At the Table of Forgiveness
Several weeks have passed since the happenings of this story; yet the images and impact of translated words remain engrained in my mind— an account of forgiveness, in it’s flesh, fully exposed, yet clothed with untold truth and sincerity.
Seats had been taken around the familiar wooden tables in our outdoor classroom. Another day of class was to follow; with little knowledge of the content of discussion, Pastor Anastose, our professor, had mentioned we would have two guest speakers for the day.
Thirty minutes had passed until they arrived.
With open notebooks and ready pens we anticipated what would fill the blank pages.
A middle aged man, slender and dressed in a navy suit, stepped out of Pastor’s white car wearing a solemn expression; following closely behind, a woman clothed from head to toe with matching fabric, green and vibrant in color, wearing a sheepish smile foreshadowing her quiet and sweet disposition. The deep scar on the left side of her face foretold the depth of her wound. As she pulled the chair to take a seat we could see that she was missing her right hand.
I recount the story told, drawing from scribbled notes and raw emotion:
His memory begins:
I am among those who killed during the genocide. I am also among those who have repented and are born again.
The room grew silent and solemn. The facts we had learned days before of the harsh realities of the genocide were now manifested as testimony and personal story; a story between a middle aged man and woman, labeled as a “killer” and “survivor” yet both pleading to be perceived and received with grace and understanding.
His eyes stared back, waiting for Anastose to translate his words and searching for a reaction to the harsh truth he relayed. His story began.
April 12, 1994. Many soldiers came to my home; they took me and I followed. I was told I would be given money. The money quickly turned into killing. I entered the first compound, took the cows, and killed 14 people.
April 13, 1994. The next day a similar routine followed. I killed a nurse that day.
April 14, 1994. Soldiers returned to my home, shooting bullets this time. I went again and killed two women and one child. I took more cows before I left.
April 29, 1994. Many buses full of soldiers arrived and were taken to Ntarama. The people at the churches had already been killed. We went into the swamps and killed many who were in hiding.
It is here where his story gravely intersects with the woman’s who sat inches away at the same table.
First I cut off her hand at the wrist. Then, I slit the side of her face along her cheekbone. Next, the baby strapped to her back was killed right before her eyes.
The woman was distant and cold to the words coming out of his mouth. Like daggers his words flew her direction, no mercy, yet managed to cause no further harm. As he grabbed her wrist and turned her face toward us to show his marks, she remained detached and withdrawn.
To me, she was just one among the dead- a number whom I killed.
Shame quickly followed the happenings of the killings.
In 1996 I felt so much shame and began to reap the consequences. I went to the district office and turned myself in, asking for forgiveness from the officer I spoke to. The police officer asked who sent me here. I told him, ‘It is my heart which is accusing me.’ It wasn’t until the next year that I was called back into the district office. My penalty was 8 years in prison. I began to feel relief when I confessed my past, although I had to keep quiet while in prison for fear of death. I wished to meet those whom I had offended.
I had two hearts- one telling me to ask for forgiveness, the other telling me to keep quiet in fear of losing my life. Yet I continued to seek those whom I had offended. A year passed before the first man accepted my plea for forgiveness. I offered him a bicycle to get around, a debt not to be repaid. He accepted. I found the son of the nurse I killed; he didn’t want to listen, and has not forgiven.
I saw the woman whom I had cut passing one day. I recognized where I had cut her. I thought I had killed her. I visited her home and she did not recognize me. I asked her to join the association which worked to bring together killers and survivors. She accepted.
The day came when I knew I had to tell her that I was the one who offended her. I knelt down in front of her and told her I was the one who cut her and killed her baby.
She collapsed. She was taken to her home.
Our next encounter was in the Gacaca Courts (a court hearing to try genocide perpetrators). She had become the secretary of the same courts which would pronounce my sentence. I asked her for grace in judgments and asked for a speeded process. She granted this request and a 10 year sentence quickly turned into community service.
His words faded as his story continued. Silence was offered and accepted from those who were in the room. And then his final remark revealed both the hurt and the healing of his heart.
I know you see me as a sinner, but I am forgiven by God and I ask for your forgiveness too.
Then, it was the woman’s turn to share.
After a warm greeting and genuine smile she began recounting the facts of her past:
I was born of Tutsi parents. In 1959 our family was chased from our home. In school I experienced ethnic discrimination. They separated Tutsis from Hutus, and did not allow us to sit for the secondary exam. My name was put on a list; they took my possessions and my family fled to Nyamata church. This was in 1992.
The destruction continued in 1994. On April 7, people came to our house and took our cows. In my family of 45 members, including my husband’s side, only 5 survived. On April 11, the militia came. Around 200,000 refugees were there. I saw 11 bushes full of soldiers who surrounded the place.
All my people died in that place, but God chose for me to survive.
I escaped with my baby and was separated from my husband. I walked 12 hours to a swamp to flee the killings.
A pause was taken. A moment to put her words into thoughts and distant memory:
The militia found us in the swamp and killed all they could. I was hit with a club and nail; a spear pierced through my shoulder; my baby was taken from my back and was killed. I was cut in the face and my hand was cut off. I lost consciousness and came back 4 days later. When I awoke, I was surrounded by dead bodies. Days before I was rescued, my husband found me. I did not know my baby or family had died. My husband had been given a house in Nyamata. I began to ask many questions and started to hate myself and everyone else.
My situation was hopeless and my life was disgusting.
My husband and I were both Christians. He brought home a couple Bibles. I began to read. I had a dream one night and I was being told to write. I did not know how to write with my left hand. I ignored the voice and in the morning I tried to write— I wrote verses as drawings but my heart was still heavy.
People had come together to pray. I was prompted to join, and I started returning to church. This was hard as killers were coming back to church and choir. My time in prayer I began hearing voices prompting me to forgiveness. I asked for forgiveness for hatred. I said to God, ‘If you forgive me, give me a sign… show me the one who killed me.’
That day came when he confronted me, revealing the truth of his actions, the scars I have, left to tell. I collapsed as I heard the words penetrate my heart. I had prayed to know my killer, yet I was filled with so much hate.
Time passed and in 1997 I was elected among leaders of villages to help bring people back together. I felt God told me, “This is the way to healing.” Soon, I was elected to be a judge in the Gacaca courts, choosing the fate of the perpetrators of the genocide.
Her eyes left ours for a moment as she glanced to her left at the man sitting next to her.
This man approached me in the Gacaca courts. His fate was left for me to decide. My heart was heavy and weak when I encountered him, yet I was reminded that I had asked God to show me my killer. He pleaded for mercy for a just punishment. Recognizing his truthfulness and honest plea for forgiveness, ten years was reduced to community service. I truly felt the peace and love of God when I chose to forgive him. I asked him to extend this plea for forgiveness to my few family members who survived. He accepted.
One man’s past and one woman’s scars converged, a quick moment in time, to narrate the story of matchless forgiveness. “Killer” by weapon and “killer” by hate, sitting adjacent, sharing space, time and the same air to breathe. Life given. Life forgiven. Life restored. Life shared. Beauty beheld in forgiveness and redemption. A glimpse of hope— restored and redeemed— through one’s encounter with another, weapons relinquished and memories lucid but in the past.
Now, sitting side-by-side at the table of forgiveness.
Life forgiven is life restored.