In the fall of 2015 my friend and colleague, Hamze, and I had the chance to go to Rwanda to learn about forgiveness and reconciliation. During our trip we listened to many stories about the genocide that claimed the lives of close to 1 million people in 1994. 1 million victims in just 100 days – those numbers are hard to grasp. 1 million people…100 days…10,000 victims per day. Men, women or children – no difference was made. If they were Tutsi, or if they were helping their Tutsi friends or neighbors, they were systematically massacred.
Among all the stories we had the honor to be told, one still haunts me.
His name is Didas. We met him in his village. A very small village in the country side, a couple of hours away from Kigali, the capital city, or a lot more if you don’t have a jeep and a driver who knows his way around. His house, the house he built with his own hands, is situated on the top of a small hill and is surrounded by trees. Like all the other houses of the village, it is made of mud and wood. There is no electricity in the village and, as we arrived much later than expected, it was already dark when we entered Didas’ home and started our discussion.
Didas, who spoke French, started by telling us about his village. It is a peace and reconciliation village, which means that it was built by people from both sides of the conflict who today all live side-by-side. He also told us about his wife and children. His wife was a Tutsi refugee who came back to Rwanda after the genocide. After showing us photos of his wife and sons, a Bible that he always keeps open and the paper work showing that his reconciliation NGO is now officially open, he walked us outside and told us more about his story. After the genocide, he went to prison for many years. There, he was offered the chance to be part of a reconciliation process that took place on a national level starting in 2005. This process is called Gacaca. The perpetrators (the killers) had to go back to their community and explain everything they did, to whom, and when, and more importantly, they had to answer all the questions of the survivors. Didas went through this process and this is why he was able to get out of jail and settle in this village.
While he was telling us this, we were standing outside, surrounded by trees, half way between the jeep and Didas’ house, which we couldn’t see anymore in the darkness. Our faces were lit only by the light of the video camera. From afar we probably looked like 3 floating heads in the middle of the forest. Didas told me: “It was a Monday morning and the sun was high is the sky. I can even tell you what I ate. I remember everything about this day. It has been in my head every single day since.” After this and every sentence, I had to turn to Hamze, who was standing on my right, and translate what I just heard from French to English. Didas went on: “Young men from my neighborhood entered my house and gave me a machete. They told me I had to kill my next door neighbor because he was Tutsi. I had to prove I was a good Hutu. I was afraid. They put the machete in my hand. I entered the house next door. I killed him. I knew him.” His tone was calm – empty of any emotions – but his eyes were telling a different story. I tried not to stare at him and turned to Hamze. I didn’t know how to translate those words. I didn’t know how tell those sentences. A part of me wanted to run away. To run as far as possible from this dangerous man. I was terrified. I looked into Hamze’s eyes and slowly repeated the words. I could see that Hamze was going through the same thing I just went through. We were both scared and shocked…but how could we judge him and show him fear when his own country, his own community, forgave him? Who were we to show him disrespect and run from him when his wife, a survivor of the genocide, forgave and loved him? We were torn by all those conflicted ideas and feelings.
I turned back to Didas. Emotions were back in his voice. I think he felt relieved. The rest was easier to say. He told me: “I would never live anywhere else. Because here people know what I did and they still accept me. Here I can have a life without hiding. Here I know my children are safe. But I think about what I did every day.” Hamze and I thanked him and slowly walked back to the jeep. We stayed quiet for the entire ride. The words of Didas were heavy in our minds.
One year later today I am still processing his story. I carry it with me every day. It changed me deeply and irreversibly. Didas killed a man, and after this he was never the same. He wasn’t born to be a killer – nobody is. No child is born to kill or be killed.
Shortly after we came back from Rwanda, the knife attacks started in Israel and in the West Bank and I couldn’t react the way I would have reacted before our journey…because today I know: no one is born to become a killer; no child was born to carry a knife or be killed by a knife.