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Forgiving Genocide

By       Message Jim Mustin       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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In 2004, the unexpected death of my wife suddenly ended my 20-year marriage. I was soon adrift. I lost energy for my work helping families of prisoners. After a year of floundering I had found a new partner, but no work interest. My professional life was empty.

I attended services at the Charlottesville Friends Meeting but felt I was just going through the motions. One Sunday after another seemingly uneventful Quaker service, a guest from Burundi named Charles Berahino was introduced. He worked with THARS (Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services); a social service program headquartered in Bujumbura, Burundi, Africa. I talked with him about how I could help. I had in mind to raise a few dollars by holding a yard sale. Instead, he proposed I come to Burundi to design a web site for THARS. I was hooked. I always wanted to go to Africa. Now was my chance. I left my empty professional life behind.

I excitedly searched my world map for Burundi. I could not find it. Finally I realized it was just south of Rwanda. Later I learned that when the genocide started in Rwanda in 1994, Burundi began a long civil war which ended only recently.

After a few months preparation and what seemed like 50 inoculations, I went to Burundi to design their web site. To get a discount on air fare, the Charlottesville Friends Meeting wrote a letter declaring me a missionary. Jim Mustin, missionary to Africa, was not a likely concept to me, or those who knew me in earlier years. I flew from Washington to London, then London to Nairobi, and finally arrived in Bujumbura airport where I was met by THARS director David Niyonzima, Charles Berahino and other THARS staff. Back in the 1980's, Bujumbura had been described as a bit of Paris of Africa. But I found years of civil war had left it dusty and disorganized. Electricity was intermittent, the internet was slow, and the roads were chunky. The country side was divided into many small farms, banana trees and occasional tea plantations. One pleasant surprise was the music and dance. Just about everyone could sing or dance nicely at any occasion. Burundi women dress colorfully. There was a lot to see and get used to.

My role in THARS gradually expanded from web site designer to include video production and fund raising. I came to know Burundi and make many friends there. At times I felt a bit out of water as the only white person on staff but I was always supported by co-workers. To the relief of missionaries around the world, I shifted my title from missionary, to consultant. I travelled to Burundi about twice yearly, but I did not travel outside Burundi, except for a safari in Kenya.

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Travelling to Burundi and home to the United States, I often passed through Rwanda's airport in the capitol city of Kigali. I had seen movies about the genocide such as Hotel Rwanda. In a few months in 1994 an estimated 750,000 people were murdered in a carefully planned campaign of the Rwandan government. This government was overthrown by an army of Rwandan refugees from neighboring Uganda, ending the genocide. Now as I flew over Kigali, I had the chilling thought that each home I saw probably represented a murder during those dark days.

A THARS project funded by USAID established programs in Burundi, Rwanda, and the eastern border the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Finally, my time to go to Rwanda arrived. I was nervous, but my job was to shoot video and the site was Rwanda. I was going. Hearing my destination, people would say "be careful." They meant "don't get killed."

In March of 2010, I travelled by bus to Rwanda with my boss, David Niyonzima, the founding director of THARS. I was surprised to find Rwanda was much more attractive than its neighbor Burundi - better roads, more trees, less trash and more order. They even had traffic lights in Kigali. The Rwandan government has been stable since 1995. A lot of rebuilding had been done.

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In Gisenyi, Rwanda, near the northern border with the Congo, I first met Pastor Augustin at the Evangelical Friends Church, a brick structure with a tin roof and bare concrete floor equipped with a simple altar and wooden benches. In pretty good English he described how they help people cope with the emotional trauma of violence from the genocide and the ongoing tensions with refugees from the Congo.

Next, Pastor Augustin proposed something I had not anticipated. A nearby prison had about 3,500 inmates, many of whom had served 10 or more years for crimes during the genocide. Now prisoners were being released back into the community. They had few skills and little understanding of the impact they had had on the lives of others. People in the community were scared of them. Pastor Augustin wanted to provide prisoners with training in conflict resolution, trauma healing and" asking for forgiveness. He proposed to provide training inside the prison, if permission could be obtained, or with released prisoners at his church. He already knew people who wanted to meet with the prisoners and work toward reconciliation. He was ready to go. Intrigued, I promised to raise $4,000 U.S. to hold an initial series of five 3-day workshops. We planned to hold the workshops as soon as possible.

When I returned to Rwanda in September 2010, Pastor Augustin met me at the airport. After a couple of days of jet lag recuperation at his modest home near Gisenyi, we rode motorcycle taxis over the undulating dirt road to the church. The workshop, "Asking and Receiving Pardon" was just starting. About half of the 30 trainees were former prisoners; the others were survivors of the genocide. Looking around the room, I could not see who was who. Somehow I thought a person convicted of a genocidal act would stick out in a crowd. Not so. They were all regular people as far as I could tell.

Participants worked together for three days without negative incident. They discussed why reconciliation was needed and told stories about how they had already sought or offered forgiveness. With the help of a translator, I interviewed one participant, an older man with a dignified bearing. He had been a public official here when the genocide started. Because the government was killing officials and others who failed to support the killing, he had refused to hide a woman and her children. The woman survived, but her children were killed. Later he was sentenced to prison for his complicity in the genocide. Recently released from prison, he had encountered the woman he had refused to help. She told him she had forgiven him and encouraged him to come to this workshop, "Asking and Receiving Pardon." He had come with the hope that he could help others find reconciliation as he had.

instructor: class on Giving and Receiving the Pardon
(Image by Jim Mustin)
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Why do they want to forgive? The reasons vary. There is a spiritual/religious impulse felt by many of the participants who were Christian or Muslim. They discussed the Old Testament story of Joseph who was betrayed into slavery by his brothers and eventually chose to forgive them, in his own time and manner. There is a sense that their society cannot prosper without cooperation and reconciliation. There is an emotional exhaustion, a desire to lay down the burdens of rage and pain. There is a need to go about one's day without fear.

Towards the end of the program, it became clear that while some one-on-one forgiveness had been accomplished and would continue, trained facilitators were needed for more difficult cases for example, when one person wanted to forgive but family members objected. I proposed a new program to teach facilitators a process used for reconciliation of serious crimes in other parts of the world. I had taught this process in the 1990's. I agreed to return by the end of the year to co-teach the process with a translator. I also agreed to continue to raise funds for the project.

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