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The Forgiveness Fantasy (work in progress)

June 22, 2007

"Rwanda's key dilemma is how to build a democracy that can incorporate a guilty majority alongside an aggrieved and fearful minority in a single political community."--Mahmood Mamdani, "When Victims Become Killers"

"In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations . . . It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible to live in such a country!"--Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago"

Eric Kazamarande has the chest, shoulders and heavy hands of a construction worker. He’s not tall. But even in his absurd pink prison garb, he radiates a primal strength. Armed with a machete, he must have cut a fearsome figure. Eric doesn’t remember how many blows it took to kill 12 Rwandans, but the two children he hacked to death probably offered a bit less resistance than the ten Tutsi adults he murdered. He chopped one man’s head off and carried it around the town of Kabukuba like a trophy.

When I first met Kazamarande in 1998, on a wooden bench outside the Rilima prison in central Rwanda, he didn’t talk much about the killings, except to offer what sounded like a carefully-rehearsed alibi. “We were driven by an invisible enemy that invaded our souls,” he told me. This enemy invader, whatever it was, proved highly efficient: it gave Eric and his fellow genocidists the strength to kill a million Rwandans in just a hundred days in 1994.

(You can see my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here)

Eric ended our interview with a deft finishing touch. “My heart is at peace,” he said, “because I have already confessed.” When he got out of prison, he pledged, he would visit the families of his victims, and beg forgiveness. At that point I turned off my video camera, and Kazamarande calmly walked back into his cell, escorted by a deputy warden. He would serve a total of about eight years.

Fast forward nine years . . . A few weeks ago, I saw Kazamarande again. He was now a free man. He’d found work as a baker. He was wearing a rakish leather Nike cap, and there was a cell phone in his pocket. There was a swagger in his step. He was doing all right. He’d wiped the bloodstains from his hands. He’d shown the requisite remorse. He’d knocked on doors, said I’m sorry, collected his forgivenesses like so many vouchers from the families and friends of his victims, and now he just wanted to get on with his life. As we talked, he occasionally brought his hands to his heart, to show his sincerity.

I couldn’t resist a question about guilt. Did he feel any after 13 years? “It’s not the kind of thing I think about,” he said. “For me it has gone.” Eric said the survivors of the genocide--the parents of the children he killed, the children of the man he beheaded--might still have unresolved anger, and grief. “But inside me, I don’t have a problem.”

Next to Eric stood Pelagia, an African woman in her mid 30s. She is a Tutsi. She’s lost more than three dozen family members in the genocide. When Eric was out hunting, Pelagia was one of the hunted. Now, 13 years later, she is one of the forgivers. They are neighbors. How does she feel about Eric?

Head slightly bowed, eyes avoiding mine (and Eric’s), she says softly: “The government has taught us that we are Rwandan and we are one.” She says she’s satisfied that the man next to her “has become a new person.” The past is the past, the blood has been washed away, and the African grasses cover the common graves. Yet there is little conviction in Pelagia’s voice, and she keeps a physical distance from Eric. She dutifully says the words that the government wants to hear.

I reflect on the words of Jean Hatzfeld, in his book A Time for Machetes: “The killer has no idea of the ordeal that begins for the victims once they have agreed to forgive, for in so doing they not only reopen old wounds but also lose the possibility of gaining relief through revenge. The killer does not understand that in seeking forgiveness, he is demanding that the victim make an extraordinary effort and he remains oblivious to the survivor’s dilemma, anguish and courageous altruism . . . "

Hatzfeld tells of one survivor, Francine, who shared her perspective of forgiveness. "A man may ask for forgiveness if he has had one Primus (beer) too many and then beats his wife. But if he has worked at killing for a whole month, even on Sundays, what can he hope to be forgiven for?" Hatzfeld quotes another survivor: "Only justice can pardon . . . a justice that makes room for truth, so that fear may drain away."

