Twenty-five years on, Rwanda a witness to possibility of change

John Steward, who worked in Rwanda in the late 90s, reflects on the journey to peace and reconciliation after genocide

John Steward in Nyamata, south-eastern Rwanda in 2012. Two of the Rwandan people pictured were part of a process of forgiving, and two repented and confessed.

By John Steward

April 16 2019This month marks the 25th anniversary of the commencement of the Rwandan genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Rwandans – most of them Tutsis – were killed in 100 days. Melbourne Anglican John Steward, who worked in Rwanda in the late 1990s with World Vision, reflects on the journey to peace and reconciliation in the years since then, and says that the nation is a witness to the world of the possibility for change and restored relationships, even after horrific suffering.

In mid-1998 I drafted a reflection about my first year in Rwanda. Within 12 months I was seeing light emerging from the darkness of 1994. Now, as Rwanda commemorates 25 years since the awful days of the genocide, I want to challenge some who glance from a distance towards this tiny country and believe that things must always be dark in a place like that. Here is a nation demonstrating huge potential to emerge out of sadness and work towards fresh hope and generosity through profound change. It is a place emerging into a brighter light because of constructive action born of a dream to be different.

This is not the country we envisaged in the uncertain days that followed the catastrophe of early 1994. We thought it would struggle forever – there was even a suggestion that Rwanda could be divided up between neighbouring countries.

When I arrived there in 1997, it was a time of chaos because every person carried trauma. I was briefed to not do anything for three months, but to take the time to observe and listen and learn. At the end of that time, I had begun to see some changes in people who were taking part in a healing process and finding a purpose for living that they had lost in 1994.

I was able to discover two approaches in Rwanda – one for Christian leaders and the other for everyday use – which offered lightness and glimmers of hope. I recruited some Rwandans who had been reached through this healing and mentored them to broaden that work.

Over the next few years we added a third approach from South African Anglican priest and social justice activist Fr Michael Lapsley. These steps towards healing were used first with World Vision staff, and then with their spouses and in communities. Eventually 1000 grassroots facilitators were trained to offer the healing. Our basic principle was “work with the willing”.

These are not the only approaches that were used. Other groups used different versions and there was room for all, such was the huge need. The healing could go ahead because there was relatively stable government, supportive conditions of safe travel, and visionary leaders who wanted to get on with reinventing Rwanda and restoring life. Most importantly, many of the perpetrators of killing and looting were in prison where they were coming to terms with the impact of their actions. At the same time the government was developing a way to bring offenders to justice through a revamped traditional process of accountability in the community called gacaca.

The most inspiring aspect of the healing process was that people who processed their pain by telling their stories in small groups found themselves less weighed by grief and loss; their energy began to reach outwards to support others who lagged behind. Of course those who did not get this help continued to struggle, so the decade after the genocide was heavy going, but one could see grounds for hope.

Since then, investment in health and education, a burgeoning coffee industry and a vision for change and development in the form of the government’s Vision 2020, which was launched in 2000 with the aim of transforming Rwanda into a knowledge-based middle-income country, are just some of the practical ways in which this nation has worked to rebuild since the horrors of 1994.

Behind it all there stands one important idea: there is a power in suffering to force us to look differently at life. Many Rwandans have chosen to turn around from hatred, revenge and division to embrace their own dignity and honour it in their enemies. With slow changes in heart they have been rediscovering their common humanity.

To be sure, I am not speaking of all Rwandans, nor thinking of perfection. There is no sense of “mission accomplished”. So much need for change remains. But remarkable change is easier to find in Rwanda than in other war- and conflict-riddled countries of the world. Words like repentance, confession, apology, taking responsibility, speaking the truth, accepting consequences are alive in Rwanda and working their magic. The impact goes right to the heart of the big issues of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

In this anniversary year, please pray and hope for those many Rwandans who still await their chance to heal and contribute, and wish for the younger generation to not be affected by the trauma of the adults with whom they live. Pray, if you can, for their inner journey.

Dr John Steward is a member of St John’s Cranbourne. He worked in Rwanda in 1997-98 and then visited every six months for nine years as a Peace and Reconciliation consultant for World Vision. He recently launched a study guide for use in small groups to study the stories of change in Rwandan people and to gain personal benefit from them. To Live Well is available free of charge at www.2live4give.org