Witness to the humanity of killers

Author: Natalia Ledford

If you would have asked me three years ago what I would do if I ever encountered a man who murdered seven innocent people, I’m not sure what I would have said. In any case, it definitely would not have been, “Shake his hand and hold his 2-week-old baby.”

Yet that was exactly what I found myself doing in August of 2011. His name was Jean Paul, and he was the third man I had met in the past two years who I knew for certain had participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. I wasn’t happy to be in his presence. But because my friend Emmanuel, a survivor of the genocide, introduced me to this perpetrator whom he called his friend, our encounter was civilized. Our meeting concluded a journey which showed me a way to perceive humanity that I had never been exposed to before.

This journey began in the summer of 2009. It was the summer I met Emmanuel, when I arrived in Rwanda on a research trip through my school, the University of Nebraska. I was a 19-year-old sophomore broadcasting major who had never traveled outside of the United States before. I was inspired to go to Rwanda after I had read a memoir by another survivor, which left me with a question I thought I might be able to answer if I went there: How can a country go from being the most violent place on Earth to one of the most peaceful African nations 15 years later?

Illustration by Ward Schumaker

In her book, Left to Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza describes in gruesome detail how all of her loved ones were murdered in 1994, for no reason other than that they had been born into the Tutsi ethnicity. The Tutsi made up about 10 percent of the population. The genocide itself was planned and implemented by anti-Tutsi extremists within the government. This regime was controlled by the Hutu, which made up more the majority of the Rwandan population.

The catalyst of the meticulously planned genocide, Ilibagiza writes, was the death of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down over Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, on the night of April 6, 1994. The attack was immediately blamed on the Tutsi-led rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. This falsified information was used by the government to command the Interahamwe, (the Hutu-extremist civilian militia) to begin killing Tutsis. The actual culprit of the missile attack that brought down Habyarimana’s plane remained a mystery until this past January, when it was officially reported that Habyarimana’s own army had shot down his plane in a secret coup d’état. It was just one piece to the puzzle of why citizens began killing their neighbors.

On April 7, 1994, the genocide began. The primary weapons used by the Interahamwe were machetes and clubs, while victims often had to pay money if they wanted to be killed quickly with a gun. By the time it was over, only about 20 percent of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was left alive.

When I arrived in Rwanda to research its recovery from this horror, Emmanuel, a law student, was serving as a liaison for our study-abroad group, helping us navigate the country and conduct our research. I learned he was a survivor one day when we were at a memorial.

“Have you ever been here before?” I asked.

“Not here,” he replied. “But one day I’ll take you to the place where my parents were killed.”

We had already been to several genocide memorials, all placed on sites where people had been massacred. The majority of the sites still contained the victims’ bones and blood-stained clothing, which were preserved for visitors to witness as proof of the brutality that had occurred. I distinctly remember an odd stain on the wall of one church we visited, with something of an unidentifiable texture stuck to it. Later that day I was told that in this room killers had slammed babies against the wall. What I had seen was dried blood with bits of decayed skin still stuck to the place they had been bashed to death.

This is what true evil looks like, I thought. Then I realized, no. We were witnesses to the remains, but only those who were physically there could be considered true witnesses to this evil. They knew about the depths and capabilities of it in a way we could never understand.

A few days after visiting the church, I was on the bus heading to the village of Nyamata, where we would meet with an association for peace and reconciliation. I was uneasy, as this meant we were about to meet former killers.

I had heard of these peace-and-reconciliation associations before but still couldn’t get my mind around how they worked. They had started taking form throughout Rwanda about 10 years after the genocide, when most of the perpetrators were released from prison under the agreement that they would ask the people they victimized for forgiveness. These killers were granted amnesty predominantly because the prisons could not house all of the inmates. The government then was controlled by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had won the civil war, ended the genocide and ousted the former regime in July of 1994. In the years following, rulers decided to try facilitating peace and reconciliation rather than implementing the death penalty on all of the genocidaires.

Following this amnesty, a remarkable number of victims did decide to forgive the people who had slaughtered their families. This process was often followed by the establishment of associations for the purpose of counseling both parties toward a functioning state of unity in their areas.

By the time we finally reached Nyamata, I had mixed feelings about who we were about to meet and couldn’t imagine what Emmanuel had to be feeling.

After filing off the bus, our group of about 30 congregated in a semi-circle of benches in the front yard of a house where the association met. After the director of their organization said a few words, a short man wearing a trucker hat stood up and began to tell us his story. He said his name, but I immediately forgot it. From the moment he began speaking, his identity was hard-wired to my brain as “the killer.”

A member of the Interahamwe, he had participated in a group that murdered 12 people. When we realized who he was, or what he was (a word I would have rather used at that moment), our entire group grew tense.

