here's a review of a documentary about reconciliation in Rwanda, for
National Review ONline, and on my

It's a wonderful project; you can learn more


As We Forgive

 I brought a handkerchief. The occasion was a screening of the documentary
As We Forgive, slated to kick off American University's Human Rights Film
Series this fall. It is the first film by Laura Waters Hinson, an AU alumna,
and in addition to numerous festival awards it won a Student Academy Award.
The film's topic is the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which
Hutus killed up to a million Tutsis over the course of 100 days.

 I had seen Hotel Rwanda (2004), the powerful, Oscar-nominated film about
the uprising, and knew how harrowing this story can be. But I didn't know
much about the aftermath. In the uneasy peace that followed, over 100,000
suspects awaited trial, taxing both the Rwandan courts' schedules and the
country's prison capacity. After ten years, only 10,000 cases had been
tried. At that rate, it would take a century to get through them all. So
Pres. Paul Kagame took an unusual step: He began to release prisoners who
were willing to confess their crimes. So far, about 60,000 suspects had been

 In As We Forgive, Kagame says, "We were able to have thousands of people
coming forward and telling the truth, and accepting their own guilt and
asking for forgiveness.... On that basis, forgiveness could even be
achieved, reconciliation could forge ahead."

 Forgiveness? That sounds like a tall order. Of course, following most wars,
combatants and survivors of the opposing sides would be unlikely to meet
again, so whatever the spiritual value of forgiveness, the state would have
no interest in promoting it. But the Rwandan conflict was unusual: Violence
was inflicted not by troops of strangers so much as by neighbors and former
friends. Hutus and Tutsis do not represent different ethnic groups so much
as different social classes. Agitated by radio propaganda or coerced by
local leaders, members of the Hutu majority might take up machetes and kill
the family next door. When those prisoners were released, they would return
to their homes and have to find some way to resume common life with those
they had wronged.

 So the goal had to be something more than peaceful coexistence, the
maintenance of suspicious parallel lives, ever ready to burst into flames.
The goal was reconciliation. And that required forgiveness.

 It's a breathtaking idea, and the documentary quickly gives us human
stories to make its impact real. Rosario calmly, even peacefully, tells us
that the attackers killed her husband and their four children. She shows a
wide, ragged scar on her back, and a blackened puncture on her leg, saying,
"This is where they stabbed me with a knife." A few months after the
slaughter, Rosario gave birth to a daughter, a wide-eyed, beautiful girl.
She named her Cadeau, "gift."

 Chantale, on the other hand, is frozen with rage. She and her brother are
the only survivors among 30 family members. Her queenly reserve shields a
profound depression. "Since the genocide, nothing makes me happy," she says.
"Joy lasts only a few minutes and then it's gone."

 This is completely comprehensible. What we haven't heard before is what the
attackers feel. Saveri describes how he was asked to help fight a rebel
band, but arrived to find instead a family in hiding with four children. The
now-reluctant killers were beaten to force their compliance, and Saveri took
part in the murder, beating the family to death with a spiked club.

 He tells us this and then says, "After killing these people, my heart was
shattered. ... I could not understand how dark my heart had become... I felt
so horrible, I did not believe there could be any deliverance for me."

 John was a neighbor of Chantale's father. "At one point, he was going to
give a cow to my in-laws. We used to drink beer together," he says. John was
part of a gang that dragged him to a crossroads and beat him to death with
clubs and machetes. "After killing I felt like an animal. Killing a human
being is terrible." He is afraid of meeting Chantale again. "This is my
deepest fear....I'm so deeply ashamed."

 This is subtle territory, and one that our culture is not used to
considering. For us, a bad guy is one-dimensionally bad, and therefore not
really human. In that case, have a ball destroying him. Vengeance is
glorious, it's a display of courage, and getting even is an occasion for
glee. How many films and TV shows will you see this year that intentionally
cultivate a lust for vengeance? The Rwandans we meet in this film have a
thoughtfulness and dignity in comparison with which the average American is
wearing a propeller beanie. There's a lot we can learn here.

 Amy Sullivan, a senior editor at Time and author of The Party Faithful: How
and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, participated in a panel after the
screening. She pointed out that, although many religions teach forgiveness,
"Christianity puts it into hyperdrive, with Jesus forgiving those who killed
him from the cross." And indeed the element of biblical faith is an
important factor in the success of reconciliation in Rwanda, where
Catholicism is the majority faith.

 Thus we see Rosario reading her Bible. "How can I refuse to forgive when
I'm a forgiven sinner too? ...I did not create this man. Even my family that
he killed -- I did not create them either. His crime was against God, who
created the people that he killed. So I placed everything in the hands of

 Bishop Rucyahana, president of Prison Fellowship Rwanda, says, "Many people
ask me why should a survivor of the genocide forgive...when you consider
that a million people got destroyed by the cruelest means ever known,
hacking people to death with machetes and banging children on the walls.
First of all, forgiveness releases them...the desire for bitter justice
against those perpetrators is so great and that eats them up. When they releases them, and then they can think right. ...Those
perpetrators, after they get forgiven, come to us and say 'Can you help us
to do something to show our remorse?' And now they are building houses for
their victims." Saveri spent eight months helping build a village of 30 new
homes, including one for Rosario, in hopes of proving his remorse. (This
home-building project continues; you can see it at Living Bricks Campaign.)

 So, yes, I got a little teary. But not, as you might think, at the images
of skulls stacked on shelves, the children's bodies on the ground, a corpse
bobbing down the river. What touched me was the unexpected beauty of
forgiveness, the victory of love over evil, the bursting of light into
darkness. When Hotel Rwanda was newly released, I read a comment in Roger
Ebert's review that has stuck with me ever after. He wrote, "Deep movie
emotions for me usually come not when the characters are sad, but when they
are good. You will see what I mean."

 It's true. Watch As We Forgive; I think you'll see it too.

Frederica Mathewes-Green
Frederica-l mailing list
*** Please address all replies to: ***
You can check your subscription information here:

Reply via email to