The Difference Between Justice and Mercy

I will always remember and stand by the people of Rwanda.
– Ban-Ki Moon (Secretary General of the United Nations) –


20 years ago a horror beyond much of our understanding took place within the borders of a small African country, Rwanda. In the space of 100 days, it is estimated that more than 1 million Rwandans perished in machete and gunfire attacks, mostly by extremist Hutus on the country’s minority Tutsi population. At a time when South Africans were queuing up to vote for Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa, in a fight to erase apartheid from their land, a tiny East African country was in turmoil with tribes turned against each other enduring three months of terrifying sectarian violence.

I was 10 years old when these horrific events happened. At 10 years old, the word ‘genocide’ was not in my vocabulary. I remember the scenes on the news being confusing and my young eyes not being able to grasp the images that were flashing across the screen. Watching the news one evening, we sat in horror as Fergal Keane, a BBC journalist, reported from the site of the church at Nyarubuye where Tutsis had taken refuge only to be hunted down by the extremists and slaughtered where they stood. Men, women and children brutally executed and their bodies left there where they fell. I could not even begin to process what I was seeing. And my heart broke. Why was this happening? Who was allowing this to happen?

The genocide in Rwanda is a shocking example of a time when the world did not intervene when people needed them the most. The international world stood back as these horrors took place and took all too long to intervene in these horrific events. In the months and years after the atrocity, the words ‘never again’ were uttered time and time again. Yet, these evil acts are continually on the brink of happening again. When humans turn on each other for revenge, to gain power, to exterminate those who they do not believe have a rightful place here on this earth…….even today, 20 years later, this is on the verge of happening as we see the devastation in Syria and the Central African Republic.

Rwanda is a nation that was left completely broken, devastated, and seemingly without hope in the wake of the horrors of April to July 1994. How could the survivors even begin to rebuild and come to terms with what had happened? Could there ever be anything close to reconciliation in this nation? And yet, 20 years later, there are shining stories of hope. Rwanda, in the years that followed, is filled with incredible stories of reconciliation, forgiveness, and the amazing and almost indestructible power of the human spirit.

I read a deeply moving article in the New York Times called ‘Portraits of Reconciliation‘ which reports on a programme that is part of a continuing effort towards reconciliation within Rwanda, Through this programme, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counselled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. The portraits within the article are of perpetrators and survivors who have taken part in this programme and the survivors have forgiven the perpetrators. Each connected story alone leaves you in awe of the power of forgiveness and the strength of each person who has chosen to show mercy to those who did not show mercy to them. It also leaves you with hope for those who have pled for some form of absolution for their horrific actions. When we think of our day to day lives, some of us would find it difficult to forgive someone for stealing our milk from our doorstep…….it is extraordinary to think that these people can forgive the actions of those who killed their families, their friends, their children, and raped and tortured their women. This is the difference between justice and mercy.

How do you bring over 120,000 perpetrators to justice? For the majority of perpetrators, this took place locally, in ‘Gacaca Courts‘, where they sought forgiveness and mercy within their own communities. This is not justice – it is mercy, and it is a far higher and nobler act to grant mercy than to seek justice.

It is thought that over 250,000 women were raped during the atrocities, with nearly 20,000 children being conceived as a result. These children, brought into the world under the most horrific of circumstances, have also become inspiring beacons of hope in the years that have followed. Young Rwandan’s are educated with the genocide being taught as part of their nations history. They are taught to identify as Rwandan first and foremost before Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. They are educated in mixed schools, and encouraged to learn from the mistakes of the past. Mixed marriages are evident across tribes within the new generations, building further bridges and bonds between the people. The new generation continue to embody hope.

I still find it so difficult to understand the circumstances under which these events came about, and how they were permitted to happen. What came over people that they believed killing their friends, neighbours, or family, was the right path? The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said the genocide was a “devastating reminder that nightmares seemingly beyond imagination can in fact take place”.

The UN Secretary Ban-Ki Moon spoke at the the first of many remembrance events held in the National Stadium in Kigali. His words were moving and I will leave you with them…

The genocide in Rwanda that targetted the Tutsi was one of the darkest chapters in human history. More than 800,000 people were systematically killed – overwhelmingly the Tutsi, and also moderate Hutu, Twa and others.

The blood spilled for 100 days. Twenty years later, the tears still flow.

I have met survivors. I have listened to harrowing stories of cruelty and suffering.
On my first visit to the Gisozi Memorial, I heard and felt the silence of death.
The silence of all those lost – and the silence of the international community in your hours of greatest need.
Many United Nations personnel and others showed remarkable bravery.
But we could have done much more. We should have done much more.

I have sent my own signal to UN representatives around the world.
My message to them is simply this: When you see people at risk of atrocity crimes, do not wait for instructions from afar.

Speak up, even if it may offend.

We must not be left to utter the words “never again”, again and again.

There is a truth to the human condition that is as alarming today as it was 20 years ago; the fragility of our civility.

The bonds that hold us together can swiftly disappear.

Societies can rapidly revert to a capacity for violence and brutalization that is far too easy to incite in the dark corners of the human heart.

No country, no matter how tolerant on the surface, is immune from targetting the so-called other.

No corner of the world, no matter how advanced, is free from opportunists who manipulate identity for political gain.

Over the past generation, you, the people of Rwanda, have shown the world another essential truth: the power of the human spirit.
The resilience of the survivors almost defies belief. Children witnessed enough brutality to age them overnight. Yet you, and your country, have found a way to emerge from the depths, overcome frightful memories, and live again.
You have shown the world that transformation is possible.

Twenty years ago, thousands of Rwandans found refuge in this National Stadium, barely escaping the murder and rape that stalked Kigali and the countryside.
Today it is filled with people who are building a new Rwanda, a Rwanda of shared culture, traditions and peace. Let the name of this arena — Amahoro, or peace – forever be our goal and guide.

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