BLOG: Why Rwanda Needs Healing Narratives

This April Rwandans will remember the 20th anniversary of a genocide the world did nothing to stop. Two years ago when I was in Rwanda I met a man who had lost almost his entire family in the killing spree. He warned me that critical to the future of his country would be the stories that people chose to share to mark the approaching commemoration. He was expressing a need to concentrate on stories and memories that can be presented in a way that encourages healing and reconciliation rather than re-traumatises or stirs up ethnic hatred.

But what are healing stories? As Karen Armstrong from Charter for Compassion has said:

Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories… Let’s use our stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people’s stories and histories.

I agree that the only way out of an endless cycle of violence is the ability to listen to the pain of the other (the enemy), but if we focus only on pain and trauma that locks us into a sense of despair. The work that The Forgiveness Project does in restorative story-telling has taught me that our goal must be to use personal narrative to broaden perspectives and bring healing to those impacted — whether victim or perpetrator — as well as to motivate others regarding future life choices.

In Rwanda alongside the stories of murder and carnage, when neighbour killed neighbour, teacher killed student and armed gangs across the country at one point reached a killing rate of 7 people per minute, it is important to hear stories of people who acted with kindness, empathy, and self-sacrifice. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda I noticed for instance the story of Nsengiyuumra, a Muslim who during the genocide is said to have saved over 30 people when he protected or hid them in his outhouse. A survivor’s testimony reads:

The interahamwe killer was chasing me down the alley. I was going to die any second. I banged on the door of the yard. It opened almost immediately. He (Nsengiyumra) took me by the hand and stood in his doorway and told the killer to leave. He said that the Koran says: ‘If you save one life it is like saving the whole world.’

In the award-winning film Beyond Right and Wrong Dr James Smith, co-founder of Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, makes the point that although there are some remarkable examples of people who have been able to reconcile or forgive they are a minority and not representative of how the majority feel. “Yet” he concludes

“there is a co-existence….that allows society to function. I think that’s the key to the future of Rwanda and… gives the second generation a chance to live together without that division and hatred that could lead to another spiral of violence.”

Pieter Hugo’s beautiful and powerful portraits published in the New York Times go further — demonstrating that forgiveness has practical implications. “Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct,” concludes Hugo.

I recently read this pertinent statement: “A story told at the right time in someone’s life can shine a light sufficiently bright to illuminate the way ahead on the map of life.” Stories of hope in bleak times can change lives; here are some of the stories we have collected from Rwanda:

Mary Blewitt had left the country some years prior to the genocide. On hearing of the killings, she tried to return home, but all the borders were closed. When the killing was finally over, she journeyed straight to her home village to discover that more than 50 of her family had been slaughtered. Mary, who now lives in England, founded The Survivor’s Fund (SURF) to aid, assist and support survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

In 1994 when one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, Uzabakiriho Teresphore (a Hutu) murdered the father of Ngirente Philippe (a Tutsi).   Thirteen years later, Philippe came face-to-face with his father’s killer at a Gacaca court trial. Gacaca courts are a participatory justice system traditionally used in Rwanda to settle disputes in local communities.

In April 1994 over a 100-day period, nearly 1 million Rwandan Tutsis, lost their lives at the hands of their fellow Rwandans, the Hutus.  Among the dead were several of Jean Paul Samputu’s family.

Jean-Baptiste Ntakirutimana is a Tutsi whose family were murdered in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In April 2008 he met the man who killed his mother.





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