He talked about how he had been taught since childhood to hate Tutsis, how he participated in the genocide in 1994 and was later incarcerated for it. Then, after eight years in prison, he became convinced that he was destined for an eternity in hell unless he repented before God and before the people he terrorized. So after being released, he went back to his village to ask for forgiveness from the families of the people he killed.

As I thought about the memorial sites we had visited, part of me felt I had an actual responsibility to hate this man. But his sincere remorse confused me. It didn’t make my hate for him unjustified, but after a while it made it seem useless. His shame was potent; he didn’t emanate the monstrous characteristics I would have expected from a murderer. Perhaps the only reason I could think this way was because I just wasn’t processing how horrible his actions had been 15 years before. I looked over at Emmanuel, thinking that maybe his reaction to this man’s words could show me how I “should” feel, but his face was blank.

The killer then was detailing the time when he asked for forgiveness from the Tutsi man whose family he had killed. At first the killer’s return had traumatized this Tutsi survivor. Eventually, our speaker said, his continued expression of remorse resulted in forgiveness. Seriously? I thought. And if that wasn’t remarkable enough, the two men later started a small business growing peanuts. The killer was the president, the survivor the vice president.

As the tension among our group began to ease, I felt less guilty about looking at this man as a human being. That was a strange thought, since the common philosophy is that we should put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But we are socialized to make exceptions to this moral code. Thirty-three U.S. states still implement the death penalty as punishment for murder. We simply are not taught to consider the humanity of cold-blooded killers. The logic for this seems to be that since the actions of killers have been inhumane, they are no longer human. This was a concept I never believed more strongly than when I was at the genocide memorials looking at the remains of what had happened. Yet, in post-genocide Rwanda, the reality was that thousands of murderers were out walking the streets every day. And there was peace. How?

My train of thought was cut short as the man concluded his speech. Before I knew it, I had walked right up to him and was extending my hand to shake his. I told him I was making a short documentary about reconciliation in Rwanda and wondered if I could interview him. He said that that would be fine and wrote down his contact information.

The next thing I remember was filing back onto the bus, sitting down and suddenly feeling disgusted with myself. What had I done? I had just shown a killer the same politeness I’d offer any perfect stranger. Despite the survivor’s ability to forgive him, I wasn’t convinced that anyone who killed before could ever be trusted again. My brain was doing 180s, which I suppose is a normal part of processing discomforting and confusing information.

A week later, Emmanuel came with me to interview this killer. I still couldn’t read exactly how Emmanuel was feeling as a survivor being face-to-face with a perpetrator, and he remained an enigma until about an hour after the interview. That’s when we met Jeanette, another member of the association. She was both a survivor and a friend of this killer.

Jeanette told us her father was killed by her maternal uncle. (That uncle was Hutu; her father was Tutsi.) She said that when her uncle was released from jail and came to her asking for forgiveness, she granted it. These words had to be translated for me by Emmanuel, and after taking a moment to absorb them, I blurted out to him, “I don’t think I could ever do that.” I was not criticizing her. In fact, her strength astounded me. But then Emmanuel whispered that he didn’t think he could forgive like that either. “If the people who killed my family asked me for forgiveness, I could try, I guess,” he later told me. “It’s good for the country, so we don’t really have a choice. But I’ll never know who killed my parents, so, without hearing an apology, forgiveness is too hard.”

The next day, I left Rwanda with more questions than answers. All I knew was that I wanted to come back. And, one year later, I returned to shoot a documentary about the children who had lost their parents to the genocide and raised themselves in the years since, which Emmanuel co-directed with me.

As we researched and shot the documentary over seven months, Emmanuel and his surviving siblings helped me to continue to make sense of everything I was learning about peace and reconciliation.

“[Whether] you can forgive someone or if your heart remains in hatred . . . depends on if the killer, or the person who destroyed your home, first asks you for forgiveness,” Emmanuel said almost every time reconciliation was brought up. This was a consistent viewpoint among the other survivors we interviewed. I can’t name one person we met who seemed determined to hold onto anger. Rather, it seemed to be something they desperately wanted to part with, but they needed to be asked for forgiveness first. It amazed me that these humble terms were all they were asking for. Yet, many told me, it was still rare for a killer to come forward and make that first move toward reconciliation.

It was disheartening, however, to learn that many genocide survivors still live in fear. Emmanuel and I interviewed several people who were being harassed by the people who killed their families. Even Emmanuel had recently received death threats from a group of former neighbors who, in 1992, had burned down his home and attempted to massacre his entire family. Many of them continue to harass him by periodically destroying his crops and even poisoning his livestock.

When hearing these stories, I felt disillusioned about reconciliation. The new government had established clear-cut punishments for anyone who committed further violence. Could the modern state of peace in Rwanda be the beneficial result of fear more than love? As I watched the unexpected transformation Emmanuel went through as we continued our journey, I learned that reality was somewhere in the middle.

