Looking at “Portraits of Reconciliation”

Amidst the intense horror of genocide is a painful truth: the pain and suffering doesn’t end when the violence stops. Especially in the case of Rwanda, where fighting was very personal and direct, the implications for reconciliation are slim and difficult to envision. Between the flaws in the reconciliation and punitive measures as well as the fact that many women were forced into relationships with their perpetrators, there is seemingly insurmountable suffering that impedes the society’s ability to move forward.

The New York Times Magazine recently featured a story entitled “Portraits of Reconciliation” in which Pieter Hugo, a photographer, captured images of survivors with their perpetrators. Underneath each photo, there is a short explanation from both the perpetrator and the survivor about the violence committed in the past and their path to forgiveness. All of the images capture a Hutu perpetrator and a Tutsi survivor, so this limiting of information must be noted – while this is how most of the crimes were performed, there were also Tutsi perpetrators and Hutu victims whose stories were silenced in this project.

The medium of photography allows for an emotional window into the lives of these individuals and the complexities of their relationships. While some of the pairs seem distanced, there were many who were sitting closely and some who were even touching each other. Some of them could ha been mistaken for a family photo if taken out of the context of this article. These images are definitely shocking, but there is something eerily touching about them as well. Despite the greatest of odds, these two individuals – former enemies, even – have reconciled on their own terms to begin to re-form the backbone of Rwandan society.

The individuals in these pictures are participating in a national effort towards reconciliation. The AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent) offers a program to council small groups of Rwandans over many months, which concludes in the perpetrator’s request for forgiveness. Usually the perpetrator will bring offerings to their victim to accompany their verbal appeal. Through this project, it is clear that these efforts are making an impact, even if it’s only on a small scale. The magnitude of these apologies is profound; while each of these examples only includes two people, each person who is able to forgive lifts some of the burden of the genocide off of their shoulders and the bitterness out of their hearts. This is a strong move in the right direction for Rwanda’s recovery from such a disaster and their positive development in the future.

Many of the perpetrators have taken it on themselves not only to apologize, but to make up for their malicious actions by supporting and protecting their former victims long-term. A strong example of such is the case of Juvenal Nzabamwita (perpetrator) and Cansilde Kampundu (victim). Nzabamwita explains in his section how he looted Kampundu’s property and how his father was also involved in the killing of her children. Because of the education he received in jail, he recognized the importance of forgiveness as an avenue towards reconciliation and moral peace. When he came to apologize, he “told her that I would stand by her, with all the means at my disposal.” Kampundu herself explains why she forgave a man who damaged her life so greatly: “The reason I granted pardon is because I realized that I would never get back the beloved ones I had lost. I could not live a lonely life – I wondered, if I was ill, who was going to stay by my bedside, and if I was in trouble and cried for help, who was going to rescue me?” In this instance, Kampundu chooses to forgive out of a need for security, something which she lost during the genocide. In the case of Godefroid Mudaheranwa and Evasta Mukanyandwi, there is a similar connection. When Mudaheranwa asked for forgiveness, Mukanyandwi “was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.” While these connections are motivated by exterior factors – a need for security – they attempt to replace this feeling of safety that was lost during the genocide. Even if these relationships are not entirely amicable, there is a positive impact for both sides, where the victim receives protection and the perpetrator can find peace in the forgiveness of those he hurt.

Not all of the perpetrators promise lifelong support, but in all of these selected instances the act of forgiveness seems to lift a barrier on society and between individuals. As Karorero, a survivor, explains, “Sometimes justice does not give someone a satisfactory answer – cases are subject to corruption. But when it comes to forgiveness willingly granted, one is satisfied once and for all. When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest.” Perhaps, in line with this quotation, individual forgiveness can be more powerful and more effective in certain instances than formal punitive measures. As we can see from the interactions between these pairs, whether or not they feel a closeness between them, they all seem to feel “at rest” again to a degree. The AMI seems to be making large strides towards a reunited Rwanda and perhaps are offering a strong alternative to truth commissions and other more formal modes of reconciliation after large-scale tragedy and violence.


To see the pictures and for further reading on the project, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=3

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