The Heart of My Enemy: Rwandan Friends Rebuilding after Genocide

If, for example, you see your children being killed by machetes and that stays in your mind, that can cause trauma." A woman with a bright orange headscarf is standing and sharing her thoughts with a group of community women. She is a participant in a trauma-healing workshop run by the Rwandan Friends Peace House. The participants in the workshop are all members of a long-term group called Women in Dialogue [see the article by Thomas Paxson in this issue, pp. 17-18—eds.] that brings together Tutsi widows of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide with Hutu women whose husbands are in prison accused of perpetrating acts of genocide.

"She is a genocide survivor," my interpreter whispers. "She lost almost all her children, and her husband was killed, too."

The women are answering a question posed by the facilitators: "What causes trauma?" Rather than simply listing things like war, rape, or accidents, the women are answering with stories. Although they seem to talk generally, everyone in the room knows that the examples they are sharing come straight from their own lives.

The woman in the orange scarf continues. "If you see your children killed, then you cannot sleep, you cannot eat; you think about how they would be now; you think always of your children." In the same breath, with the same passion, she goes on: "Also, another cause of trauma is if you kill somebody. For example, if someone kills his friend and then always thinks about his friend, or even carries the head of his friend with him to jail. And he is in jail and can only think about what happened, and that is very hard."

She sits down, and I turn to double-check: "She’s a survivor, right?" I whisper to my interpreter. "Oui, oui" she says, "Yes, yes." I feel the sting of sudden tears but then the next woman is speaking, and then the next and the next. From each side they speak out of their own pain but never forget the pain of the women sitting next to them. They do not minimize, they do not equalize, they do not dilute. To these women, pain is pain. It is not to be compared or competed with; it is only to be felt. In the face of Rwanda’s bloody history these women have sat with each other, until slowly, finally, they have found God in the hearts of their enemies.

Go to the library and do a literature search for "Rwanda." Most of what has been written about Rwanda in recent years is riddled with words like "hell," "Devil," "blood," "murder," and "killers." These are apt words, given that almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed here in 100 days during the summer of 1994. It has been dubbed the "most efficient genocide in history" in spite of the grisly fact that the Hutu Power government did not use gas chambers like the Nazis, nor did they have access to a large number of firearms as in Bosnia, but instead relied heavily on grenades and machetes. The consequences are devastating. In 1995, UNICEF found that 99.9 percent of all Rwandan children had witnessed violence, 79.6 percent experienced death in the family, 69.5 percent witnessed someone being killed or injured, 87.5 percent saw dead bodies or parts of bodies, and 90.6 perecent believed they would die. With these statistics, one might imagine Rwanda to indeed be a living hell.

But live and work with Rwandan Quakers and you will find—in a nation filled with suspicion and distrust, in a country where most believe that people are fundamentally bad—a small but growing group of people who hold on to the radical notion that there is good in everyone. Live and watch the work of the Quakers here, and God begins to reappear.

Healing Wounds

Solange Maniraguha watched her Tutsi parents being killed with machetes after the Interahamwe broke into their house through the roof. On April 11, 1994, five days after the genocide began, a relative working for the UN pulled her at the last minute from a gathering of 5,000 people slated to be slaughtered just up the hill from the Friends Church. Neighbors hid her for two days, and how she survived the remaining 93 days I don’t know. She breaks down and cries silent tears and cannot tell the rest, her body curved around the hollow aching pain. She is a trauma healing facilitator for Friends Peace House.

Everyone who works with Friends Peace House has a story that has propelled him or her into this work. As a result, the work of the Quakers here is raw and real and courageous, deliberately bringing people together across the chasms that have been torn across this small country. Every time Solange facilitates a workshop she sits not only with survivors of the genocide, but also with those who perpetrated the violence designed to exterminate her people. Recognizing that here in Rwanda healing trauma and rebuilding peace are inextricably intertwined, every trauma workshop brings together people from all sides, intermingling stories of survival with stories of violence, seeking to find the common human ground on which to begin to rebuild this wounded nation.

The workshops introduce "trauma"—a concept that is imported from the West, and yet has a curative power here as people realize that what they are experiencing is normal in the face of the unspeakably abnormal. The workshops define trauma and then invite the participants to look at the causes and consequences of trauma. People share their stories slowly, first indirectly and then directly—dipping into their losses, paying tribute to their grief, and, finally, exploring the possibility of building new trust in their communities.

The trauma-healing program, called Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities, is only one among many programs run by Rwandan Quakers in the wake of the 1994 genocide. In 2000, the Evangelical Friends Church established Friends Peace House to coordinate its peace-building and reconciliation activities throughout the country. Now, five years later, its staff and its programs continue to work closely with the church and are guided by the Quaker conviction that there is that of God in everyone.

Seeking Alternatives to Violence

Pastor David Bucura was only 29 when he saw Solange, 13 years old and suddenly the head of her household, walking down the street alone and dazed. He asked her if she was in school; and when the answer was no, he told her to go to the Friends school, that he would pay her tuition. She was one of at least four orphans Pastor Bucura took under his wing in the wake of the violence of that summer; and, by doing so, he, as a Hutu, stepped across the lines of hate and fear dividing Tutsis and Hutus. Pastor Bucura was instrumental in bringing the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) to Rwanda in 2001, and he served as its national coordinator for the past four years.

