From Victim to Victor: The Healing Power of Forgiveness in Rwanda

The questions we ask as children define us. I remember as a child always asking my parents and grandparents questions about their experiences growing up in the midst of Rwanda's most tumultuous times. I was not alone in seeking answers to these questions -- many of my peers have done the same.

I heard much about their experiences; however, I was too young to understand fully the magnitude of the disaster through which my parents and grandparents lived. Added to these painful memories are the experiences many of us have had in our own time. They serve as a strong reminder of the importance of forgiveness. To ensure our conflict is not passed from one generation to the next -- for the sake of the story of Rwanda -- forgiveness is the only way to draw strength from tragedy individually -- and to heal collectively.

For the eight years I have lived in the United States, I have participated in several classes and discussions touching on the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis. We have talked about its devastating effect on those who lived through it -- and the rest of the world standing by in silence as it happened.
Knowing my background, and my deep roots in Rwanda, my peers are curious about the country post-genocide. Their most frequent questions center around safety: "Do you go home for vacations?" "Is it safe there?"

Sometimes, I have to fight back an urge to respond with a blank stare. I -- perhaps -- could ask them similar questions about their homes. But these are fair questions from my peers. They are questions asked with good intent; they are genuinely meant. When we are taught about conflict or tragedies, we always learn about them in a limited way. We learn about what happened, the death toll, the tragic impact, but rarely do we highlight the enduring and gallant spirits of those who have been able to overcome these unthinkable circumstances with their dignity and hope intact.

Therein lies the story of Rwanda, a story of enduring hope and, most importantly, a story of ongoing forgiveness and healing.

Like most Rwandans my age, I was born in the middle of the conflict ripping our nation and its identity apart. My parents had been living as refugees for more than 20 years of their life: my mother in Burundi and my father in Uganda. My background is like that of many young people -- our parents and grandparents were victims of a long-standing cycle of ethnic violence and hatred. The conflict rose from decades of mental conditioning, which led people to kill their sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and children.

Hate, like many other vices, is a learned behavior -- it is a choice, a bad choice, but a choice nonetheless. And yet, I believe -- I know -- that forgiveness works the same way. I have experienced the power of forgiveness in my life -- and I have seen it work its healing power in Rwanda today.

Confronted with the horror of our history, we have a choice. We can choose forgiveness, or we can surrender to a natural reaction and choose revenge. On an individual level, choosing forgiveness is making a conscious decision to live above unimaginable circumstances.

Collectively -- as a nation -- by choosing to forgive, we are looking at a bigger picture, a brighter and more hopeful future for Rwanda. Most importantly, individually and as a nation, we are choosing to end a vicious cycle of hate.

Ultimately, the goal of our individual and collective effort is to build a safe and secure Rwanda for our generation and the generations to come. Choosing forgiveness is about discovering healing and finding peace.

As I was writing this article, I reached out to one of my childhood friends: Sonia Mugabo. Sonia is a survivor. She was three years old at the time of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. I asked her what forgiveness means to her in post-genocide Rwanda.

She told me, "After 17 years of concealing my trauma, and trying my best to be brave, I broke down and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. For some time, PTSD turned me into a bitter and angry person. It wasn't until my process of healing started that I grasped the importance of forgiveness. I now know that, after reflecting with fellow young genocide survivors, we found forgiveness was allowing ourselves to be at peace and not allowing the pain caused by the genocide perpetrators to take over our lives. It takes time for wounds to heal. Most likely, it will take generations. However, in Rwanda, we are finding lasting solutions through our inherent values that are informed by faith, unity and reconciliation. Ultimately, and more importantly, our best weapon is forgiveness."

Sonia's story mirrors that of many in Rwanda, young and old.

Like most Rwandans, I am grateful for the path of forgiveness we are choosing to follow. No one should ever take for granted the strength needed by survivors of this horror -- the strength to rise above their pain for the greater good. The path we have chosen to walk is unconventional. Each of us is now a beneficiary of this forgiveness and the restorative methods of justice that Rwandans have chosen to take. The successes and significant strides Rwanda is making in spite of its dark past are a direct effect of this reconciliation.

Through forgiveness, today Rwanda and Rwandans are victors over their painful past -- and not victims.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and "Forgive for Peace," in conjunction with the UN's International Day of Peace (Sept. 21, annually). The International Day of Peace is devoted to strengthening the ideals for peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. Forgiveness is the first step on the path toward Peace and therefore the Forgive for Peace Campaign was established. It also marks an annual day of non-violence and calls for a laying down of arms to bring about a 24-hour cease fire on September 21st. To learn more about Forgive for Peace, visit here.