Rwandan Reconciliation


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a moving story today on reconciliation in Rwanda.  In 1994, for 100 days while the world looked away, one group slaughtered another at the rate of 10,000 a day.  This Spring for another 100 days Rwandans are reliving what happened with public trials and the unearthing of mass graves. There is also repentance, forgiveness, and hope.  Lucky Severson reports on Rwanda’s recovery and one of the remarkable men who’s helping lead it.

LUCKY SEVERSON: The dormant volcanoes that loom over the hazy Rwandan countryside can erupt as suddenly and violently as the country itself did 15 years ago. Over a million Rwandans, about an eighth of the population, were massacred in one of the worst cases of genocide in recent history. Then the volcanoes were silent, and it seemed that only the gorillas that live alongside of them were safe from slaughter.

Today Rwanda is a much different place thanks, in part, to this man—Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana

post01-rwandareconBishop JOHN RUCYAHANA (Chairman, Prison Fellowship Rwanda): People are smiling because they have the hope, but the wounds and the healing is a process that we’ll continue to engage deliberately to tell people that they just can’t cover it up. We need to be able to unearth it and deal with it head on.

SEVERSON: That’s what the bishop has been preaching from the pulpit of his beautiful church in northern Rwanda since the killing stopped: deal with it head on. And it was personal for him. How could it not be after so many members of his extended family were murdered, including his niece?

Bishop RUCYAHANA: I have forgiven those who killed my niece, and they peeled off the flesh off her arms to the wrist, and they left bare bones, and they gang-raped her, and I forgive them because forgiving is not only benefiting the criminal, it benefits me.

SEVERSON: There are still tens of thousands of people convicted of genocide in Rwandan prisons, but as many as 30,000 have been released back to their communities through a restorative justice program that Bishop John chairs called Prison Fellowship Rwanda. These criminals, shown in a Prison Fellowship video, killed their neighbors and even there friends.

post02-rwandareconANNOUNCERS VOICE (in video): Eighty-three-year-old John Hebian Berriff lost 187 family members in the genocide, yet he has forgiven all those responsible.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (in video): The only child I had was killed but I have forgiven so I will be free and I will have peace in heaven.

SEVERSON: Prison Fellowship sends ministers into these penitentiaries to preach repentance, and then after a long period of counseling, if the killer repents, the victims, those who are willing, are brought into the prison to meet the perpetrators face to face. And then, if the victims can find forgiveness in their hearts, the process of redemption and healing begins.

JOHN HEBIAN BERIFF (in video): You killed my wife with my child. I will not do wrong to you. I forgive you.

SEVERSON: There had been a simmering hatred fermenting in Rwanda ever since it gained independence from Belgium in 1962. The Belgians designated Rwandans with at least 10 cows as Tutsis and those with less than10, by far the larger group, as Hutus. Tutsis became the ruling, privileged class, and when the Hutus came to power they began to exact their revenge. And then for 100 days, beginning in April of 1994, as the world and the United Nations sat idly by, Rwandans killed each other at the rate of 10,000 a day.

Bishop RUCYAHANA: I knew I was not going to get the gun and go on a rampage and shoot people as a bishop or as a clergyman. But I was bitter. I was seeking a bitter judgment on them.

SEVERSON: And then he says he remembered the story of the crucifixion.

Bishop RUCYAHANA: You know, when Jesus Christ was still hanging on the tree nails were still into his palms and feet, and he was naked, and he was being mocked by Pharisees underneath the cross, he did not wait for the pain to subside. He cried to the Father, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” The fact that Jesus called within the pain is a guide and a teaching for us to forgive.

SEVERSON: Pastor John Richardson of the St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has visited Rwanda four times, has seen what forgiveness and repentance can do.

Pastor JOHN RICHARDSON (St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Birmingham, AL): They have come to repent of their sins, and as part of that repentance they’re telling people where they can find their loved ones, and so they’re still digging up the bodies and laying them to rest, and these families were laying their loved ones to rest after 12 and 13 years. But it just occurs to me that for them there’s finally now some sense of closure.

post03-rwandareconSEVERSON: The Rwanda transformation is not just among the victims and perpetrators. The country still has a long way to go, lots of unhealed wounds, but Rwanda now has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and one of the reportedly least corrupt governments. Identity cards classifying the holder as Hutu or Tutsi are no longer allowed.

