this about the legacy of the Rwandan genocide:

“It’s as if you took a picture of a family and ripped it down the middle and then tried to fit the halves back together again. Even with the best glue in the world, it’s never going to be the same. People betrayed their deepest values in order to kill, in order to rape, in order to pillage their friends and neighbors and their own family members.Whether you look at it from the point of view of the victim or the point of view of the perpetrator, these are not things that can ever be forgotten.


Justice is not going to erase the memory of the crimes, but it will provide people with some level of closure. At least they’ll know it has been dealt with, it has been talked about, someone has been held responsible and perhaps even ideally the victim has some form of compensation.”

For the people who forgive, even if they can never forget, I imagine they must really be strong at the broken places.



Reconciliation, Biology and the Second Indochina War

2 thoughts on “Acts of Reconciliation in Rwanda

  1. While we’re on the subject, I’ve always found this scene from the movie ‘Gandhi’ to be incredibly powerful. When I first saw it as a teenager, it made me feel that there was always hope and that no situation was irreparable, no matter how heinous. But I’ve never been able to verify that this actually happened, and wonder how much of it is embellished or even fabricated. Do any scholars of Indian history out there know?

  2. Pingback: Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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