Two decades after almost a million people were killed in its brutal genocide, Pieter Hugo traveled to Rwanda to understand how survivors were coping from the tragedy in present day. During his visit, he met a man named Steven Gahigi.
When the killing began, Steven fled his home in the Bugesera district of Rwanda to neighboring Burundi. Returning a year later, Mr. Gahigi discovered 52 members of his family were dead. Most of them, including his sister, were slaughtered in the first week of the 20th century’s final genocide.
When Gahigi returned to Rwanda after the slaughter, he had nothing but anger and pain. Eventually, pushing past his rage, he joined a Christian clergy.
In 1999, Gahigi began visiting Rilima Prison in Bugesera, the new home to thousands of the génocidaires, the men who slaughtered their fellow citizens. Here, Steven met the 15 men who killed his sister.
At first, the prisoners thought he had been sent by the government — a double agent in religious garb — to investigate their crimes. Even when they understood Gahigi wasn’t an intelligence officer, many were skeptical of his motives. Why would this man come to their prison to preach when he knew the carnage they were responsible for?
But one of Gahigi’s messages resonated: that forgiveness was possible. And what Pieter found out was many in Rwanda also felt the same.
As part of an effort to reconcile, the non-profit Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI), gathers small groups of Hutus and Tutsis who are counseled over months, concluding in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings. The peace offering is fortified with song and dance.
During his trip, Mr. Hugo met hundreds of people willing to forgive the most gruesome actions: a woman finding peace with man who killed her father and brothers. A family who now asks a man who once burnt down their house for emotional support. And another woman even accepting a friendship with man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children.
Forgiveness, on such a seismic level, is more often the exception than the norm. Reconciliation, at such a grand scale, stems from a deep reflection, humility, and a comprehensive understanding of one’s environment. When Nelson Mandela chose the path towards forgiveness it was preceded by twenty-seven years of false imprisonment that allowed him to reflect on unwarranted hate, an understanding of the previous three decades of postcolonial history, and a realization that the path towards mercy was far more promising than the route states like Zimbabwe embarked on. Mandela also knew that public displays of his nation’s indecency and open dialogue was far more effective than a tribal amplification of rage.
Jaleni Cobb of the New Yorker also adds, “Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.”
But what happens when there is a country in desperate need of universal reckoning with no appetite or experience of conceding fault?
What happens when there are no public displays of a nation to acknowledge its nefarious past in hopes of healing?
What happens when a nation has no constructed path to forgiveness but desperately needs a blueprint to altruistically absolve prior errors?
And what happens when the current political climate of the state pits idealism squarely against pragmatism?
You get the United States. A nation in need of platform for forgiveness, but instead has allowed vessels of stubbornness against any form of reconciliation. A recent Pew Research Center poll conducted over the last year discovered Democrats and Republicans agree on nothing and are unwilling to forgive the misdeeds of each parties past (the only exception of common approval was Taylor Swift, but when the Nashville pop-star came out in support for the “March For Our Lives” movement…Republicans found that unforgiveable).
Even the moral high ground of forgiveness has come under assault. Left leaning sites such as Salon.com and Alternet along with the Washington Post have condemned survivors of discrimination — blacks, Latinos, and Native Indians — for showing any compassion to their perpetrators.
This is ill-advised and callous strategy for societal reckoning. Abdicating mercy only sets the foundation for society’s pain points to gyrate out of control, deepens the victim’s pain, and pivots away from any meaningful social progress. Any way onward starts with trusting each other and that starts with attempting to settle our state’s prior reprehensible actions. The virtues of compassion, kindness, and understanding must be part of a country’s, and its people’s, plan to cope with their pressing issues.
Because if we have no path toward forgiveness we have no path forward as a nation.