As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

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by Catherine Claire Larson

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Inspired by the award-winning film of the same name.

If you were told that a murderer was to be released into your neighborhood, how would you feel? But what if it weren’t only one, but thousands?

Could there be a common roadmap to reconciliation? Could there be a shared future after unthinkable evil? If forgiveness is possible after the slaughter of nearly


Inspired by the award-winning film of the same name.

If you were told that a murderer was to be released into your neighborhood, how would you feel? But what if it weren’t only one, but thousands?

Could there be a common roadmap to reconciliation? Could there be a shared future after unthinkable evil? If forgiveness is possible after the slaughter of nearly a million in a hundred days in Rwanda, then today, more than ever, we owe it to humanity to explore how one country is addressing perceptual, social-psychological, and spiritual dimensions to achieve a more lasting peace. If forgiveness is possible after genocide, then perhaps there is hope for the comparably smaller rifts that plague our relationships, our communities, and our nation.

Based on personal interviews and thorough research, As We Forgive returns to the boundary lines of genocide’s wounds and traces the route of reconciliation in the lives of Rwandans—victims, widows, orphans, and perpetrators—whose past and future intersect. We find in these stories how suffering, memory, and identity set up roadblocks to forgiveness, while mediation, truth-telling, restitution, and interdependence create bridges to healing.

As We Forgive explores the pain, the mystery, and the hope through seven compelling stories of those who have made this journey toward reconciliation. The result is a narrative that breathes with humanity and is as haunting as it is hopeful.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Rwanda-bloodied, scarred and nearly destroyed by the 1994 brutality of the Hutu genocide of Tutsis-is now called "an uncharted case study in forgiveness" by author Larson, who was inspired by the award-winning film As We Forgive. Individual stories form prototypes: there is Rosaria, left for dead in a pile of bodies, who forgives her sister's killer. And Chantal, whose family is brutally murdered yet who forgives her neighbor for the crimes. Devota, mutilated and left for dead, survives, forgives and eventually adopts several orphans. Each story is horrible and deeply personal as Larson mines the truths of forgiveness deep in each one's tale. Helpful "interludes" offer readers hands-on ways to facilitate forgiveness and take the next step to reconciliation in their own lives. This isn't an easy book to read or digest, yet its message is mandatory: "Forgiveness can push out the borders of what we believe is possible. Reconciliation can offer us a glimpse of the transfigured world to come." (Feb.)

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Read an Excerpt

As We Forgive

Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

By Catherine Claire Larson
Copyright © 2009

Catherine Claire Larson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-28730-8

Chapter One Rosaria's litany

"My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." Matthew 26:38

Cadeaux's eyes laughed. A grin flickered across her face and settled into a slight smile as she went to fetch water. Leaning over the bucket, Cadeaux splashed water on her cheeks, not noticing the dark beauty shimmering back at her. With a block of soap, she scrubbed her neck, her arms, her legs, her feet, and finally her sandals while her slender shadow bowed beneath Rwanda's fierce August sun. At the age of twelve, she was on the cusp of womanhood, but still had the frame of a child and a sheen of innocence.

Her sandaled feet skimmed along the path as she returned home. Were it not for the vividness of the yellow jacaranda trees, the seamless blue skies, and Cadeaux's swishing lavender skirt, the road, the homes, and the roofs would have seemed a still life in sepia.

Back home, Cadeaux broke a deep silence with her soft footfalls and the creak of a door latch. Inside, her mother, Rosaria, had been going about her daily chores cloaked with an air of solemn dignity, wearing her sorrow like holy garments. A crushed hand hung like prayer beads loosely at her side.

Rosaria's eyes lit on Cadeaux as she flitted past. Somehow, the saturated air felt less stifling with her there. Rosaria breathed more freely. More than bread or wine or water, Cadeaux seemed to her mother a sacrament-a visible sign of inward grace. The name Rosaria gave her had this ripeness of meaning. Born in December of 1994, nine months and four days after horror's opening night, Cadeaux is her mother's consolation, her laughter, and her hope. Her name means "gift," because, as Rosaria will tell you, "She was the only gift I had left."

