I brought a handkerchief. The occasion was a screening of the documentaryAs 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 seenHotel 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 have been released.
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 are not 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 Hutus were released from prison, 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.