Marc Sahabo, a shy, kind man, reaches out to greet me. As I shake his hand, I can't help thinking about what that hand was doing in April 1994: wielding a machete and killing 15 people during Rwanda's genocide, which left about a million people dead.
The next hand I shake is that of Felicita Mukabakunda, a woman who was Sahabo's friend and neighbor for years, until ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority rose to lethal levels. When the killings began, Mukabakunda, a Tutsi, hid in nearby marshes while Sahabo and other Hutus went on their rampage. She overheard them say that they planned to take turns raping her before killing her. She also heard Sahabo say he had killed her father, her uncle, and four other family members.
The killers never found Mukabakunda; she and her husband and children fled to a safe area in Rwanda and briefly lived in a camp for displaced persons. When they returned home after the genocide, Mukabakunda learned that 29 family members—including 16 brothers and sisters—had been murdered.
"I had so much hatred," she told me. "I wanted Marc to die a slow, painful death. I would have killed him if I could." But Sahabo, fearing for his life, had fled to Burundi, then to Tanzania. When Rwanda later negotiated with Tanzania for the return of the perpetrators, Marc was immediately arrested and jailed. He spent seven years in prison before his 2003 release.
Because of prison overcrowding, some 50,000 offenders—those who were minors during the genocide or those who confessed, including Sahabo—have been released. (Some estimate that it would take about 400 years to try all of the cases in the courts. So today, only the worst, most unrepentant killers remain behind bars, including a few genocide leaders held in Tanzania.)
When Sahabo returned home after his release from prison, he was afraid that surviving Tutsis in the community might take revenge and kill him.
Revenge and fear—just the reactions one would expect in post-genocide Rwanda, even 15 years after the most traumatic event in world affairs since the Nazi Holocaust.
I went to Rwanda recently—just a few weeks before the 15th anniversary of the genocide—to see how the church, which itself needs healing and forgiveness for its role in the affair, is dealing with the trauma today. While some wounds still run deep, and problems remain, I became convinced that something remarkable is afoot in a nation whose soul has been so tragically torn.
A biblical process
"The Rwandans know what their country needs more than anybody," says Tracy Stone. "They just need access to resources, training, and funding."
Stone is founder of Rwanda Partners (RP), a Seattle-based ministry with an ambitious mission statement: "Dedicated to working for Rwanda's healing and reconciliation [by working] directly with the people to develop and implement programs that promote reconciliation and reduce poverty."
In 1994, Stone had just been abandoned by her husband and was adjusting to her new life as a single mom: "I was a wreck." But she was encouraged by the stories she read about women, mostly widows, who had survived the genocide, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
Stone didn't visit Rwanda until 2004, but her visit was so powerful that when she returned home, she quit her job and, encouraged by her new husband, founded Rwanda Partners—with emphasis on the second word. From Seattle, Stone solicits donations (for an annual budget of about $250,000) while her staff in Rwanda, four nationals, do the work on the ground.