Encounters with conflict and peace

Breaking the cycle

“Long before I was born, the traditional justice for murder was revenge,” said Josephine. “When blood was involved, blood had to be shed from the other family. Revenge was the only option. You kill someone in my family - I kill someone in yours.” She smiles. “And that was really discouraging.”

And there’s the problem with using revenge as justice: it’s a depressing, disheartening, unsatisfactory, destabilising, demoralising and toxic way to deal with disputes. Man’s inhumanity to man is passed on to the next generation. The cycle of killing continues. No-one is happy.

As I said, Rwandans talk a lot about forgiveness. One schoolteacher said, “forgiveness has become the national pastime.” It’s an enticing concept, with the potential to break the cycle of killing and revenge like nothing else.

But it’s not easy. Like so many of the things Rwanda is doing towards recovery it’s incredibly ambitious, it’s brave and it’s healthy, but for most people it’s very, very difficult.

A Rwandan definition of forgiveness

In ‘pure’ terms, forgiveness implies two things: giving up on the idea that an offence should be punished, and also giving up any feelings of resentment or revenge. But in practice, Rwandans see it slightly differently. “I learned this from two Rwandan women,” said John Steward, the former manager for healing, peace-building and reconciliation with World Vision Rwanda. “Both of them had faced the person who killed their closest relative.

“They helped me to understand that forgiveness has two parts. The first is letting go of the feelings of bitterness or revenge for what happened, but the second part is in what these two women said to the killers: ‘What you did was wrong. What are you going to do to help repay - and help repair - some of the damage you have caused?”

A conscious decision and a challenge

For these Rwandans, the concept of forgiveness is a strong one. It is a conscious decision not to take revenge, yet it contains elements of justice, individual healing for the damage done to hearts and minds, and the offer of freedom for both victim and offender to go on and live productive lives without being prisoners of the past.

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