Can Rwandan Survivors Ever Truly Forgive the Murderers in Their Own Country?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 6 2014 7:30 AM

Unreconciled Rwanda

Twenty years after the genocide, the country has made tremendous progress. But how much can survivors forgive murderers?

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Between 2001 and 2012, more than 2 million cases were tried in 12,000 community courts, where locals were encouraged to gather under trees and beneath aluminum roofing to discuss what happened.

But no Tutsis were put on trial, either in gacaca or at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in neighboring Tanzania, which prosecuted the architects of the genocide.

“It’s victors’ justice, and it is, of course, extremely dangerous,” Reyntjens said. “They can do whatever they like and they will not be prosecuted or convicted.”

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One of the government’s main reconciliation policies is to promote a Rwandan national identity by discouraging people from using ethnic labels, banning ethnic-based parties, and outlawing “divisionism,” a vague offense that includes behavior that stokes ethnic tensions.

“It has had this silencing effect,” said Phil Clark, an expert on transitional justice at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “A lot of people say when it comes to talking about ethnic divisions and talking about the past, we are not actually sure what we are permitted to talk about any longer.”

Critics say the government uses “ethnic amnesia” to hide Tutsi predominance in all levels of public life. “The RPF has to deny ethnicity because if they allowed ethnic identification, you could then establish formally that the Tutsi elite is hugely over-represented in institutions,” said Reyntjens.

A woman stands on her porch at a suburb set on a hill overlooking Kigali, Rwanda, on March 13, 2014.
A woman stands on her porch in a suburb overlooking Kigali, Rwanda, on March 13, 2014.

Photo by Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

Three-quarters of Rwanda’s 250 to 400 most influential people are Tutsi, according to Reyntjens. At the local government level, at least five out of six are Tutsi in a country where 85 percent are Hutu, he said.

In 2003, Kagame introduced a presidential decree, allowing many of those who confessed and requested a pardon to be released from the country’s overcrowded jails. Large numbers of convicted perpetrators now live alongside survivors. While some live in harmony, the prisoner amnesty also created resentment.

“If you kill people and you are not punished, you cannot understand the seriousness of what you did,” said Jean Pierre. “If they have another opportunity to kill, they will.”

During the era of gacaca, there was emphasis on getting perpetrators to confess and survivors to forgive, analysts said. Some regard this as little more than political theater. “I don't think genocide survivors have forgiven perpetrators,” said Aggee Shyaka, a senior lecturer in the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management, who was told by survivors during his research that they offered forgiveness because the government told them to. “It was not a deep, serious conviction. They did it because it was part of the [government] program,” he said.

Similarly, many of those who confessed did so to win reduced sentences.

Shyaka believes it is unrealistic to expect deep individual healing given the horrors that Rwandans have experienced. For him, it is enough that people are living peacefully together and cooperating economically and socially. “Progress is remarkable,” he said. “I don’t think you can do better than we are doing in Rwanda in a post-genocide context.”

Judging by history, peaceful coexistence is not enough. In the past, simmering tensions have been a prelude to violence in Rwanda.

“There is revenge living in people, but they cannot show it publicly because, they say, ‘If I show my feelings, I will be in jail,’ “ Jean Pierre said. “But truly, they are not reconciled.”

This feature is part of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s special report on the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. For first-person witness accounts, fact sheets, and more, visit rwanda20.trust.org.

Katy Migiro is a journalist at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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