As Rwanda Forgives

How does a country that loses up to 20 percent of its population to genocide heal the scars of hatred? Perhaps more concretely, how does a country like that deal with the challenge of criminal justice when 2 percent of its population is in prison for perpetrating genocide—killing their one-time friends and neighbors?

These very questions vexed leaders in Rwanda. Families and communities needed to heal and rebuild, and the criminal justice system would never be able to deal with the backlog of genocide trials.

Rwanda opted for the path of forgiveness. In 2003, President Paul Kagame released 40,000 genocide perpetrators who had confessed to their crimes. Prison Fellowship’s Rwanda affiliate works with these ex-prisoners, encouraging them to seek forgiveness from the families of those they killed and helping them to re-integrate into their communities.

The question of forgiveness was one that fascinated the late John M. Templeton. “Forgiveness benefits both the giver and the receiver,” he would say. “Forgiving uplifts the forgiver.” “Forgiveness was what Sir John called a ‘spiritual reality,’” says Kimon Sargeant, the vice president for human sciences at the John Templeton Foundation. “He put forgiveness as a core theme in the foundation’s charter, so it’s part of our long-term subjects for research.”

Sargeant was thus intrigued by a 2008 documentary that told the story of forgiveness in Rwanda. As We Forgive features two Rwandan women whose relatives were killed in the genocide and the men who killed their families. Rosaria forgives Saveri, saying, “How can I refuse to forgive when I’m a forgiven sinner?” Reconciled, Saveri and Rosaria work side by side on projects in their village. Chantale, however, resists forgiving John—and her struggle illuminates the great challenge facing the genocide’s perpetrators and victims. It gives the film dramatic force: will Chantale forgive John? “The stories from Rwanda are one powerful example of how people can, without forgetting the past, work through the trauma, over time, to forgive,” says Sargeant.

Templeton provided the filmmaker, Laura Waters Hinson, with funding to promote her film and communicate its lessons, both in Rwanda and throughout the United States. Hinson used the movie to launch the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative, a Rwandan-led organization that promotes reconciliation by presenting the film, as well as a comprehensive discussion program, in Rwandan public schools, churches, and villages. “The majority of people come away with a new hope that reconciliation is possible, where they may not have previously thought it possible,” says Hinson. “People come away believing that it is possible.”

Hinson uses the movie as a way to launch reconciliation efforts. “When our team goes into a village setting, they work with the community, giving them ideas for engaging in practical reconciliation.” A team may recommend planting a community garden or sharing a cow or goat. In some villages, victims and perpetrators have formed associations that pool money, purchase and work collective land, and share the income. “This,” Hinson says, is “leading to an enterprise solution to poverty.”

That same spirit of enterprise animates Hinson’s next film, Mama Rwanda, which is being supported by the SEVEN Fund, a Templeton grantee. “It’s about Rwandan mothers who, after overcoming the effects of the genocide, are becoming entrepreneurs and lifting their communities and country out of poverty,” says Hinson. “It shows how people who are very, very poor are able to do these practical projects to rise out of poverty.” She points to one woman featured in the film who started a business making banana beer, commercializing what had long been a somewhat unsafe traditional homebrew.

“My first film was all about what happens with the reconciliation phase of rebuilding,” Hinson adds. “Now that reconciliation is setting in, how do we move to the next phase of rebuilding—creating prosperity, creating new things, innovating, growing. This is the next stage of reconciliation.”

Hinson’s words echo those of now-retired Anglican bishop John Rucyahana in As We Forgive: “When they forgive, they get released. Repentance is a requirement. Transformation is our calling.”

This article was originally published in Philanthropy magazine’s Winter 2012 issue as an accompaniment to “Stopping the Slaughter.”