In a place where each person's grief is strung together like bead upon bead, Rosaria must focus her mind on Cadeaux, on the gift before her. But sometimes, she can't help how her thoughts circle back to a painful past.

When Rosaria's son, Alexis, had become ill with a lengthy stomach sickness, she had taken him to the hospital in Kigali. That was three days before the fighting began. When the violence erupted, Rosaria's husband, a driver for an agricultural processing plant, gathered clothes and food and drove the three other children with him to work, hoping they would be safe there. Only months after the slaughter would Rosaria learn their fate.

On May 10, 1994, two weeks after the UN conceded "acts of genocide" had been committed and thirty-five days into the slaughter that had already consumed an estimated 500,000 people, the hospital where Rosaria and her son found refuge forced all the patients to leave. Ostensibly, the hospital had too many military soldiers who needed care. More likely, hospital officials were being pressured to turn out the Tutsi patients.

Sheltered from a month of horrors, Rosaria and her son were now thrust onto the center stage of the nightmare. Along the roadside, bodies lay in various positions of flight, glass from a smashed-in car windshield glinted in the sunlight, and a wild dog gnawed at something resembling a human leg. While the U.S. State Department argued over whether or not to jam Rwandan radio stations, Rosaria and Alexis walked by a radio blaring, "Search houses, search the marshes, search the ditches; make sure no rebels have slipped in to hide." A few miles down the road they found temporary shelter in the Holy Family Church, the largest cathedral in Kigali.

The church teemed with the barely living: a woman without an arm trying to nurse a baby, an old man moaning with bloodied cloths wrapped around his head, a child crying inconsolably for her missing mother. As Rosaria unrolled a blanket for her son, she saw the head priest speaking angrily with one of the nuns. He was a young man with a face full of hate, dressed not in a collar, but in a flack vest with a gun. After the genocide, the tribunal would charge this man with aiding the militia and also with rape. Two nights after Rosaria arrived, the militia did, in fact, raid the church. They came with a list of men, who were promptly taken outside. Alexis and Rosaria heard the shouting, then the shots. Rosaria and Alexis would not stay to see more executions; they decided to move at first light.

From there they fled to Nyamirambo Stadium and then along the Nyabarongo River out of the city toward Nyamata. They did their best to avoid the roadblocks where their fellow Rwandans, drunk on banana beer and blood, shot or butchered anyone without a Hutu identity card and piled the bodies in ditches beside the road.

Two days into the journey, Rosaria and her son encountered three Burundian refugees who were now caught in the midst of Rwanda's genocide. Hoping that identifying with them might offer her some protection, Rosaria posed as their leader. When they reached Nyamata, however, a few of Rosaria's neighbors, who had moved farther north to continue looting, recognized her.

"They sliced us with machetes and left us to die," Rosaria said slowly as if reciting details rubbed smooth through heavy handling. Rosaria was the only one who survived, and Cadeaux was still in her womb. She paused, rolling over the mystery in her mind. "The people who cut us with machetes were neighbors-people who knew me."

Saveri was one of Rosaria's neighbors at the time of the genocide. Though he is only forty, his face seems drawn and tired, as if the memories of the past find their center point where his eyes narrow and his forehead pinches down. He doesn't recall any animosity toward the Tutsi as a child. "But the government would indoctrinate us," he explained, "telling us that a Tutsi is an enemy, as a result of our bad history that took place before we were born."

That "bad history" stretches back to the time of German, then Belgian, colonization around the turn of the century. The muzuungu, or foreigners, noticed how the majority of the king's inner circle, the ruling class, had certain characteristics-thinner noses, lighter skin, taller frames. They theorized that this ruling class was a different race originating from Northern Africa, with common ancestral lineage to the Caucasian race. They deposed any chiefs or subchiefs who did not fit their stereotype. Like a disease, racism spread, as did the myth that the Tutsi were genetically predestined to rule over the Hutu.

