My Neighbor: Once a Killer, Now a Friend
There are countless reasons why Jaqueline could have refused a former perpetrator of the genocide, Frederick, to become her neighbor.
800,000 reasons . . .
In the spring of 1994, the lives of nearly a million innocent Rwandans evaporated into an ominous cloud of red. In what seemed like an instant, an ocean of men, women, and children were massacred ruthlessly—stabbed, slashed, maimed, and butchered in the genocide.
While Jaqueline tended her fields, a group of men ransacked her village and murdered 12 of her family members. When she returned, all that she knew had been lost.
Although Frederick was not a part of the group who had killed Jaqueline’s family, his hand had gripped one of those tarnished machetes, extinguishing life with its blade in homes, businesses . . . places and people he passed each day on his way to the fields.
The crimson spatters still ingrained on the jagged edges are sober reminders of the insanity of the evil that compelled so many to kill during those 100 days.
Neighbor betrayed neighbor. Friend slaughtered friend. Husbands murdered wives, children, nieces, and nephews.
Frederick was one of a multitude of genocide perpetrators who were imprisoned for killing during the genocide . . . so many that the system struggled to contain them.
Knowing he was likely never to set foot on Rwandan soil as a free man, Frederick began to write letters. He started with the families of the people he killed, admitting his guilt and begging for forgiveness. Each act of contrition made the burden of his anguish a little lighter.
By 2003, the prison system was on the verge of collapse. There were not enough judges or juries to try the perpetrators, enough iron bars to secure them, or sunless rooms to hide them away.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame extended a presidential pardon—perhaps one of the most controversial in history—to as many as 70,000 murderers from the genocide. But first, every prisoner must confess his crimes, ask for forgiveness, and promise to walk in true repentance. Then, and only then, would they be set free.
Tens of thousands of penitent killers, including Frederick (who had been imprisoned for nine years) were released, dispersing among the narrow red paths that winded like tributaries through the green hills . . . knowing that they were at the mercy of those they had hurt. The debt was too extensive, and the suffering so deep, it could not begin to be measured.
Assimilating back into Rwandan society seemed utterly hopeless.
One day, Frederick received word that there was a village called Myobo nearby that was opening its arms to new residents—even former perpetrators of the genocide. In fact, once forgiven and accepted into the community, perpetrators and victims lived side by side as neighbors . . . and equals.
The purpose of the village was to bridge the divide forged by hatred through the radical act of forgiveness. Victims agreed to forgive former killers. Murderers looked into the eyes of the innocent and asked to be forgiven.
The forgiveness experiment worked. There are six “reconciliation villages” that exist in Rwanda today. They operate farming and artisan cooperatives, joint savings accounts, and microloan initiatives.
Groups of women congregate in the shade of the mango trees, weaving baskets and crafting bracelets to sell at market. Women who saw their husbands murdered by the husbands, brothers, and fathers of their peers have embraced community over needle, thread, and fiber. The honesty of laughter permeates their hearts, unobstructed by the pain of guilt or bitterness.
Men work alongside one another in the fields, the scars of 20 years ago still gleaming on their backs, their arms, and their hands. Together, they cultivate the land, once soaked in blood, with the hope of the future ahead.
Today, Myobo isn’t just another place to live; it is a vibrant community pulsing to the rhythm of reconciliation. Bitterness was forfeited and shame was cast aside. There are no longer distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis, perpetrators or victims, guilty or innocent. There are only Rwandans—new neighbors, reinvented families, collaborative entrepreneurs, and steadfast friends. These Rwandans, like so many of their countrymen, are now finally free . . . through the healing power of forgiveness.
Photographer Jeremy Cowart famously composed the portraits of survivors and perpetrators who had reconciled since the genocide, each with a statement about forgiveness displayed as a testament to Rwanda’s slow, but deliberate healing. Staring into the faces—one of a former murderer, one of a former victim—unencumbered by resentment, is enough to steal your breath away.
Since becoming a citizen of Myobo, Frederick has been chosen by the village to serve as mayor. He is married and has three beautiful children, who can often be seen playing with children of victims . . . his neighbor Jacqueline’s and many others. The two friends, once separated by hate, now walk together side by side along the same red road once heavy with the bodies of the innocent . . . . their children—Rwanda’s next generation—running beside them, their smiles like flashes of joy illuminating the evening sky.
I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is not calling something that’s wrong, right. Neither is it making the wrong acceptable or acting as if the consequences of evil do not exist. Rather, forgiveness is saying to another,
You are released from the burden of carrying your offense against me. You are free from holding yourself up from under it. And I . . . I am free from the burden of holding you captive to it.
In forgiveness, two enslaved people—the victim and the perpetrator—are set free. This freedom—this revolutionary hope—is the future of Rwanda.
Interested in getting involved in Rwanda? Visit worldhelp.net/rwanda to learn how World Help is partnering with visionary men and women to cultivate a national infrastructure that grows healthier by the day.