Reading a translation of Eric's interview, I see how he avoids any mention of justice. He assumes that forgiveness is his due, because he has served eight years in prison, and has followed the forms of admitting guilt. Watching him next to Pelagia, I wonder: Is this man really in touch with reality? He ends the interview on an unexpected, and chilling note. Ethnic peace, he says, is entirely in the hands of the authorities. Rwandans are by nature malleable, he says, and if the state decides to turn Tutsis loose against Rwanda’s majority Hutus “they would do it (the genocide) against us.” His meaning is clear, and deeply disturbing: All Rwandans are still capable of killing, he says. All it will take is another government of genocidal intent to start the bloodletting again. By depersonalizing the act of mass murder, by making it an act triggered by a malevolent state, Eric seeks to minimize his guilt, and to diminish his “agency.”

I would like Eric to meet Emmanuel Murangira. Emmanuel, a tall lanky man with a hole in his forehead where a bullet entered his brain, is one of a handful of Tutsi survivors in the school at Murambi, in southwestern Rwanda. Emmanuel has seen more death than most men: an estimated 50,000 people were slaughtered on the school premises in 1994 after a series of pitched battles between Tutsi civilians and attacking soldiers, interahamwe militia and ordinary Hutu citizens. Today, Emmanuel guides visitors through the "death rooms" where 1200 victims are carefully laid out in poses of death, their remaining flesh preserved by lime.

Striding through the charnel houses, Emmanuel is clearly disturbed by all the easy talk of remorse and forgiveness. He acknowledges that Rwandans were influenced by propaganda from above. "But if the people had refused this position, the genocide would not have reached the level it did. They were going around killing people, taking their possessions, hoping for their land, stealing everything they could get their hands on. The killers were fat and greedy--that’s why they agreed so readily with with what the authorities told them to do." In other words, the voices that drove the killers onward came from within themselves, venal and covetous. They simply wanted things that others had, and found a way to ideologize this desire.

This is where Rwandans find themselves today: If they hope to function again as members of a civil society, the survivors of the genocide will have to accept at face value the sometimes blithe acts of contrition of the killers like Eric Kazamarande; the killers will have to believe that they have been forgiven (or at least no longer subject to prosecution) and both Hutus and Tutsis will have to trust that they have nothing more to fear from one another, and that they will have a role to play in the shaping of Rwanda’s future.

What complicates this process of national forgiveness and reconciliation is, ironically, that it has been formalized as government policy. The only way out of Rwanda's ethnic nightmare, the politicians say, is for all Tutsi (and Hutu) victims to forgive their tormentors, as individuals and as a group. Some critics see this as not only impossible, but also inadvisable. Philosopher Roger Scruton, reviewing Charles Griswold's book Forgiveness: a philosophical exploration, has this to say. "When forgiveness becomes the public rallying cry . . . encouraged by civic and religious leaders, and praised far and wide for its power to heal, its slide into confusion and vulgarity is inevitable. It becomes identified with 'closure,' it is sentimentalized and transformed into therapy, and the criteria for its practice are obscured. It melds into forgetfulness of wrong, and is granted all too easily, once the expected public theatrics are performed."

Writing about the Stalinist outrages in the 1930s and 40s, Solzhenitsyn had this to say about the evildoers: " . . . For the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly: 'Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.' " Solzhenitsyn says little or nothing about forgiveness.

This past spring (2007), I spent five weeks in Rwanda. It was the 13th anniversary of the genocide, and virtually every sentence I heard contained the “R” word—Reconciliation—sometimes preceded by the “U” word—Unity. It’s the mantra of the Tutsi-dominated government of President Paul Kagame. Unity and Reconciliation. This, we are told, is how the awful wounds of the genocide will be healed.

The healing process involves a number of steps. First, the killers must confess and beg forgiveness. The survivors are then required to forgive the people who tried to exterminate them. Everybody must attend weekly community tribunals, called gacacas, at which the murderers, rapists and looters who have eluded justice will be pointed out, accused, and be asked to confess. Meanwhile, the government will enforce a host of draconian laws and regulations against things like divisionism, negationism and “genocidal ideology.”

How draconian? Well, you can now be thrown into jail if you openly challenge the official orthodoxy of ethnic relations in Rwanda. Indeed, on April 20, newspaper editor Agn├Ęs Nkusi Uwimana, was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $6500. Her crime was to publish a letter-to-the-editor which complained that Tutsis were not being prosecuted for killing Hutus. Many Western human rights groups say the same thing. Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” says the same thing. But to say it on the hills and the streets of Rwanda is today a crime—a crime of ideology. A thought crime.

