WICHITA, Kansas — Less than a year after her family was slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, Immaculée Ilibagiza forgave the man who killed her mother and brother. Today, Immaculée is receiving letters from 8th-grade students from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Wichita, KS. The students share stories of forgiveness after religion and history teacher, Winston Kenton, decided to teach the Ilibagiza’s story of genocide and reconciliation in Rwanda.
Sharing Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Story
The idea for the letters came after Kenton read the book “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” by Immaculée Ilibagiza. Kenton remembers his reaction while reading the book vividly. He discussed them with the Borgen Project in an interview. “I felt shame, remorse, sorrow and frustration.” Since he could not change the fact the United States did so little to stop the genocide killings, Kenton took another course of action. He decided to bring awareness to the horrors that occurred in Rwanda by sharing Immaculée’s Ilibagiza story with his class.
Immaculee Ilibagiza was an engineering student from the National University of Rwanda visiting family for Easter break when the killings began. At the urging of her father, Imaculee fled to a local pastor’s house. There, she and seven other women were sheltered in a bathroom that measured 3×4 feet while mass violence raged outside. After 91 days, the genocide killings were over. Immaculee and the other women finally came out of the cramped room. However, Immaculee found herself in a reality that did not include any of her family members. All, except for one brother who was studying abroad, were slaughtered.
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 was driven by ethnic tensions between members of Hutus and Tutsi ethnic groups. Approximately 85 percent of Rwandans were Hutus, but Tutsi were still considered major influencers of the Rwandan government. Hutus government officials, including the Rwandan president, were killed after their plane crashed on April 6, 1994. The incident was blamed on the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an extreme Tutsi rebel group, and spurred retaliatory activities. Government sanctioned attacks on Tutsi and moderate Hutus followed. In the 100 day-span of the genocide, 800,000 people were slaughtered. At least 70 percent of the Tutsi in Rwanda were wiped out.
The genocide may have occurred 25 years ago, but its effects are ongoing. Forty percent of the Rwandan population is below the age of 14. It is difficult for newer generations to escape the physical, psychological and emotional effects of the genocide. Children in Rwanda today see the event as something they experienced. The trauma is either passed on from a parent or carried through its embedded roots in the Rwandan identity. When left unchecked, intergenerational trauma can lead to extreme issues like poverty, social exclusion and self-destructive tendencies.
The Healing Process
Rwanda has taken significant steps to rebuild its communities. The government has implemented multiple nation-rebuilding programs, all of which focus on post-conflict reconciliation. Three successful programs include:
- Gacaca courts: The leaders who orchestrated the genocide stood trial at the International Criminal Tribunal. The foot soldiers who carried out the slaughter were held accountable in Gacaca, community-based, courts. At the court, genocide foot soldiers publically showed remorse and ownership for the crimes committed. Victims responded with gifts of mercy or forgiveness. In the end, both the perpetrators and victims determined that was the best way to move forward. Since the Gacaca court system started, more than one million genocide perpetrators have stood trial in one of the 12,000 community-based courts in Rwanda.
- Reconciliation Villages: Rwanda is home to six communities that house genocide survivors and perpetrators side by side. The reconciliation villages were established by the Prison Fellowship Rwanda and are funded by multiple donors, including the United States government. The goal of the reconciliation villages is to re-integrate genocide perpetrators into the Rwandan society and promote healing to survivors.
- Umuganda: Each month, Rwandans between the ages of 18 and 65 participate in a nationwide community service project for three hours. Another one of the government’s reconciliation activities, Umuganda aims to help the country heal together from the wounds of the genocide. “Umuganda is about the culture of working together and helping each other to build this country,” Rwandan president Pual Kagame told reporters.
While the Rwandan government has deemed many of its nation-building programs successful, others believe the results do not represent what is truly happening in Rwanda. Many genocide experts worry that the reconciliation efforts being promoted are artificial since they are initiated by the government. Genocide survivor, Sam Nshimirimana, recalls the “government [telling]perpetrators that once they apologize they will be released… Obviously, they apologize in order to be released.” However, it is difficult to deny the effectiveness of Rwandan reconciliation activities. Chaos has been replaced with order while poverty and child mortality rates decrease.
Rippling Effects Around the World
Immaculée Ilibagiza was no stranger to the side effects of trauma. Anger and resentment boiled within her while she was in hiding and even after she was liberated. Prayer and reconciliation played a major role in Immaculée’s healing process. Before emigrating to the United States in 1998, Ilibagiza offered forgiveness to the man who was responsible for the death of one of her brothers and her mother. After sharing her story with her co-workers, she was encouraged to put her story on paper. The work was published and quickly became a New York Times Bestseller.
The impact of the story is not in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s story itself, but rather one of hope that she gives others that peace is possible. Forgiveness is possible. Happiness is possible. Not only is she bringing awareness of the atrocities of the genocide but she is also positively impacting the world around her through a story of genocide and reconciliation in Rwanda. The ripples of which have made it all the way to a middle school classroom in Wichita, KS.
– Paola Nuñez