Bishop RUCYAHANA: We cannot wait until we forget the genocide to build a nation. It’s now, and nobody will build that nation for us. Our destiny is our calling.

Pastor RICHARDSON: The one thing that is obvious about John is that he truly believes that the truth sets you free.

SEVERSON: This man now guards the gates at Prison Fellowship, and he knows about being set free. He was a genocide killer and says before he repented for his crime, every minute of every hour of every day a horror movie played in his head.

Bishop RUCYAHANA: You need to see the pain they have. They can’t sleep. They hear the voices of the people they hacked to death. Voices are still fresh in their minds, and the stink of death and the smell of death are still upon them. They feel it, and they need to be relieved of that by means of repentance.

post04-rwandareconSEVERSON: Fredrick killed seven members of one family. After eight years in prison, he now has a family of his own. The man with the guinea pigs is Matais. He killed five of his neighbors, even after they gave him a cow as a token of friendship.

SEVERSON: Jacquelyn lost 11 members of her family, but she has forgiven, and she says that has relieved her pain. Now the victims and the perpetrators live in the same village, side by side, in peace. In fact, this whole village was paid for by Prison Fellowship and constructed by the killers and victims working together. There are several reconciliation villages in Rwanda and more being built.

Everyone here has stories, but the idea that they would be sitting together sharing them, victims and killers, would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

Bishop RUCYAHANA: You need to be able to have both parties, give them time, cry with them, pray with them, engage them until you bring them to the level of confronting the reality that we are living in this county, we are going to produce together, and we are going to live together again.

Pastor RICHARDSON: My 17-year-old observed as we left Rwanda, she said, “You know, Dad, some of those people probably didn’t repent.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” I’m sure some of them were looking for a way out. But that doesn’t mean that many of them haven’t repented and that they don’t work hand-in-hand and side-by-side.”

Bishop RUCYAHANA: No, it doesn’t always work magically. We have to give it time. We have engaged a process. We have to hang onto the process until the work comes to completion. We may even die doing it. But we have to continue doing it anyway.

SEVERSON: There are nearly 400,000 genocide orphans in Rwanda, and they make up the majority of the 1,000 students at the Sonrise Boarding School, sponsored by the prolific fundraising of Bishop John.

Bishop RUCYAHANA: My school has become one of the best schools in the country, and we are training them. We are telling them they will be the leaders of Rwanda.

SEVERSON: This is a remarkable place, especially for kids who have never seen an indoor toilet or a computer. There’s plenty of food here, and beds, and classes on just about everything. They’re connected to the outside world with a satellite dish, and there’s even a working farm to teach them how to live off the land. The school is the focus of Bishop John’s fundraising these days as he makes his Sonrise School even bigger and better. The bishop knows all the school is doing to prepare Rwandans for the future won’t be enough unless they can also deal with their past.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson reporting.

  • Marcile & Merrill Nofziger

    I just read the book “Left to Tell” about Immaculee Ilibagiz’s life amidst the Holocaust. It still makes me shutter, but I am thankful to hear of the healing and hope that is happening.

  • Leah Miller

    What a positive piece of reporting! I’m so glad you ran this. It’s inspiring and allows me to hope for all Africans dealing with ethnic strife. And I never knew where the “Tutsi” and “Hutu” designations had originated. How sad that such carnage and destruction can have its beginnings in something so flimsy.

  • Pat

    Thank you, thank you, Mr. Severson for this report on the power of forgiveness in Rwanda. I will use it in my classroom.
    Thank you PBS for easy access to such videos online.

  • Robert Dwyer

    For more information about Bishop John Rucyahana and the Sonrise School in Rwanda, please visit our website

    Robert M, Dwyer
    Ececutive Director Mustard Seed Project

  • Jack Lannig

    Each week I present a “Prophet of the Week” to my high school students. This is a wonderful and most prohetic piece. We are lucky to have Lucky’s reporting…thanks for this story, the great piece on Greg Boyle and the the other stories that show Religion’s best face.

