I shook hands with a killer and thanked him for his time.
Or perhaps I should say I shook hands with a man looking for redemption. It’s powerful to think how easily the words we choose can demonize or humanize someone.
Forgiveness can be difficult to come by these days. No mistake, past or present, seems to go unexposed and unpunished. Sometimes that guilt and punishment is self-inflicted, and onerous to dig out of.
The following is a story about forgiveness.
We made our way to a small town via a bus driven by our Rwandan tour guide who insisted on playing his mix tape, which he sold for a cool $5, on repeat over the speakers. We all fought the urge to dive out of the small rectangular sliding windows.
The bus eventually pulled to the side of the orange-tinted dirt roads found across the country and let us out in front of a cob-constructed homes. We all gathered into a small square area filled with logs and hand-made benches for sitting. A village representative came out and welcomed us to the area before introducing traditional Rwandan dancers. A group of young men and women came out, drummers in the back and dancers in the front, and began their musical display. This never ceased to be beautiful to my eyes and ears, but one can’t help but feel that this was done to appeal to the foreigner rather than its original intended use for celebrations.
When the spectacle was nearly done, the dancers came out and pulled the audience into the square to dance along with them in a joyful act of unification.
After a few minutes of this warm event, we were all asked to sit down to listen to how this town came to be.
A man and a woman walked out in front of the group. The each introduced themselves before beginning their respective stories, each pausing occasionally for our guide to translate the words. The man began by telling us that he had been one of the people who had participated in the 1994 genocide. He explained that there was bad leadership teaching Hutus to kill Tutsis and that after the President’s plane was shot down, the Tutsis were blamed and the leadership started the mobilization to hunt down Tutsis. Identification cards were used as a way to identify Tutsis to be killed, and others were hunted down and killed where they were hiding. After the genocide came to an end and the RFP government came in, he served 8 years for his crimes.
The woman followed with her own story. She explained her experience about one day she would never forget. She had left to get some milk for her family. When she arrived back home, her family had been killed at the hands of aggressors of the genocide.
These two spoke, calmly, a shoulder’s length apart.
A Bit Of History
You may ask why this man only spent 8 years in prison.
It was explained to us that after the genocide, a great portion of the country were incarcerated for their crimes. It was acknowledged that the country would not be able to move forward this way. A deal was made: ‘lower-tiered’ criminals (ones with less egregious offenses, were not in positions of leadership, or were determined to have been pressured into their crimes) would be given a chance to re-enter society provided that they spoke openly and honestly about what they had done. Speaking about the crimes on record was vital, and the country makes an enormous effort to make sure that the genocide cannot be denied and will not be forgotten. The man himself made a seemingly conscious effort to say, “the genocide happened.” In addition, he explained that asking for forgiveness from the victim’s families as well as the government was a requirement for the release. There were two pastors that would teach him the gospel in prison, and follow up with him after he returned home to urge him to meet with the victim’s families.
As a part of the country moving forward, these reconciliation villages were created. They are villages where individuals who were victims of the genocide live among people who committed crimes during that time.
The woman pointed to her own home, and then to the mans. The two structures were separated only by the narrow dirt road and small square area we stood in. She explained the difficulties of living near someone, knowing they had killed people, and explained that, unsurprisingly, the transition took much time.
Then she said something that I’ll never forget:
“Our kids are inseparable.”
Indeed, anyone looking in the faces of the children running and playing together, of course, would not be able to distinguish a victim’s kin from an abuser’s.
These children would not carry the emotions tied by the sins and losses of their parents.
That little game of tag they played,
The two finished their stories and asked, “Does anyone have any questions?”
“Yes! Thousands!” I thought.
Everyone remained silent.
A Moral Dilemma
After their talk ended, I did something I had done a hundred times with speakers before. I asked for a picture and reached out for a handshake.
The moral ambiguity hit me – should I shake hands with a man who killed innocent people in one of the most prominent examples of our human potential for evil?
We boarded our bus and drove away.
I almost didn’t believe it was true.
A few things passed through my mind on that bus ride back.
In my own family, there are people who have severed relationships for past wrongdoings or simply to avoid bad interactions and emotional repercussions. We all know family or friends who don’t speak to one another over some inconsequential family drama. We’ve all had situations where we’ve found it difficult to forgive someone or had trouble receiving forgiveness from someone else. We’ve all had times where we had trouble forgiving ourselves.
Yet there I had stood, in front of someone who was able to forgive and trust another person enough to sleep in the next house over, despite being on opposite sides of a massacre. That is a level of forgiveness I didn’t think possible. In the case of Rwanda, not only was it possible, but necessary to move forward.
If people can find it in themselves for this level of forgiveness, perhaps it’s time to forgive Aunt Sally for knocking over that vase on Thanksgiving.
Just as important is that reconciliation is a necessity in conflict resolution and in attaining peace. It’s something that African nations implement well, and, I would argue, western countries don’t always. There, punishment tends to dominate here, but it’s ultimately not conducive to progress towards peace.
The children playing together spoke volumes. Perhaps it’s not enough to only inform of, but also separate the next generation from the emotions and mistakes of previous generations. Maybe we’re doomed to be divided if we separate people into good, bad, or different from birth.
This carries as well to forgiving ourselves. How long can we carry our wrongdoings of our past? How long before we accept that maybe we may be better than we were?
I look back at that handshake and my hesitation in the moment. I don’t regret reaching out. I don’t regret joining hands with a man who had lived up to his wrongdoings, and presently lived in peace with others. A wish well for the children he raised, for their innocence, which will hopefully guide them to shape a better, kinder place.
I wonder if the man could forgive and reconcile with himself.
I thought if those victims could forgive him, perhaps we could all learn to forgive a little bit better.