Last Tuesday Prison Fellowship Rwanda was happy to receive two visitors from the USA who were keen to discover more about the rehabilitation, reconciliation and restoration work of Pastor Deo and the PFR team.
Robbi and Rebecca are high school English/American Literature teachers who have been sponsored by their schools to make a trip to Rwanda to learn about the 1994 genocide and how the people of Rwanda have rebuilt and are developing their communities today. They aim to gather information and experiences which they can then share with their students back home, teaching them about the tragedy of genocide, but also about hope and possibility through Rwanda’s reconciliation success stories. The teachers have recently been exploring the topics of conflict and prejudice with their classes and they believe that introducing the subject of the Rwandan genocide into the learning experience will enrich the students’ knowledge and understanding.
The teachers were invited into the PFR office to discuss the work of the organisation including the creation of PFR’s reconciliation villages, restorative justice workshops and the rehabilitation of convicted genocidaires prior to their release from prison in preparation for their return to their communities.
The visitors learned about Pastor Deo’s discussions with prisoners and his Christian teachings which bring light into their lives and hope for a future. Through a development of faith, the prisoner is able to speak about his crimes, repent, and ask for forgiveness of survivors and relatives of victims. He re-enters his community with a new determination to rebuild his life and make a valuable contribution to that community. Pastor Deo also prepares the community in advance of the prisoner’s release, which is a vital component of the reconciliation process. He sits and talks to the survivors, helping them to accept the return of the prisoner. He explains the healing power of forgiveness and the possibility of forging a new, more positive relationship through work and co-operation. It is often a very difficult and traumatic experience for a survivor because they are encouraged to talk about what happened to them and to share their feelings. Pastor Deo supports them through this process by encouraging their Christian faith. Upon return to his community, the prisoner is invited to meet with the survivor, and, supported by Pastor Deo, express his remorse and intention to make amends.
Robbi and Rebecca met and spoke with an employee of PFR who has been through the reconciliation process. His story is nothing short of inspirational. After serving his term in prison, where he met Pastor Deo, he was welcomed back into the community by a man whose mother was killed by his militia: the former genocidaire was invited by his victim’s son to share a meal. The teachers were heartened by such a beautiful, positive tale of repentance and forgiveness. The former criminal has turned his life around – he now bringing up three children of his own plus an orphan who he has kindly welcomed into his family. He speaks openly to the children about the tragic events of the past with the hopes of preventing the next generation from repeating the same mistakes. When asked what message he would give to the children in America, he said that they should always question what is expressed in the media and have the courage to do what is right.
In the afternoon, the teachers visited the reconciliation village of Mbyo. The village is comprised of forty-five households working together to build and sustain a content and productive community. The villagers have formed a farming co-operative, producing crops and rearing animals, in order to remain self-sustaining. They also welcome in tourist groups; the young people performing traditional dances for their visitors - Robbi and Rebecca managed to catch a performance before leaving.
The teachers sat with the some of the villagers, including community leaders, and discussed how reconciliation worked in the village. They were introduced to a man who had belonged to a militia responsible for killing husbands and other family members of some of the women in the community. These women were sitting next to him as he gave his testimonial, many cradling beautiful babies in their arms. One mother passed the man her baby to hold - he said that this wouldn’t have happened before, but now he is blessed with this privilege. These people are now able to work together, talk together and even laugh together. The villagers are very humble about what they have achieved and what they continue to achieve: they believe that it is the power of God. Such faith is a marvellous thing to witness.
On the way back, the visitors stopped to visit and pay their respects at Nyamata church memorial which commemorates 10, 000 victims of the genocide, killed in and around the church in April 1994. Afterwards, everybody was quiet in the car, contemplating an extraordinary day.
PFR certainly provided Robbi and Rebecca some fascinating and profound material to take back to their classrooms in America. They can certainly share with their students a startling example of the extremes of human behaviour – from mass murderous hatred to humbling grace and compassion. Perhaps by sharing lessons learned across the globe we can all make a contribution to preventing the former and promoting the latter.
In the Nyamata visitors’ book, one of the teachers wrote “we remember”. By sharing her experience with her students in America, she will be adding to our worldwide, collective memory. Thank you Robbi and Rebecca; may others long continue to follow in your footsteps.