Indeed, the new dogma is that there ARE no more Tutsis and Hutus, only Rwandans. “If you want to attack the problem of disunity,” one local official told me, “you attack it from the strongest point that created those divisions. So, no more Tutsis, no more Hutus . . . in Rwanda.” The speaker was comfortable in English because he was a Rwandan Tutsi who had been raised in Uganda—English-speaking Tutsis of Ugandan heritage are now a minority within a minority in Rwanda, but they hold the balance of power. (The second language of most Tutsis is French.) And it’s this very power that allows Paul Kagame, another Ugandan-raised Tutsi, to enforce the decree that there will be no ethnic divisions in Rwanda.

These attempts to officially "mask" ethnicity is wrong-headed, and even dangerous, say some Rwandans. In his celebrated book "Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak," French author Jean Hatzfeld quotes survivor Innocent Rwililia: "Here in Rwanda, it's a big deal to be Hutu or Tutsi. In a marketplace, a Hutu can spot a Tutsi at fifty yards, and vice versa, but admitting that there is a difference is taboo, even among ourselves. The genocide will change the lives of several generations of Rwandans, yet it is still not mentioned in our schoolbooks. We ourselves are never at ease with these differences, and in a manner of speaking, ethnicity is like AIDS; the less you talk about it, the more havoc it wreaks."

Political analysts J.-H. Bradol and A. Guibert argue that "to stress the absence of ethnic identities has become a means of
masking the monopoly by Tutsi military of political power. In this case, political discourse opposed to ethnism attempts to hide the domination of society by the self-proclaimed representatives of the Tutsi community." European academic Filip Reyntjens concurs; he says that while "the elimination of ethnicity is a worthwhile goal . . . the cynical manipulation of this objective as a tool for the monopolization of power in the hands of a small group is something quite different." (2004)

Meanwhile, the local newspapers, television and radio stations obediently censor stories that might put the lie to the fantasy of ethnic harmony. David Gusoniorye, news editor of the Kigali New Times, gave me an example of the kind of story he will keep out of the newspaper: A group of Hutus attacked a Tutsi wedding party, and several people were killed. But Gusonoirye decided not to print the story, because it might “send very strong negative signals” about ethnic togetherness. (Gusonoirye would not even use the words “Hutu” or “Tutsi” until I pressed him for details.)

This past July, according to the Toronto Star’s Debra Black, a New Times editor was sacked for approving the publication of an “unflattering” photo of President Kagame. “The rest of the staff,” Black wrote, “ was told . . . to avoid criticizing the government, the presidency and the law. They only needed to be told once for the message to sink in.” Meanwhile, Kagame tells journalists that they must take the initiative to improve their craft. The irony seems lost on him.

The independent media, for their part, know exactly what stories are too hot to handle: anything that exposes corruption or human rights violations within the army (Rwandan Defence Force), the ruling party, and the office of Paul Kagame himself. “I know this very well,” says Charles Kabanero, editor of the opposition Umeseso, “because most of my former colleagues who left the country wrote stories concerning those three areas.” Dozens of journalists have fled Rwanda because of intimidation and other threats. Earlier this year, Kabanero won the Golden Pen Award for his crusading journalism, and the authorities—embarrassed at the elevation of a critical journalist—promptly abolished the award.

I myself got a small taste of official disfavor when I wrote a blog about Paul Kagame that was mildly critical. The government’s Intelligence Service spotted the blog, and I was told that I was no longer welcome on the premises of TV Rwanda, where I had been scheduled to do some media training. An official told me I was not welcome because I did not “understand” things in Rwanda. I was too preoccupied with the “shadows” of life there.

Rwanda authorities are clearly on the alert for what Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker calls “dangerous ideas”--in this case the idea what any divergence from the official text of the genocide and the post-genocide healing process threatens the stability of the state.

