Part VII: The Umuvumu Tree Project (and Gacaca Courts)
The Umuvumu tree has many meanings for Rwandans, all of them special. It functions as shade and shelter; stands as an object of toil and reward; and is the source of many products, including beautiful cloth derivatives that fulfill an array of needs.
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, with all its deep, ugly, bleeding wounds, this same Umuvumu tree came to represent the resumption of profound significances. This ranged from providing shelter for numbed communities to the convening of an outdoor court system to the finding of solutions to bring healing to the pains and anguish of a people.
It also came to exemplify the struggles of a nation willing to come to grips with its horrors and evils head-on and in the most humane ways possible. This was the Rwandan search for justice on the one side, and that intricate balance of reconciling and healing on the next.
Justice is a noble and majestic word. According to Professor of Sociology, Howard Zeller, as referenced by author Catherine Larsen, justice systems can be of three forms: “revenge, retribution, restorative.”
Whether Mosaic or Sharia, (or other), and from a commonsense perspective, revenge only breeds more revenge in a potentially endless cycle of violence. Within its own apparatus and operation, retribution focuses more on extracting punishment; that is the objective and cold reality.
Meanwhile, a system that highlights a restorative justice thinking and approach emphasizes victim-offender dialogue; the two-way street of shared opportunities for reaching, baring, learning, understanding; and, last, forgiving and reconciling.
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu, chose a very meaningful title for a book of his: No Future without Forgiveness. That says it all, and is applicable anywhere in the world, especially ruptured, angry, hurting nations that are vastly unsettled in this time of Easter, of sacrifice, and of redemption.
Given the Rwandan experience, and given the promise of Easter, it is now both opportunity and time to introduce the Gacaca Courts.
The Gacaca Court arrangement (formula, practice, or what have you) is guided and heavily influenced by community. Community means honoured elders of both genders functioning as sages, mediators, and arbitrators bringing together survivor and perpetrator. There is much listening and probing for truth, while carefully working along the slow, hard road towards solutions. Solutions do not mean free passes for the guilty. Rather, it is that balance of what constitutes a fair and reasonable penalty, after all facts and circumstances are subject to much sifting and weighing; what could be mitigating and capable of contributing to a redemptive peace.
A Gacaca Court is never about the purely punitive. The priority and long-term objective are always the healing that ushers forth from forgiving and reconciling. In many ways, and at many layers, it is about justice tempered with mercy. Thus, an ancient practice and the associated wisdoms are brought to bear on the modern barbarity and tragedy that was Rwanda in 100 days of hell and horror in 1994 that shook a nation; that shook humanity and the world it inhabits.
At the core, there is some recognition by the Gacaca Court system of what Solzhenitsyn wrote, that there is good and evil in all without exception, and that it is a very fine line separating the two.
Finally, out of the dark ash of blood and bodies rises the bright light of that which is divine and eternal. It starts with the willingness to sacrifice, to forgive and to give a chance to start over. Forgiveness can be uplifting but depleting, too. At its most complete, forgiveness incorporates and projects the suffering of the sufferer. And this comes to sparkling light in a kaleidoscope of unforgettable Rwandans, who found ways to reconcile with their former tormentors, while healing themselves.
There they were: a magnificent patchwork of survivors, maimed in so many gruesome ways, still finding the courage powered by an abiding spirituality, to face murderers and torturers and to bring peace to both. On the part of the surviving victims, there was reaching for the unknown; on the part of the killers, there was leaning towards the hand extended in undeserved mercy. It is the intersection of what Catherine Larsen terms simply but majestically, a glorious transfiguration moment that, in each case, made possible the transformative through reconciliatory.
Meet a handful of them, articulating repentance or forgiveness, and all experiencing mending and growing. There was the murderer Innocent; a man with a most improper name, and by the measurement of his grotesque misdeeds, in name only. Devota, a survivor; scarred and mutilated, but bravely visiting prisons and extending mercy to those who didn’t when it was needed the most. Then, there was Claude, consumed with dreams of revenge, and actually pursuing them, only to find the bliss of a godly peace in time, and lasting healing.
Next, there were the young Hutus – Emmanuel, Sylveste, and Helena – who made the supreme sacrifice to save the lives of targeted fellow students, Tutsis all. Among their desperate last words were, “We are all Rwandans.” This is loving one another as I have loved you; this is about manifesting the greatest love through laying down one’s own life for that of friends, and this is what no earthly power can break. (cf. Jn 13:34; Jn 15:13; Romans 8: 38-39).
As Bishop Tutu’s book title reminds, there is, “No Future without Forgiveness.” It cuts both ways.
In this time and season of Easter, the exhortation and challenge to all is that each must be a determined, committed, and unswerving bridgebuilder. The harrowing agony and great sacrifice of Jesus sets a perfect example of what is required of all divided nations at the individual and collective levels. In the words of author Larsen, and as captured from the lips of very young and very seriously wounded survivors of the Nyange school terror, “We must find a way to speak truthfully… a way to listen to each other… a way to forgive.
The call is for troubled peoples the world over to do all those things, and “to break the chain of fear” the chain of hate, and the endlessly encircling links of politics and race and memory; and, also, that which has festered and felled. That was Rwanda in 1997 trying and struggling, but working to forgive, overcome, and heal. All citizens, every Christian, must recognize the hard challenges and sacrifices that are demanded, if their society is to have any hope of getting somewhere.
Whose hand is raised in welcome and embrace? Whose voice is raised in support? We just cannot go on like this.
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