AVP was first developed by a small group of Quakers in New York in 1975, and has since been used around the world. When I arrived, I entertained private questions about the efficacy of a program that is imported from abroad, but after having conducted an in-depth evaluation of AVP’s impact ("Peace Cannot Stay in Small Spaces") I am clear that the program has been thoroughly adapted to Rwanda’s complex context by its creative and committed team of Rwandan facilitators. Using experiential and community-building activities, AVP quietly invites participants to begin to see the possibility of good in themselves and others, to seek Truth even when it contradicts strongly held beliefs, and to find a deep source of reconciliation and transformation.

"AVP can bring people to know that they themselves are people," remarked Nyiramajyambere Francoise, a genocide survivor from the mountain town of Byumba and interviewee for the evaluation conducted earlier this year. She continued:

Before, in Rwanda people could behave like animals. They behave like humans now. After AVP, people bring back love. . . . We were people who lived without love after the war. When we see people, we see no good things in them. But after knowing Transforming Power [an AVP concept that proposes that there is a power that is able to transform violent and destructive situations and behavior into liberating and constructive experiences], people start to see the good in others. Now transforming power brings back the love.

During the genocide, they killed my mother, father, and our relatives. It was our neighbors who killed them. The killers were our friends. I started to believe that no one is good. So I isolated myself from others. It was my pastor who told me to go to the AVP workshop. I didn’t want to go because when you go to a workshop, you have to make friends, and to have a friend is to invite an enemy into your life. But I decided to go for just one day. Then I ended up staying for three days and saw how people started to bring back their hearts to love people, and how they talked to each other, and this started to change me in the workshop. [When the facilitators] asked people to tell where they worked, I didn’t want to tell them about my work. I hid it from them.

But with transforming power, you can start to believe in the good in others. It helped me to start talking freely. . . . Then, with the two trees [participants create two trees as a metaphor for understanding the root causes and the fruits of violence and nonviolence], I saw that nothing good can come from the tree of violence. So I decided to have that good tree. I started to have friends, speak freely, and to not be alone. I made friends through AVP. I’m not sure how it happened, but it did. —Nyiramajyambere Francoise, AVP Facilitator

After her first workshop, Francoise continued through the levels of training and is now an experienced AVP facilitator, using her own story of betrayal to plant new seeds of trust in her small mountain town.

Reintegrating Perpetrators

Large trucks have been rolling through our narrow dirt roads, kicking up clouds of dust so thick we squeeze our eyes shut and pull our shirts up to cover our noses. They rumble past us, top-heavy with loads of young and old men crowded into the back with no room to sit. They are the prisoners. They are a small fraction of the 36,000 accused genocide perpetrators that were released this past August in Rwanda. Most have been held in prison for five to ten years, without trial. Now, after having confessed, they await trial in Gacaca, a traditional form of community-based arbitration revived to handle thousands of genocide-related cases.

Many of the men we see cramped into the trucks are guilty of looting and destruction of property. Some are guilty of murder. Others are innocent. Some are both, because nothing is pure in Rwanda. People who hid Tutsis also killed Tutsis. One of the men who hacked Solange’s parents to pieces told her and her sisters to run before they too were killed. Her parents’ murderer saved her life. How can Solange and the countless others like her know whether to love or to hate? Whether to fear the killers or thank the rescuers?

These are the questions Friends Peace House grapples with through its Gacaca and Reintegration Program as prisoners return to their communities and new facts about neighbors and family members are uncovered by the Gacaca process. Sizeli Marcellin, coordinator of Friends Peace House and founder of the Reintegration Program, is himself a Gacaca judge and a survivor of the genocide. As he watched prisoners coming back to his community, he began to think of ways to encourage the released prisoners and the community members not only to interact, but also to actively rebuild their country together. Now, he brings prisoners and survivors together for intensive three-day seminars on conflict resolution, restorative justice, and peaceful coexistence. After the workshops, graduates form diverse work teams to build houses for vulnerable families in their communities. Friends Peace House provides the roofing, but participants find the rest of the materials themselves. What makes this project unique is that perpetrators and victims work side by side—not only to build homes for genocide survivors, but also for prisoners’ families and families that have been affected by AIDS.

"I, I am a survivor sitting with people who killed my whole family," Sizeli quotes a recent participant in the program as saying. "My whole family is gone, but we are here together. And we are working together. And together we are sensitizing our community to Gacaca, urging people to tell the truth."

Finding God

Without forcing forgiveness, without pushing reconciliation, the Quakers in Rwanda simply bring enemies together. In a land where Tutsis were called "cockroaches" and "snakes," and now Hutus are sometimes viewed as "génocidaires" and "demons," Rwandan Friends look for the human being behind the hate.

They are reaching for each other: the woman with the orange head scarf, speaking with compassion for prisoners’ wives; Solange, trying to heal those who tried to kill her; Bucura, reaching across the divide to help a hurt child; Francoise, venturing out and finding good in others; Sizeli, dreaming of a time when the hurt is finally gone; and the countless others, slowly finding their way toward one another, to sit and work and cry together, to listen across Rwanda’s deep wounds, to reweave the fabric of a torn nation. In the wake of unspeakable violence, in the face of fear and grief and rage, they have stepped out into no man’s land and found what makes us human: We all cry when we lose someone. We all love, or have loved. We all rage against those who hurt us. We all harbor guilt. We all harbor hope. There is that of God in each one of us.

Laura Shipler Chico

Laura Shipler Chico is a social worker who works for the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams as advisor for Friends Peace House's Trauma Healing and Peace Building programs. She lives in Kigali, Rwanda, where she is part of a small worship group. In 2004, she biked from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco while her husband, Matthew Chico, ran the distance on foot to raise awareness for Friends work in Rwanda.