Writes Pinker: “ It's hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an unpleasant one. Only children and madmen engage in ‘magical thinking,’ the fallacy that good things can come true by believing in them or bad things will disappear by ignoring them or wishing them away. Rational adults want to know the truth, because any action based on false premises will not have the effects they desire.
“History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence.”

* * * * *
For some Rwandans, the process of forgiveness came in curious ways. Solange Mukandayisabye, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Kibungo, was 24 when the genocide came. She lost her parents and four siblings in the mass slaughter at Nyarubuye Parish, in eastern Rwanda. Solange’s mother pleaded with the interahamwe to spare her, saying that relatives living next door would vouch for the fact that she was Hutu. But when the killers banged on the neighbor’s door, a woman inside denied the relationship. “We don’t know them,” she said. “Go ahead and clean up the neighborhood.”

The most efficient clean-up occurred in a classroom adjacent to the church, where hundreds of Tutsis fled, hoping for sanctuary. Solange was among them. They barred the door, and pressed against it with their bodies. But the interahamwe broke through. machetes and clubs flailing.

Solange crawled under bodies, and tried to hold her breath. She was covered in other people’s blood and body parts. After their first murderous sweep, the interahamwe sprinkled pepper over the wounds of the fallen. Anyone who flinched was quickly dispatched with a few blows. Solange, miraculously, had no cuts on her body, so she was able to remain still. Hours later, under cover of darkness, she pulled herself out of the carnage and fled.

For years after, Solange was consumed by the need to avenge herself on the killers, and on the townspeople who had condemned her family by denying them help. “I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted a gun, so I could go back to the neighborhood and kill everybody. But they wouldn’t accept me in the army because I had a child. I tried for three or four years. But they never took me.”

Finally, in 2001, Solange visited a Pentecostal church and heard a sermon on forgiveness. It was an epiphanic event: She says it transformed her life. By means of a profession of blanket forgiveness, she could now release herself from the past and the people in it. “I was ready to forgive everybody,” she said, “even those who did not ask me for forgiveness.” E. K. Stratton calls this process “unhooking”--detaching oneself from a traumatic past experience. This is a spiritual process, but it also has a practical side: It allows the individual to begin to forget. The perpetrators of an atrocity lose their psychological hold on their victims. Today, Solange has no interest in pursuing justice in the courts “because that would take me back to the situation I went through.” For the same reason, Solange will not take part in the annual genocide commemoration ceremonies--she is determined to avoid any experience that takes her back to 1994.

“My feelings (of vengeance) are all gone,” she says. “I don’t know what happened to them.”


I would like to talk for a moment about fear. During my visit to Rwanda in 2007, I met a young European woman who was researching her doctoral dissertation. Her subject was how the children of genocide survivors, born since 1994, deal with the trauma of the event that they only know about from conversations, or from reading, or from commemorative events. To this end, the woman had spent several months living with Rwandan families, listening to their talk, and evaluating how the adults processed the genocide with their children.

She was reluctant to talk to me, and insisted I not use her name, or any information that might identify who she was, or where in Rwanda she was working. “Are you afraid of government retaliation?” I asked her. “No,” she replied. “I am afraid for the people. I am afraid that if their neighbors should find out what they are saying to me, and among themselves (about the genocide), that they would be harmed.” I expressed surprise that, 13 years after the killings, the anxiety level should still be so high, that people should still talk in whispers about what they had experienced.

I wanted to get this woman’s impressions about reconciliation and forgiveness. I had heard that Rwandans are, by nature, reluctant to reveal their true feelings, especially to strangers, but even among themselves. I had heard the expressions about the “tears that fall inside.” Given this tendency, how could we evaluate the expressions of reconciliation and forgiveness from the survivors?

The woman explained that when a Rwandan talks about a traumatic event, there are two voices: the interior one, and the exterior one. What we were hearing from the Tutsi survivors was the “exterior” voices of national healing. The interior voice, the voice of experience and pain, was suppressed.