  • esther

    Evry April i just think of those people who lost their people and i pray tht they w’ld knw that wen u 4give,u dont only feel relvd but u also gain favour frm God,let us try 2 reconcil by first 4givng and fight for a better c’try that Rwandez deserv and be an example to all nations

  • Frank McAllister

    Thank you for this amazing story, if they can forgive and repent under these circumstances, so can I.

  • Father Steve Kelley

    Thank you PBS and Mr. Severson for this excellent report on what’s really happened and still happening in Rwanda. Having been with “Bishop John” Rucyahana (and Pastor John Richardson) in the summer of 2007, I can tell you first-hand that you have captured the heart of what the church in Rwanda is trying to do, and what the government is doing along side that effort. It is truly as remarkable and unbelievable as the genocide itself was. Is it perfect? No. But it is so much better than any alternative could possibly be. The people and government of Rwanda are intentionally trying to change the course of their history; with the teachings of Jesus and the blessings of God!

  • John Richardson

    Bishop John Rucyahana is to the Church universal what Billy Graham is to the church in the United States. We are only beginning to realize this. Stay tuned. John is a Nobel Peace Prize in the making. To God be the glory.

  • Caitlyn Griffith

    I work for an organization that has partnered with Rwandan Prison Fellowship to build these reconciliation villages through a campaign called the Living Bricks Campaign and a documentary called As We Forgive. If anyone wants to join in this movement of reconciliation check out

  • Nancy H

    This is a wonderful piece and a great educational piece for teaching in the classroom – a must follow-up if showing films such as Hotel Rwanda for genocide/human rights units. Thanks you!

  • Rob

    As a Rwandan, I welcome every effort made to reconcile and heal our land. I truly believe that only the love that comes from our Lord will heal us and “forgiveness” will play a big role in achieving it.

    I also understand my country culture which teaches us to be “wile” from a young age.
    Those who visited Rwanda before the Genocide do not apprehend the notion that those peaceful, church goers, shy, quiet, respectful and loving people became evil in a matter of seconds.

    It is really hard to know what a Rwandan believes or think. That’s part of who we are, we grow up in a culture that tells us to behave and portray a perfect image.

    I give you a small example, when you ask a Rwandan how he/she is, the answer is always the same “I am well” regardless on how he/she is or feel, we are always “well and OK”.

    That brings me to this question, are we really forgiving or are we doing what our culture taught us since we were kids?

    I am really hoping that we have learned some lessons and are rebuilding on strong foundations of love and forgiveness.

    May God heal our land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

  • Felecia

    Out of every tribe, nation, people and tongue God chooses on the bases of love and forgiveness. He is love. He loved us so much that He gave His only son. If we don’t forgive then we are saying that the son’s ransom sacrifice is only for us and not the world’s also. That thinking is selfish. God bless those with large hearts.

  • Kortney

    It is so encouraging to hear a good report about the restoration going over in this country that was so devistated by this war. I wish we could spread more news reports that reported good news than bad. Praise God that he is doing such a mightily work over there and that this experience challenges us to learn how to forgive as he forgives and forgave us.

  • Justin William

    This was a wonderful report, thank you for doing such a great job and reporting such a great story. You’ve done very well.

  • Mary Kelly

    Please help me find the most up to date info on what is happening NOW in Rwanda…Feb 2010

  • world ventures

    i am from Nepal, where war between government and Maoist took place for 10 years. i know what it feels like to loose someone. i was a 6 year kid when all this happened in Rwanda. after watching hotel Rwanda few years back i researched about what happened in Rwanda and i came to know about the horrifying 100 days. there is no turning back and revenge can lead us no where. i am very happy reading this article. people have learned to forgive and its the only sensible option.

  • Justin

    This subct still makes me cry, this happened when I was graduating high school, Such a good time for myself and half way around the world this abomanation. How could they forgive? They are stronger than I.

  • John Richardson

    This week I am in Rwanda for my sixth time. The story remains moving. See a fesh article here: