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Excerpt from As We Forgive

February 02, 2009
By Catherine Larson


Secrets of the Umuvumu's Scars

The gash across the face of Emmanuel Mahuro, a seventeen year-old Rwandan native, is no longer an open wound. Today, like a jagged boundary line on a map, a scar juts down the plateau of his forehead, across the bridge of his nose, and up the slope of his right cheek. It is impossible to look into Emmanuel’s eyes without seeing this deep cut, a mark of division etched across his face — and the face of Rwanda — fifteen years after the genocide.

My first reaction to such scars is to avert my eyes. But to look away from Emmanuel’s scars is to look away from him. Strangely, as my eyes adjust to Emmanuel’s face, there is an impulse, not to recoil, but to follow the line of the scar across his skin. Emmanuel’s scar testifies to two realities. It is a witness to the human capacity for evil. To look at it is to hear it scream the brutality of an April that aches in the memory of an entire people. Yet his scar testifies to another truth: the stunning capacity of humans to heal from the unthinkable. To trace that scar is to discover the hope of a people who, despite losing everything, are finding a way to forge a common future for Rwanda.

Rwanda’s wounds, like Emmanuel’s, are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates. In the everyday business of life — purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the ground to make urwagwa, and hauling harvested sorghum to the market — survivors commonly meet the eyes of people who shattered their former lives. How can they live together? This is not a philosophical question, but a practical one that confronts Rwandans daily.

In some shape or form, all Rwandans ask this question. Some, like Antoine Rutayisire, himself a survivor, put the question starkly: “If they told you that a murderer was to be released into your neighborhood, how would you feel? But what if this time, they weren’t just releasing one, but forty thousand?” For Antoine and his country, which has released some sixty thousand prisoners since 2003, these questions are not hypothetical.

Fatuma Ndangiza, executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, began wrestling in earnest with the questions on January 10, 2003, when the president first decided to provisionally release forty thousand of the 120,000 Rwandans held in egregiously overcrowded prisons. Even with a fully functional legal system, something which had been wiped out with the slaughter of many Tutsi in 1994, the backlog of cases would have taken over two hundred years. “I was driving in the car around one o’clock, when I heard President Kagame say that these people who are going to be released have to be taken to the Reconciliation Commission for reeducation before going back to the community.” At first, Fatuma thought the president was crazy. “What sort of education do you give to people who confessed that they killed? What do we tell the victims?” she wondered.

Government officials weren’t the only ones who worried about the pending release. For Gahigi, a Tutsi who lost 142 family members during the genocide, the question dripped with fear: “This time, will they kill us all?” The survivors could not imagine living side by side with their tormentors. Would Rwandan society, still barely functioning, now collapse entirely?

But even as survivors were tormented with fears and questions, so also were many of the offenders themselves. Saveri, one of the killers, recalls how he felt when he heard he would be released: “I was so overjoyed, but fear lingered also. How was I going to face a survivor and squarely look her in the eyes after I had wiped out her family?” This thought terrorized him.

Similarly, John, another man who stained his own hands with blood when he killed his neighbor, remembers, “I had a mixture of fear when I learned I was going to be released from prison. After a long time in prison it was hard for me to come back to the community that I had sinned against. My biggest challenge was how I was going to meet Chantal, whose father I had killed. This was my deepest fear.”

Years later, these fears and questions continue. Each day Rwandans struggle to understand how to live together. Behind prison walls, perpetrators are urged to tell the truth publicly about their crimes and to make actual or symbolic restitution.

Some survivors volunteer to enter the prisons and share the stories of their shattered lives, hoping to create empathy and shared understanding. In mud-walled homes, widows and survivors gather to share and to support one another.

An ancient form of justice, known as gacaca (pronounced “gah-cha-cha”), unfolds on grassy fields under wild fig trees, called umuvumu, where trusted elders, men and women of integrity, hear cases. Unlike the Western court system, where the best strategy can be to deny guilt until the government proves it beyond a reasonable doubt, gacaca works best if there is truth-telling and confession. Together, the elders, the perpetrators, and the community — including the survivors themselves — work out solutions. The solutions may involve more prison time or require the offenders to return to the place of their crime and participate in community service and reconciliation. Gacaca strives to bring justice and peace into communities that have been shattered.

Sometimes this process even paves the way for moving beyond justice to reconciliation. Some perpetrators, whose hearts are truly changed, are eager to go beyond what is required of them. Hands that once swung machetes in violence now smooth mud bricks in peace as they voluntarily build homes for their victims. Survivors, once seething with rage, are moving toward forgiveness. While there are still deep wounds — many that may never heal — there are also clear and unmistakable signs of hope, bearing witness to the possibility of reconciliation.

There’s an ancient craft practiced in Rwanda, an age-old art that has been almost lost today. The Umuvumu trees that shade the Gacaca gatherings have another purpose. Once the Umuvumu tree has matured, a small strip of bark is cut away. Like our own bodies, the tree responds to the gash. The Umuvumu produces a fine red matting of slender roots to cover the wound. The ancients then treated that matting to create a cloth, commonly called bark cloth. Historically, the bark cloth was used to make royal clothing. Today, artisans fashion the reddish-brown fabric into traditional African ceremonial dress, wallets, purses, placemats, book covers, and maps of Africa, adding decorative detail through paint, print, or needlework. Strangely, mysteriously, things of beauty and usefulness sometimes come from wounds.

This is why I want to understand what is happening in Rwanda today. Because I too have scars — wounds that make me wonder if these too can become emblems not of shame but of triumph, not of rage but of restoration. I hesitate to evoke my scars in the same breath as those the Rwandans carry. Somehow I feel that I am treading on hallowed ground when I see the kind of pain these people have had to go through. Their pain makes my pain look like a paper cut in comparison. Perhaps you will feel the same as you read on. Perhaps not.

But for me, this is part of the importance of understanding. If Rwandans can find the courage to forgive, then perhaps there is hope for us in those problems that seem to pale in comparison and in those that echo the horrors of the genocide. This is why when I see a country known for radical brutality becoming, person by person, a place known for radical forgiveness, I want to understand. While this process is far from complete, every instance is so beautiful, so extraordinary, so beyond ordinary human capability, that it demands our attention and exploration.

We in the West, just as Rwandans, desperately need to understand forgiveness. We live in a violent world filled with conflicts. Political polarization, terrorist attacks, racial tensions, immigration fears, and school shootings define our national landscape.

Meanwhile, privately, we struggle with broken marriages, splintered relationships, and doubts that pierce us to the core. Could there be a common road map to reconciliation? Could there be a shared future after unthinkable evil? If forgiveness is possible after genocide, then perhaps there is hope for the comparably smaller rifts that plague our relationships, our communities, and our nation.

Rwanda looms as an uncharted case study in forgiveness. As We Forgive traces the route of reconciliation in the lives of Rwandans— victims, widows, orphans, and perpetrators — whose past and future intersect. We discover in these stories how suffering, memory, and identity set up roadblocks to forgiveness, while mediation, truth telling, restitution, and interdependence create bridges to healing.

But this is not a path, nor a book, for the faint of heart. For the boy whose face bears the scars of a torturous gash, for the child who witnessed her family burned alive, for the daughter who cannot blot out the picture of her father’s blood-soaked face, forgiveness is one of the most excruciating journeys imaginable. Its miles wind through chasms of pain and across solitary deserts of rage. Yet, while it is perhaps the most difficult of all journeys, it is, nonetheless, a journey that is possible.

In No Future without Forgiveness, Bishop Desmond Tutu describes “a picture of three U.S. servicemen standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. One asks, ‘Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?’ ‘I will never forgive them,’ replies the other. His mate says, ‘Then it is certain they still have you in prison, don’t they?’ ”1

Scars represent a natural border between past and future. If not healed properly, these borders become mementos of rage that propel their bearers into a vindictive future. But a different story can be written. Rather than being lines of demarcation between Hutu and Tutsi, scars can become the intersection of justice and mercy, stitched by forgiveness, the only thread strong enough to bind these wounds. Through forgiveness, these scars cease to be emblems of vengeance, becoming instead evidence of supernatural hope. This is the story that Rwanda can tell the world. This is a story we need to understand.


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Sounds like an interesting story. A lot of emphasis on the scars, though. Really makes me wonder about how the rest of the book will play out.

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Thank you for sharing this book review. This is my first time to read this. I'm pretty impressed.

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