The Rwandan Phoenix: Beauty from the Ashes

200,000 people are chronically forgotten in Western reporting on the Rwandan Genocide. Most articles cite an early UN estimate putting the death count at 800,000, ignoring a Rwandan Government census that identified 1,074,017 victims by name, profession, and method of murder. We continuously forget, be it intentional or unknowingly, a fifth of the murdered. From this discrepancy alone, it becomes clear that it’s time to revisit Rwanda, getting things right once and for all. This year, the 25th anniversary of the genocide, is perhaps the most fitting time to do so. Now, the most authentic first step to take for the Rwandan survivors is to finally listen to the voices of the Rwandan people and to allow that to be enough. While, in some cases, Western media does its best to honor the efforts of those who have worked to revitalize Rwanda, some stories make unfortunate and frankly false statements about the heart of the Rwandan people.

Such articles minimize the progress that the Rwandan people made over the last 25 years, insisting that the ethnic tensions that caused the genocide are still burning beneath the surface, and when President Paul Kagame is out of office, the bloodbath will resume. It’s simply unfair for American journalists to make such claims without including the voices of any Rwandan citizens. These notions must be rectified to allow the new Rwanda to be defined by what they are as opposed to what they have been. The Rwandan Genocide began in April of 1994 and lasted 100 days, making it the fastest genocide in human history. Most victims were killed by machete at a rate of 7.5 deaths per minute for the entire span of the genocide. The country lost not only the lives of a million people but hundreds of thousands more to displacement and imprisonment, leaving the structure and morale of the country in shambles and earning them the appropriate stamp of “failed state” from the United Nations.

But like a phoenix, Rwanda’s story does not end in ashes. Under the leadership of President Kagame, Rwanda has risen from this “failed state” scarlet letter to become the 9th safest country in the world in just 25 years. John Gasangwa, the founder and president of Arise Rwanda Ministries, believes that reconciliation was the cornerstone to their recovery. “The first thing we did as a country was to know that we are all Rwandans,” said Gasangwa. “We are not Hutus, we are not Tutsis, we are not Twas, we are all Rwandans.” With this established, Rwanda stood unified for the first time under the ideology of forgiveness. In the twenty-five years since the killings, the citizens of Rwanda have embraced a revolutionary program. If perpetrators seek forgiveness from the victims of their actions, and forgiveness is granted, the perpetrator is given the opportunity to be regrafted into society. This forgiveness serves not only as a starting point, but as a common thread that runs through everything else they do. Gasangwa says that their justice system is not about punishment but “providing reconciliation and forgiveness in Rwanda.” These words are not just an ideal for Gasangwa, but an ideology that impacts every facet of his ministry. Gasangwa told the story of a child soldier who killed 78 people during the genocide and has been forgiven by the families of the victims.

Now, he’s been hired at the school Gasangwa runs, Kivu Hills Academy. “This is just one example of the reconciliation between the Hutus and the Tutsis,” said Gasangwa. In the eyes of the honorable Dr. Odette, Rwandan senator and doctor in the Hotel Rwanda, the ethnic tensions have been put to rest. “There is no cultural divide amongst Rwandans!” she said. “Even during the genocide, killers had to read the ID to know who to kill.” This ethnicity-centric identification policy has since been banned in favor of a more unifying system. Odette continued to say that Rwandans all have the same “Rwandese ID” and can now “enjoy the same rights from birth”. It’s not just the citizens who have noticed the reunification of Rwanda, but researchers too.

The National Unity and Reconciliation Committee conducts a “reconciliation barometer” using metrics such as apology and forgiveness, trust among citizens, and understanding of the genocide itself. Most recently, reports showed that Rwanda is 92.5% reconciled, a 10.2% increase since the last test. Instead of condemning Rwanda to the mistakes of their past, we must realize that we have much to learn from them. The story of Rwanda should be viewed for what it is: a living testament to just how far the power of forgiveness can go.

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