When Saveri started school, he was taught this division: the Tutsi were herders, tall, with long noses, while the Hutu were farmers. Such distinctions taught him there was a sharp dichotomy between Hutu and Tutsi. But even back in school, Saveri suspected these were just fabrications geared to incite strife.

The story of those in power inciting strife in the population is one of the most grievous tales of the history of Rwanda. To divide and conquer, the Belgians incited strife by putting Tutsi in power, and relegating Hutu to lesser positions. Basically, the Belgians maintained power by propping up the Tutsi. In the midfifties when King Mutara Rudahigwa, influenced by other African leaders, began distributing power in a more democratic fashion among Hutu and Tutsi alike, the Belgian colonialists swung the pendulum the other way. They released a prominent liberal Tutsi from prison, and aided him in the creation of his own political party. Meanwhile, disgruntled Hutu formed another party, the Parmehutu. When violence inevitably ensued, the Belgians favored the revolutionary Hutu party as a means of retaining their colonial power.

Ousted from power, Tutsi sought refuge in the neighboring countries-Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire (the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo). In the meantime, the legacy of strife continued under the Hutu reign. When these exiled Tutsi began to press for the right to return to their homeland, they were repelled. As this Rwandan Patriotic Force or RPF gathered to take back this right by violence, the Hutu extremists incited hatred among the Hutu against the Tutsi through radio broadcasts. Saveri was one of hundreds of thousands indoctrinated to hate the Tutsi people and told to cleanse the countryside of such "cockroaches."

"What brought us the conviction to commit genocide was the indoctrination of divisive ideas by bad government," continued Saveri.

Bad government took many forms. The government-backed newspaper Kangura printed the Hutu Ten Commandments, one of which stated that a Hutu man who married a Tutsi woman should be thought of as a traitor. Presidential advisor Leon Mugesera, speaking at a political rally in 1992, asked, "What are we waiting for to decimate these families?" and "The person whose neck you do not cut is the one who will cut yours." Little by little, those in authority laid the psychological foundation necessary to build genocide. In fact, between 1990 and 1994, systematic killing of Tutsi had already become widespread. And when the United Nations negotiated a treaty of peace and distribution of power between the two groups at a summit in Arusha, Tanzania, on August 4, 1993, those Hutu clinging to power made preparations for one of the worst genocides in history.

On April 6, 1994, President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane plummeted from the sky after being hit by a missile. It became the albatross around the neck of the Tutsi people when Hutu claimed that the RPF had shot it down. The most widely accepted theory today is that radical Hutu, unsatisfied with the direction of the peace talks, assassinated the Rwandan and Burundian presidents. Either way, the sudden streak of a missile and the fiery light of a falling plane were a diabolical kind of fireworks that night-evil's unseemly opening ceremonies to a hundred days of slaughter that would consume the country.

Within hours of the plane's metal shrapnel gashing Rwandan soil, Hutu sharpened their machetes to do likewise. Radios hissed a message that "the season for slaughter" had arrived. In the days to follow, Hutu killed the Tutsi and their sympathizers at a rate five times higher than the mechanized Nazi gas chambers.

Saveri originally objected to the killings. He was standing with some others, mending a fence that April day, when a community leader approached them. The leader told Saveri and the others that he had seen where some rebels, or inkotanyi, were hiding, and that they should follow him. But when they got there, they found what the community leader, Ngabonziza Zakayo, had known all along: these weren't rebels at all. It was a mother, hiding in a neighbor's house with her two children.

Zakayo ordered the old man who had been hiding this mother and her children to kill them. If the old man refused, he would be killed himself. The old man began pleading. Zakayo demanded ten thousand francs. But the old man begged, saying that he did not have that much money.

Zakayo had eyed the small herd of cattle as he approached the house. Greedily, he said that he would take a bull instead as a ransom for the old man's life, so that he would not be buried with the Tutsi he was hiding. The old man continued to plead, suggesting that if he gave Zakayo the bull that the mother and her children should be able to go free. But Zakayo was adamant; the bull was merely penalty for hiding the "cockroaches" and the price for the old man's own life.

