By Elise Collins Shields, Ph.D. Elise is Founder/CEO of CommonWell Institute International and serves on the Board of Directors of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. She participated in the journey to Rwanda with Karuna Center.
Night falls as we land at Kigali International Airport to begin our journey with Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, observing the results of their peacebuilding work and collaborations in Rwanda over the past fifteen years. The array of multi-colored lights glittering on the Kigali landscape is a perfect mirror for my own anticipation as I enter this experience of observing “Peace in Action.” Likewise, arriving in the darkness of night adds an element of mystery to what lies ahead. A fitting prelude to the trip after an extensive reading list offered by Karuna with stories of the genocide and the process of reconciliation, which is never really complete. Thus, Karuna’s work is not over.
We awaken the first morning to greet each other and review plans for the trip. Our initial visit will be to the Gisozi Memorial Genocide Center, which is the natural first stop for laying the groundwork for our time in the country. Karuna has consulted with Gisozi for years, specifically on how they might make ALL parties involved with the genocide, including Hutus, feel welcome and engaged. Thus, with the wisdom of Karuna Center’s involvement, Gisozi includes stories of Hutu “rescuers” who risked lives of themselves and their families to shelter and provide escape for Tutsi targets. Those stories now hold a prominent role in the story told by the Gisozi Museum.
Walking through the museum itself is a somber experience. Few sounds above whispers are heard, not due to rules but because each soul walks slowly, quietly, reading the inscriptions, seeing the startling truth in the photos, and witnessing the horrors that look different in this setting than in black on white words on the pages of books. The ride back to the hotel is spotted with conversation between co-participants, as the first evening shadows appear longer and longer toward twilight and sleep.
Morning brings an overview of the work of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Karuna assisted the organization in 2005 as they established their foundational methods for strengthening community and common identity that bridges cultural divides. The presentation by the current President of the Board of the NURC offers a fascinating glimpse into a governmental structure designed specifically for the reconciliation process, and assisted by Karuna Center.
The afternoon offering is one of the highlights of the trip, finding us sitting in circle with rescuers, accompanied by those they had rescued, as they modestly narrated their stories of intervention during the genocide. The sharing was deep as we heard from both the rescuers and those who benefited. Their gracious presence absorbed the room with its generous spirit. Little more to be said at the end of the day. I nestled into bed holding the question, “What would I have done?”
Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe, a long time partner of Karuna Center, is an umbrella organization with 25 member groups in Rwanda. Former director Suzanne Ruboneka joined our circle to share the fascinating history of women’s leadership in the rebuilding of Rwanda following the genocide. Pro-Femmes, with the assistance of Karuna, was instrumental in training gacaca judges on addressing community tensions between perpetrators and victims, combining agricultural cooperatives with community dialogues, and conducting trauma healing workshops for all parties involved in the violence.
Although there were too many wonderful experiences to elucidate in this short post, another memory that will forever linger is our visit to the TIG camp, where those who killed during the genocide have taken personal responsibility for their actions, despite the fact that the genocide was promoted by the government in power at the time. The TIGistes, as they are known, have confessed, asked for forgiveness, and are providing community service in place of jail time, giving back to their country and those harmed. Many of the survivors not only lost loved ones, but were raped and mutilated, and watched their homes burned down, sometimes along with their entire villages. The TIGistes display resiliency and spirit as they work toward their entrance back into their community, no doubt with some level of trepidation.
Karuna Center for Peacebuilding has made a deep and lasting mark on the Rwandan reconciliation. What the people have endured in Rwanda is difficult beyond comprehension. And yet the country, and Rwandans themselves, are resilient and are rising to new possibilities. As the 20th Commemoration anniversary of the 1994 genocide begins, I feel deeply honored to have seen “the real work” on the ground. That is, after all, what peacebuilding is. Thank you, Karuna Center, for the work you do and for offering this opportunity to experience it firsthand.