Reconciliation is a messy and frequently politicized process that seeks to publicly restore social ties and economic livelihoods, with the ultimate goal of striking a balance between justice and healing, vengeance and forgiveness. Twenty-first century Rwanda provides insight into this aspirational goal of reconciliation in postconflict societies, through a top-down approach. While Rwanda’s international donors have helped fund its postgenocide reconciliation practice, the country has pursued a homegrown approach in modernizing traditional justice and reconciliation mechanisms. External actors, including multilateral partners such as the African Union and the United Nations, and bi-lateral ones, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have provided a mixture of financing, moral, and logistical support.
Following the 1994 genocide, in which some 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) instituted a broad social engineering project designed to “never again” allow the scourge of genocide to “take root in the hearts and minds” of Rwandans. Unfortunately, in postgenocide Rwanda, reconciliation is primarily a top-down administrative matter instead of an affair of the heart. Rwanda’s self-stated success in reconciling Hutus and Tutsis results from a centralized approach. Victims reconcile within the confines of acceptable action shaped by an official narrative of history. The reconciliation rhetoric provides little recognition of the diverse experiences of the 1994 genocide, beyond the official assertion that the genocide presented a mass slaughter of the Tutsi population by a Hutu-led government. The programs permit little public discussion of violence carried out by RPF soldiers, creating a “victor’s truth” that does not mirror the experience of the entire Rwandan population. Rwandans are encouraged to reconcile in state-sanctioned settings, such as the ingando citizenship reeducation camps, the neotraditional gacaca local courts, or during genocide mourning week (every April 7–14). In the process of controlling the spaces where reconciliation can officially occur, the RPF has neutralized or eliminated alternative spaces, rendering them suspect. This practice constrains the ability of many ordinary Rwandans to reconcile in personally meaningful ways as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
In the face of this strong state presence, some people try to engage in practices of individual reconciliation that operate outside of the official sphere of state-led practices. To do so is risky, as government officials work to ensure that Rwandans reconcile in officials ways. Informal (nongovernmental) settings, are hard to come by. This means that for many Rwandans, individual or community-based reconciliation activities are difficult to attempt, for the government punishes non-official reconciliation practices with a variety of sanctions, from losing access to social benefits to social shunning and outcasting to arbitrary detention and, in extreme cases, disappearance or death. Some Rwandans I consulted in the course of my research did find subtle and creative ways to subvert official reconciliation practices through minute individual actions, such as finding ways to avoid participating in state-led reconciliation practices or refusing to speak about what they witnessed during the genocide when government officials ask them to do so. Such individual tactics allow Rwandans to strategically resist reconciliation as a way to avoid reconciling in ways that do not account for emotional and physical hardships since the 1994 genocide.
Vianney, a young Tutsi survivor, offers insight into the burden of being forced to reconcile: “Because of the genocide, I lost my whole family. What is the point of forgiveness anyway? The Hutu who killed, they know who they are, but are they able to tell their truth? No, and I understand why not. If they say anything, they go straight to prison. I understand their problems; I blame this government for its lack of fairness. If we could all just get along, I know we could find some way to coexist. Reconciliation is never going to happen. At least not for me. I am alone because of genocide. It is better to remain distant than to get mixed up with the ideas and plans of this [postgenocide] government.”