"Dig a grave," Zakayo yelled in the direction of the old man. The old man and his neighbor reluctantly obeyed. When the grave was done, the mother and her two children were told to sit in it. They did not try to run, but did just as they were told.

Zakayo selected one of Saveri's friends to beat the mother and her children to death using a spiked club. He refused, was beaten severely, and was then told to sit aside. "Whoever will refuse to kill will be punished later at our discretion," Zakayo warned.

After seeing what had befallen his friend, Saveri did not resist. When given the spiked club, he pummeled the woman and her two small children until they died. Though there were many who then joined in, Saveri was the first to strike. Once they had finished, they covered the bodies with dirt and left the scene. The mother's name was Christine; she was Rosaria's sister.

After killing, Saveri was changed. "Something happened to me," he said. "I was not the same. I was void of peace in my heart from that moment."

Unlike Saveri, Rosaria does not say much about the past.

If asked, she will bare her scars. A gash across her left shoulder reminds the onlooker how she used her back as a human shield to hide two fragile lives, hers and Cadeaux's.

Those mysteries not told by her scars are spoken plainly through her eyes. In the flash of a moment, in the glint of steel, something changed her, and she would never be the same. She too became void of peace in her heart from that moment.

These are the sorrowful mysteries. But Rosaria must turn her eyes again to other mysteries-the mystery of a spared life. Cadeaux: her name is a word Rosaria is just beginning to understand.


Excerpted from As We Forgive by Catherine Claire Larson Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Claire Larson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Rwanda---bloodied, scarred and nearly destroyed by the 1994 brutality of the Hutu genocide of Tutsis---is now called “an uncharted case study in forgiveness” by author Larson, who was inspired by the award-winning film As We Forgive. Individual stories form prototypes: there is Rosaria, left for dead in a pile of bodies, who forgives her sister’s killer. And Chantal, whose family is brutally murdered yet who forgives her neighbor for the crimes. Devota, mutilated and left for dead, survives, forgives and eventually adopts several orphans. Each story is horrible and deeply personal as Larson mines the truths of forgiveness deep in each one’s tale. Helpful “interludes” offer readers hands-on ways to facilitate forgiveness and take the next step to reconciliation in their own lives. This isn’t an easy book to read or digest, yet its message is mandatory: “Forgiveness can push out the borders of what we believe is possible. Reconciliation can offer us a glimpse of the transfigured world to come.” (Feb.) -- Publisher’s Weekly

Those who fear the breadth of America's left-right gap should see how radical forgiveness is healing Rwanda's far, far greater divide. Catherine Claire Larson realistically reports both scars and grace. -- Dr. Marvin Olasky

Ignore the doubters, skeptics, and experts about Rwanda and reconciliation after the 1994 genocide. Catherine Claire Larson has witnessed the same thing that I and a handful of other Westerners have, which is that everyday Rwandans who take the risk of biblical forgiveness soon experience new joy beyond human understanding. This book chronicles the miracle of forgiveness in a distinctive, evocative, and potent way. -- Tim Morgan

I had trouble reading Catherine Claire Larson’s book---As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, because of the lump in my throat and the flood of tears that made it difficult to focus. These stories of forgiveness in the wake of the Rwandan genocide are miracles of the highest order. Catherine does not just tell the story but she does so with a deft literary touch that actually does justice to the extraordinary stories. Like me, the reader may find their vision blurred from tears, but please persevere and discover what true forgiveness really looks like. -- Frank A. James III, , President

In compelling stories and thoughtful reflections, Catherine Claire Larson gives us glimpses of the powerful transformation taking place in Rwanda today. Reconciliation can indeed follow unspeakable evil; forgiveness is the key. -- Daniel W. Van Ness, , Executive Director

Meet the Author

Catherine Claire Larson is a senior writer and editor of Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint. With a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in theological studies, Larson hopes to give voice to Rwandans who are involved in one of the most closely watched experiments in forgiveness in our world today.