When I went back to the United States to start editing our footage, he came with me. After five months of producing the film and interviewing several North Americans who were in Rwanda in 1994, Emmanuel flew back to Kigali. It was another four months before I saw him again.

I was surprised one day when he called me from Rwanda to tell me about an afternoon he spent with a woman who not only forgave the man who killed her family but even came to his aid when he was in trouble. “He — the killer — was having financial troubles a couple years ago,” Emmanuel said, “so she told him that he could come live with her in her home. Now she is like a grandmother to his children.”

“What is your reaction to that?” I asked him.

“It’s very inspiring. I mean, it’s amazing,” he said.

Two months later, I returned to Rwanda to shoot some follow-up interviews. During this trip, I realized just how much Emmanuel had taken these stories to heart. We had gone to visit Shyrongi, the district where Emmanuel had lived as a child and where he still owned land. As I looked around at the beauty of the hills that descended into the Nyaborongo River, it felt surreal to stand in the very place where Emmanuel’s neighbors had attempted to kill his family and, after failing to find them, burned down their home.

As I walked around the ruins, a stranger came over to greet me. “Hello, how are you today?” he asked in English.

We only talked for a few minutes before Emmanuel came over, shook his hand and began a conversation in Kinyarwanda. Before they parted ways, Emmanuel said something that made them both laugh. Later that day, I mentioned that the man had seemed nice. Emmanuel agreed. Then he asked me if I knew where the man had learned English. I shrugged. “Where?”

“In prison,” he replied. This man, I learned, was part of the gang that had destroyed Emmanuel’s home. “And you’re friends with him?” I asked, surprised. “He asked for forgiveness from my sister,” said Emmanuel. “So I knew about that the day he asked me for a job on the farm. So, I said ‘sure.’”

This, I realized, might be the closest Emmanuel would ever get to reconciling with someone who had attacked his family. Those responsible for killing his parents and siblings during the genocide would never be identified, and Emmanuel had accepted that long before. But he did know the people who destroyed their home and later went on to kill other people during the genocide. Many of the people in that gang still posed a threat. But in the case of this one man at least, he took the opportunity to forgive.

This led me to reconsider the question I struggled with when I met “the killer” two years before: Can a person ever be completely transformed? If I were looking at a man who repented all the evil things he did 17 years ago and had led a different life since that time, a life that garnered love and cooperation rather than hate and conflict, was the person I was looking at in 2011 a different person than he was in 1994?

The survivors I met seemed to believe this change was possible. Not that it was common, not that it happened quickly, not that it was easy and not that it always worked when someone tried to change. And it was always excruciatingly difficult to forgive. But it was possible.

Despite the rarity of this kind of transformation, the survivors I met demonstrated a belief that the act of expressing regret, deep remorse and repentance slowly transformed these monsters into humans again in their eyes. And if the survivors could see it and treat the killers with dignity, then I realized I had no right to behave any differently when I crossed paths with them. My only role was to listen, learn from and support the survivors in whatever way they chose to handle their situation. Anything else would be an insult.

That was how I found myself shaking the hand of another killer two days later, when Emmanuel and I visited another association for unity and reconciliation. Emmanuel had met Jean Paul while guiding another group of U.S. students around Rwanda. Even though Jean Paul had killed seven people, the survivors in his village chose to accept his plea for forgiveness. Upon meeting him, Emmanuel decided to regard him as a friend as well.

We gathered in Jean Paul’s sitting room, where Emmanuel and I sat across from Chantal, a survivor; Jean Paul; and Claudine, another survivor. They explained how they now trust one another enough that they watch each other’s children.

After a few minutes, Jean Paul’s wife walked in with their 2-week-old baby and gently put her in my arms. I looked into her tiny face, then looked up at Jean Paul. I wondered what would happen the day he would have to explain to this innocent child what he did in 1994.

Meanwhile, he sat with Chantal, Claudine and Emmanuel — three beautiful people who had lost almost everything they loved at the hands of men like him. Despite their irreplaceable losses, the survivors seemed to be at peace. They did not speak of resentment, revenge or hate. It wasn’t until that moment I realized forgiveness wasn’t just something they granted for the sake of a better Rwanda; it was also something they did for themselves.

“Hate eats up a person’s soul, even if it’s justified hate,” Emmanuel told me later that day. “So if you can get rid of that burden, if it’s possible, you should. It’s taken me almost 20 years and it will take much longer for others. It’s complicated and extremely difficult. No words in English or Kinyarwanda can express how difficult it is. But I realized that when you can actually reply, ‘Yes, I forgive you’ to the person who asks for it, it sets you free. It sets the perpetrator free, it sets Rwanda free, but it especially sets you, the survivor, free.”

Natalia Ledford works at NET Television in Lincoln, Nebraska, and is an independent filmmaker.