“After such an event (the genocide) there are feelings of hatred and anger and vengeance which are natural and which anyone can feel and that must be dealt with. So effectively, either we express these feelings, or we don’t And if we express them, they must be contained in a space, in a psychological space, a judicial space, whatever, it must be contained somewhere. If it’s not contained, we come to renewed violence-- a new genocide or new massacres . . . Perhaps reconciliation can do something to contain these feelings in their interior life, inside themselves. But the question is about the long-term: If someone holds his feelings inside like this, what does it mean for the long term? I leave the question open, but it’s certain that the psychological question rests on this level.”

In her cautious, academic way, she seemed to be saying that the necessary psychological space did NOT yet exist in Rwanda--otherwise, why should people be so nervous about expressing themselves openly.

She continued: “There is a danger of of “mal-etre” (ill-being), of immense psychological suffering, and it is obvious today that the survivors are in a state of great suffering and I believe they can’t continue to look after themselves like this . . and so this question will confront the next generation: this conflict between the interior, which does not show itself outside. . . Will this be a burden on the next generation, or will these people find new space, will they be creative enough to construct a new space, will be next generation be able to do something about these feelings? . . . . The task now is very very very very difficult.”


Samer said...

Wonderful piece and it gives us lots to think about. Thanks for sharing.

Kristina said...

This is a fantastic posting and brings up some truly interesting ideas concerning government suppression, fear, group psychology and reconciliation. I hope you continue to ruminate and post on this topic!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting dynamics going on. As long as people fear for their lives, and fear retribution for their thoughts and feelings, and rightly so, peace and reconciliation is still a long way.

Anonymous said...

I understand your dedication to this topic, and obvious "expertise" in terms of knowing facts and having thought through these very complex issues.

And yet I can't help but feel this blog is less a product of an advanced state of wisdom (which, I feel, is how it likes to position itself) and more the attitude of the typical person who likes to stir the sh*t, as they say, and thereby make himself seem just a little smarter than the pack.

"Oh, you poor naive people who believe forgiveness is a simple process. Can't you see this is a case of oppression, censorship and wishful thinking, when only I, and an elect handful, can see the complexity of all this?"

As Solange Mukandayisabye's experience shows, and I'm glad you "printed" it, forgiveness isn't so much about the other person, finally, as a something we do for ourselves. Luckily, the beneficial effect made available to others in the process is "built-in" to the forgiveness equation.

Do you really believe it's possible that all these murderers feel genuine remorse? Of course not all do. Does anyone intelligent believe this? Of course not.

Ultimately, all forgiveness has an eminently practical aspect. Often it's not some _ideal_ way to move forward; it's the only way. Without it, there's no way out of the fire of blame and resentment, plain and simple. (The very fire that this article seems to want to re-fan, just a bit, with its rather lopsided content.)

Your comments about Kazamarande are poignant. They also serve to rile the senses and the mind in precisely the way that's dangerous to the process.

Are there unfeeling bastards among the forgiven? Of course. And for every one of them there are those who are genuinely sorry. It would have been more inclusive to have added more of these folks in here, as well.

As we know, due to a rather pitiable aspect of human nature, there are many among _us_ (maybe you, maybe me) who would fare just as poorly under circumstances were we were given carte blanche to exact revenge with impunity. That's the sobering truth we all must face: We are not much wiser than animals, ultimately, without proper guidance.

So no, forgiveness is not a simple matter. The issues here are undeniable complex.

But to my mind, in seeking to explore to their complexity, you are re-simplifying them.

Finally, the tone of this post has a "smarter-than-thou" aspect that defeats the message. You, my friend, have much to learn.

Thanks for your ear.

Claude Adams said...

"Plain and simple," eh? There's nothing plain and simple about this. It's deep and convoluted and filled with pain and soul-searching, and if you'd done any intensive research on the matter, or spoken to the people involved (which I have, in depth) you would never use a flip phrase like this. There is a vast amount of literature on the subject of "forgiveness" and "healing," some of which I quote, and there are many people within Rwanda who are deeply concerned about reconciliation as government fiat, but are afraid to speak out.
So you can make all the snide ad hominem comments you like (i.e. shit-stirring, smarter-than-thou, etc) but you don't advance the understanding of this matter by one iota. Get out there and see for yourself, and then come back and stimulate the discussion. (And please don't hide behind the "anonymous" if you want to add value to your commentary.