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As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book compiles personal narratives of individuals who survived the horrible Rwandan genocide. The stories are not only of the survivors, but of the perpetrators as well. The organized efforts this country made to bring healing to people in both groups is so inspiring, it's almost incredible. The book includes research and commentary on the process of forgiveness and reconciliation from well-known professionals in this field.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
What does forgiveness really look like? How can you forgive someone who seemingly took everything away that made life worth living: family, homes, and trust? What kind of power is it that can look someone who has hurt you in the deepest way, and forgive them? This is what As We Forgive is about, specifically how do Rwandan survivors of the 1994 genocide forgive those who broke into their homes, chased them down in the wild and sought to wipe them out. The 1994 Rwandan genocide, where Hutu attacked and murdered over 800,000 Tutsi's is hard to fathom in its brutality and suddenness. Larson, on staff with Prison Fellowship Ministries, writes of a defined process that leads to genocide and in reverse, of a process that leads forgiveness. She has focused on seven specific individuals, in three chapter segments, to tell an arc of a story from before, during, and after the genocide. The three chapter segments are broken up by seven interlude chapters that reflect on what the real applications of forgiveness, comfort, and what repairing broken relationships looks like. By telling personal stories in an engaging writing style, Larson does a fine job of taking the reader from the abstract to the very real and personal. She only introduces the political issues that motivated the genocide, and steps out of the way to tell of very human stories of brutality and in return peace and reconciliation. The writing is never explicit when stories of the genocidal acts are told, but they are hard to read, especially when old neighbors and friends turn on each other. There are times after reading an especially difficult passage, I had to put aside the book for a day or so, because of the sheer horror involved. At the same time, reading of murderers reaching out to assist in rebuilding their victims lives, local justice that seeks to restore and not retribution, and victims seeking to point those that did so much evil to Christ is earth shaking in its own right. Larson identifies eight steps that genocidal groups take to strip their victims of their humanity. By telling seven stories of reconciliation, forgiveness, she contrasts man's kingdom versus God's. The final step of genocide is denial. With powerful stories of reconciliation, she tells stories of truth that re-humanize victim and perpetrator alike. As We Forgive needs to read as a testament to a group of people who are changed by otherworldly power, in the hope that the same power that saved them from an ongoing spiral of evil will do wonders around the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AuthorMaryDeMuth More than 1 year ago
As We Forgive by Catherine Claire Larson is one of those life-changing books that will linger with you the rest of your life. It's not for the fainthearted. It's not for the hard-hearted or those bent toward stubborn unforgiveness. It's primarily a story of hope. During 100 days of 1994 800,000 people were brutally murdered in Rwanda-a genocide swifter in execution than Nazi gas chambers. Imagine Denver and Colorado Springs-every man, woman and child-suddenly gone from our population and you'll appreciate the scope of the horror. (And go look on a map of Africa. Trace your finger due South of Uganda, due West of the Congo and you'll appreciate how little this country is.) As We Forgive shares the stories of genocide survivors, recounting the unspeakable. But it does not stop there. Larson pulls back the curtain of the most ostentatious acts of forgiveness I've witnessed, where genocide survivors choose to forgive those who perpetrated such violence. Together, through reconciliation practices and restorative justice, they are rebuilding their country from the ruins of hatred-all on the back of the One who still bears the scars for our sins today. I came away from this book changed, deeply moved, and inspired. Having seen the power of God to help people forgive the seeming unforgiveable, it gave me hope that my own wrestling with forgiveness would end in hope. I also appreciated that none of the forgiveness modeled was simple or easy or quickly won, nor does the book purport that reconciliation is merely forgiveness while forgetting. For true restoration to occur, the person perpetrating the atrocity must first fully own his/her own sin and grieve it as such. And for the person who was sinned against to heal, he/she must revisit the place of grief in order to heal. All this dovetails beautifully into the message God's been birthing in me-to help people who suffer silently to tell the truth about their pasts, to choose the difficult path of forgiveness, in order to heal. If God can reach into a genocide victim's heart and offer peace; if He can transform a murderer into a productive member of a reconciled society; then surely He can transform your pain today. That's the patent hope this book gives. It's a gift to all of us. And I pray it's a gift all open.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago