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    rivers and lakes in Rwanda

    How Far Does Forgiveness Reach?

    Emmanuel and Cancilde, neighbors on opposite sides of the Rwandan genocide, tell their story.


    April 11, 2024

    Available languages: français


    Denise Uwimana lost her husband in the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. She and her three young sons survived, thanks in part to Hutu neighbors who sheltered them. She tells her story, along with many others, in From Red Earth: A Rwandan Story of Healing and Forgiveness, from which this article is taken.

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    In 2015 I returned to Mukoma, my murdered husband’s village, for the yearly remembrance of all who died in the genocide against the Tutsi. I knew the village would expect to hear from me, and now I suddenly felt that this was the time and place – twenty-one years after the genocide, in an atmosphere of peace – to broach the subject of forgiveness.

    Despite my certainty, I felt apprehensive as I rose to address around five hundred people. Were they ready for this? “Has any of you been able to forgive?” I asked. To my astonishment, at least a dozen hands shot up, voices calling, “I have!” “I have!”

    One was Cancilde. I knew that her husband and five of her seven children had been killed; one son and daughter had survived, having been absent on the fatal day. All eyes were on this bereaved mother as she stood to speak. “A gang of Interahamwe mobbed my house on April 9, 1994,” she began, referring to the Hutu militias that led the genocide. “My family was caught by surprise.”

    She stalled, then plunged on. “A young neighbor, Emmanuel, killed my husband and five of our children. He was arrested and imprisoned the next year. But three years ago, in 2012, he was released. Before going home, Emmanuel tried to come to my house, to humble himself. But the village had learned of his arrival and staged a protest, so he could not come that night. Next morning, however, he appeared at my door, pleading for forgiveness. ‘From that day to this,’ he told me, ‘I have felt continual shame.’”

    Cancilde paused again, then concluded quietly, “My heart had been freed from hate by then, because we widows had been reading the gospel together. Its message prepared my heart to forgive.”

    Four months later, on my next visit to Mukoma, Cancilde came to greet me. A reticent man walked at her side. “Welcome back, Denise,” Cancilde said. “I want you to meet Emmanuel.”

    A teenager in 1994, Emmanuel had heard the radio’s repeated instructions to annihilate all Tutsi, had smelled the smoke of distant fires, had sensed the brewing excitement. When Interahamwe burst into Mukoma in their banana-leaf headgear, he was ready for their summons. Their exhilarating extermination song, Tuza batsembe tsembe, thrilled him. This was better than the frenzy of football fans, he thought – this time he’d be part of the action.

    “Anyone who doesn’t kill is not a man!” the leader incited his followers. “It’s time to get to work. Eradicate all snakes! And remember, young vipers are as deadly as full-grown ones.”

    With that, they surged forward, still singing their rousing song. Emmanuel grabbed a machete to join the charge. Then, zealous to prove his manhood, he attacked Cancilde’s home.

    “From that day to this,” he told me, “I have felt continual shame.”

    When Emmanuel was arrested the following year, a new government had replaced the old, and murder was no longer the order of the day. It was in prison that reality struck. As he tried to subsist in the filthy, crowded conditions, year after year, Emmanuel was haunted by the faces of the children he had killed.

    He was aghast at what he had done. What had possessed him to commit such unspeakable deeds? The mental torture was so intense, he was certain hell could be no worse. In July 2000, Emmanuel confessed his crimes and tried to express the guilt engulfing him.

    The author, Cancilde, and Emmanuel

    The author, Cancilde, and Emmanuel. Photograph courtesy of Denise Uwimana.

    There was no way the judicial system could process nearly 130,000 charges of participation in genocide, especially since most judges and lawyers were dead or had fled. So in 2002, the new government instituted gacaca – pronounced “gachacha” – throughout the country. These tribunals were based on the traditional system of dealing justice, using trusted men and women in each locale as judges or inyangamugayo, “those who hate dishonesty.”

    A cluster of villages would gather weekly, at some central outdoor location, until all cases from their area had been heard. Anyone present could question the accused, who were transported from prison. Inyangamugayo considered statements from both sides before handing down a verdict. They had authority to grant reduced sentences if the accused admitted guilt and showed remorse. Some convicts were assigned daytime work release, to help rebuild the nation.

    These trials were traumatic for the whole country. For survivors, hearing details of their loved ones’ murders, after so many years, tore open scabbing wounds. Killers, in their pink prison uniforms, felt humiliated at having their acts publicly exposed. Their families, too, felt shamed.

    But for some, both victims and perpetrators, this excruciating process was a step toward healing. Gacaca confessions helped many survivors locate their relatives’ remains, so they could honor them in burial. And for contrite killers, humbling themselves brought a measure of relief.

    In 2003, Cancilde was terrified at the thought of facing her family’s murderer, but gacaca attendance was mandatory. Also, despite her anxiety, she needed to know the truth of how her husband and children had died. So she forced herself to walk to the designated gathering place beneath large shade trees.

    When it was Emmanuel’s turn to speak, he stood and faced the populace, but his eyes were cast down. Struggling to describe the worst deed of his life, he told how he and five other militants had descended on Cancilde’s house the first day of Mukoma’s atrocities.

    “The five others prevented the family from escaping, and they goaded me on – but it is I, Emmanuel, who committed the murders,” he stated. Emmanuel was sweating and trembling as he recounted the details. “I was rewarded for killing this family,” he added. “In payment, Interahamwe gave me Cancilde’s house. I took it apart and used the materials to build myself a home, where I lived till I was arrested in 1995.”

    Lifting his eyes to look wildly around at the set, stony faces, Emmanuel cried, “I plead for mercy from the government, from my village, and from God!”

    Cancilde was shaking with sobs at the report she had just heard. Yet Emmanuel’s honesty and anguish reached through her pain and touched her heart. The picture of his contorted face remained etched in her mind.

    Gacaca judges sentenced the young man to twenty-five years in prison for his crimes. Because of his remorse, however, he was released after seventeen. That’s when he appeared at Cancilde’s door.

    “Yes, I forgive you,” she said.

    When the lonely mother opened to his knock, she saw the killer of her husband and children standing before her. His eyes filled with tears, Emmanuel repeated his heartfelt plea.

    “Yes, I forgive you,” she had said.

    Now here I was, in August 2015, standing in the road with both of them. Emmanuel had been looking at the ground; now his eyes met mine.

    “Cancilde has become like a mother to me,” he said quietly. “When I need advice, I go to her. Before I got married, I talked over the details with her. She is the local official who authorized my marriage.”

    Cancilde broke in, “Emmanuel is the one I ask for help when my house needs repair. He comes any time I ask, to replace a window or mend the roof. If my cow has problems, I call him. And he knows he’s always welcome to share a meal at my home. He is my son!”

    They looked at each other, and Emmanuel smiled shyly.

    Contributed By DeniseUwimana Denise Uwimana

    Denise Uwimana survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and later founded Iriba Shalom International, an organization that provides material and spiritual support to genocide survivors.

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