Rwanda and Forgiveness


I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Rwanda. Earlier this year, I visited for the first time with a remarkable client, Women for Women International. Their mission is to support women victims of war (

Thirteen years ago, during the genocide, close to one million people were killed in one hundred days. Five hundred thousand women were raped in one hundred days. Many of those raped were done so by men with AIDS to deliberately infect them. It was a well-planned and coordinated effort, despicable beyond imagination.

The country was devastated and all these people, the victims and the perpetrators must now live next to each other. The government in many cases has even forced communities who were torn apart to continue living together to make sure that reconciliation occurred. Imagine if your neighbor, who was a friend and whom you knew all your life, killed your husband in front of you with a machete, raped you and your daughter, maimed your son, but by some miracle left you living. And he still resided next door.

It was a massive horror, and the people of Rwanda are trying to reconcile with what courage they have. I met one woman to which the above scenario happened. After years of depression, she began to rebuild her life through my client. She now has a thriving business selling beer and wholesaling fruit, with a cell phone and everything. She is happy and productive, returning from the depths.

One day a few years ago, the man who committed this crime came and begged her for forgiveness. After quietly listening she told him she would, but then did a remarkable thing. She suggested the two of them together start the first reconciliation movement for their area. She is now a significant community leader with this man in Rwanda's post-genocide era--a saint in a country filled with saints.

My Western mind has a hard time grasping all of this. But one thing does seem clear. As a matter of tone, Rwanda feels more committed to forgiveness than they are to justice. The modern root of forgiveness means, "to give up the power to punish". Conversely justice is often so much about revenge. The Latin root of the word is justia, meaning “righteousness” or “vindication through assigning punishment”. This is not the same as forgiveness. Try this. Say, “I want justice”. Notice the energy of your statement and where your attention goes. Now say, “I want forgiveness.” Do they feel different?

I think part of Rwanda's success is the strong force of women in the country. By law 40% of the legislative body must be women (Rwanda is at 49% and lead the world. The United States conversely is 61st.) Five of their nine Supreme Court Justices are women. The bulk of their senators are women. The head of police is a woman. The head of economic development is a woman. The head of reconciliation is a woman. This is not an accident. While still in the shadow of the genocide, what they have done in a decade models positive force in an otherwise increasingly bleak world.

I visited a church that is a “living” memorial to the genocide. It is a place where ten thousand Tutsi, running for sanctuary packed themselves into the building. The Hutu came and in one killing spree macheted or shot everyone but two children who had managed to hide under the dead bodies. Thirty-five thousand victims are buried at this site, along with the original ten thousand who were killed. There is a twenty-foot high tunnel of skulls and skeletons that you walk through, and freshly found bodies awaiting burial. Death is everywhere. You see the tarps with decomposing corpses, stand next to them, breathe... and your mind goes to a place it has never been before.

This genocide, like all others, was committed by men. It is an affirmation of the need for women’s empowerment and a stark reminder of the work men must also do. In a world run by women this would never have happened. Of that I am convinced.

And yet Rwanda is a vibrant country, safe and incredibly clean. The capital Kigali is one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen. This is because one day every month every citizen picks-up the country, including the president. They have outlawed plastic bags and there is literally no trash on the streets. Flowers and gardens are everywhere. There are monuments to women, children and the genocide in every town. They are proud of what Rwanda has become and deeply dedicated to never going back. The president, Paul Kagame said, “We went as low as a society could go. Keeping our streets and bodies clean helps cleanse our souls.”

In February Rwanda will release more than 8000 prisoners convicted or awaiting trial in the 1994 genocide. Many of these are capital crimes. Rwandan authorities have held several similar prisoner releases since 2003, when President Kagame ordered them as part of an effort to decongest Rwanda's crowded prisons and promote reconciliation.

Rwanda has also abolished the death penalty.

I am left wondering how Rwandans can do this? I think it is because at the heart of this bold plan is a national desire for forgiveness. It is a lesson to us all, and a reminder that forgiving others is only part of the challenge. By it's very nature, forgiveness is a reciprocation.

Many of us are more willing to forgive than to be forgiven.