Steven Hakizimana was 8 when his parents and siblings were murdered before his eyes during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. For the next nine years Hakizimana struggled both to simply survive and to understand the atrocities wreaked on himself and his country.
Hakizimana came to feel that in order for healing to occur, reconciliation between his Tutsi group and the Hutus – both being responsible for widespread killings at different points – must be pursued. He wanted to deepen his understanding of justice and peace and to improve his skills for transforming conflict.
Hakizimana is the 2013 recipient of the Winston Fellowship – the most generous scholarship that the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) is able to offer. He found SPI at Eastern Mennonite University through an Internet search of peacebuilding programs, but was encouraged by a friend who knew EMU to apply.
I was interested in SPI “because of where I come from,” he says, referring to his home country, whose 1994 genocide formed the basis of the 2004 blockbuster movie Hotel Rwanda. “The second reason is that I needed to come and exchange with those who have lived the same tragedies.”
Life as a homeless orphan
Hakizimana – who will be entering his last year of law school in the fall – had, with a couple of his friends, been making some effort to help the community heal through a program they called “healing through the arts and drama,” but they soon realized that they were not equipped to deal with the depth of people’s pain and anger. When the friends all left for school, the program ceased.
Hakizimana explained that ultimately the group didn’t have enough skills to know what they were doing. Now, at SPI, he is gaining an understanding of what people went through and how they react, not to mention why he reacted to the conflict the way that he did (through burying his feelings).
After Hakizimana’s family was murdered, he and a friend fled to the swamps where they hid. Soon, however, someone found them and attacked, hitting him on the head. Hakizimana woke up some time later in a hospital bed with his head in bandages.
Eventually, he was adopted by a family who viewed him as little better than a slave and forced him – from the ages of 8 to 10 – to do hard labor for them. When he couldn’t take it any more, Hakizimana left and went to a neighboring family looking for work. There the husband was kind to him and treated him like a son, but the older of the two wives was an “evil sort,” recalls Hakizimana, mistreating him while the husband was away.
Discovering grandmother and sister
He endured conditions with this family for about 18 months until one day the husband came home and told him that there was reason to believe that one of his grandmothers and one sister may be alive.
On Feb. 12, 1998, this kind man took Hakizimana to meet his sister and his grandmother. They barely recognized each other, but felt overjoyed at being reunited. At the time, they were in a very desperate and vulnerable situation and the husband offered to keep Hakizimana until they were able to get on their feet. So Hakizimana found himself back with the good husband and the hurtful wife. A week later, though, Hakizimana left to live with his sister and grandmother, preferring their love despite their poverty.
Beginning school at age 14
At the age of 14 Hakizimana started school for the very first time. “High school was a very lonely time,” he said. “It was very painful to see visiting days with parents bringing things for their children.”
The children without visitors – most of whom had lost family members through the genocide – formed their own “families” in school by separating themselves into groups of ten or so with a nominated “father” and “mother,” usually the oldest male and female in the respective groups. “That is how we tried to cover ourselves as family,” he said. “You’re not living life if there is not someone to praise you.” They became so close that during the holidays most of the children decided to stay at school, partly because they had nowhere to go that felt like home and partly because they had found family with one another.
Facing unresolved fear and anger
Hakizimana explained that after the Rwandan genocide the main question that people asked themselves was, “Will I be able to survive after I have survived this?” It is still a very tense and politically unstable region where victims and perpetrators must learn to coexist amidst pain, fear and anger.
His own turning point came in 2005 when the Rwandan government began a mass release of tens of thousands of prisoners, most of whom had confessed involvement in the 1994 genocide. Among them was a man who confessed to having killed Hakizimana’s uncle.
This man knocked on the door as Hakizimana, his grandmother, and his sister were eating lunch and asked to come in. Upon hearing his confession, Hakizimana’s grandmother and sister ran from the room because they did not want to hear any more. Hakizimana said that as an African man he had to sit down with him and hear the man’s apology. Although Hakizimana was upset and shaken, he told the man to go and come again in one week.
“There are some truths that are very regrettable,” Hakizimana says today. “There are some truths that are hard to handle.” When the man came back, Hakizimana extended his forgiveness, but he said it was many years before he actually believed his own words. For him, forgiveness was a choice. He decided he would forgive the man and over time, he actually began to be able to do it.
“Why did you do it?”
A year after this encounter, Hakizimana was finally able to sit down with the man and have a beer and to make peace with his crime. It was at this point that he was able to ask him, “Why did you do it?” and listen as the man told him his own story.
Prejudices between the Hutus and the Tutsis are deeply held and from a very young age the man – who was also raised by his grandmother – had been told that his family had been killed by Tutsis, which he later learned was not true. However by the time the 1994 genocide occurred, the man had developed so much hatred for the Tutsis that it was nothing to him to simply join in with the massacre. Now, however, the man must live with both the guilt of what he did and the shame that his wife and family feel for his participation.
At first Hakizimana,’s family called him naive for his efforts to forgive both the man and other perpetrators. In 2007, though, Hakizimana had the opportunity to attend a World Vision training. He decided to take his sister with him to the training and hoped the experience might spark a spirit of forgiveness in her. There they embraced several sayings to help them move past the atrocities committed against them such as, “when you dwell on the past, you lose the future” and “when you’re going to build a new order, you have to destroy the old, because you cannot develop both.”
Hakizimana and his younger sister ended up moving away from the community in which their grandmother still lives in order to get away from some of the lingering pain and bad memories. From that point on, he says his sister began changing for the better. She finished high school in 2010 and is now a university student who works as a bank manager.
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling
“Forgiveness is personal,” Hakizimana mused. “It’s not a feeling. You can’t close your eyes and wait until you feel like forgiving. Forgiveness is not logical. It’s not even knowing the truth. You may even be distracted by the truth. It is a decision. You sit there and say, ‘I solemnly swear that I will forgive’ and then you work at it until it comes slowly, slowly.”
After SPI, Hakizimana plans to return to Rwanda to finish his last year of school. (Consider the educational gap he has closed between entering school for the first time at age 14 in order to be a multilingual university student today at age 27.) Hakizimana also will complete a four-week internship with the Strongest Oak Foundation in Rwanda, the organization that sponsored his SPI application. This internship is required by his Winston Fellowship, which covered all expenses associated with traveling to EMU and attending three SPI sessions. He hopes to one day resume his work of healing and reconciliation through drama and arts and believes that the skills learned the past three weeks at SPI will help him to do this with more understanding and effectiveness.
For a related story from the neighboring country of Burundi, read about Jean Claude Nkundwa, who is earning a master’s degree in conflict transformation from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.