Forgiving the Killer Next Door

Today Stephen Gallige greets his neighbor Mathius Sendege with a hug and a pat on the back. Their relations were not always so friendly.

"I know Mathius in two ways, the first way sometime back as a good neighbor of mine," said Gallige. "And the second way as someone who had participated in the killing of my family."

Fourteen years ago the men were neighbors living outside of Kigali, Rwanda. They knew each other for years and their families were close.

"His family even gave my brother-in-law a cow," said Sendege.

Then in April 1994 everything changed. The Rwandan government issued a new policy — all ethnic Tutsis were to be exterminated by the country's Hutu population. All Hutus were ordered to kill any Tutsi they could, by any means necessary. The killings were swift and merciless. In 100 days, more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were murdered.

President Bush visited the genocide memorial site in Kigali this week, where 250,000 victims are buried. He said that the visit shook his emotions and that the genocide was a reminder of the evil that exists in the world.

Sendege, a Hutu, recalls the mass hysteria that swept the small nation during the genocide.

"We killed with everything we had," he said. "We bought machetes, we bought clubs, we bought spears. The government even gave us guns to shoot anyone who ran from us."

Six of those Sendege helped kill were relatives of Gallige, a Tutsi. Sendege says the only reason his neighbor was spared was because he wasn't at home.

"If I had got him, I would have killed him too," he said. "Our intention was to kill every Tutsi we could find."

But Sendege says that he's grateful to God that Gallige lived. Today the men are neighbors once again. After the genocide Sendege was arrested and imprisoned. While there, he realized the magnitude of his crimes and asked for forgiveness, something Gallige struggled to give at first.

"I had lost so many of my relatives and I was lonely, so my heart was bitter," said Gallige, who is a pastor. "But I realized you cannot go and help other people when your heart is filled with hatred."

He says he needed to reconcile with his neighbor to move forward. The men now reside in a "reconciliation village" where victims and perpetrators of the genocide live side by side.

For the Rwandan government reconciliation is not simply an idea, it's the policy on which it operates — from housing to economic development to decisions on how to dispense justice to those who participated in the genocide.

For nearly 10 years, the Rwandan prison held more than 120,000 people charged with genocidal crimes. The overcrowding, backlog of cases and cost of housing so many prisoners severely hampered Rwanda's ability to rebuild, says Fatuma Ndanziga, the head of Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. "

When you have close to a million people who were killed by most of the rest of the population, you have to rethink how you define justice," she said.

The government decided to focus on reconciliation and rehabilitation. In 2003 President Paul Kagame issued a decree that if people admitted to all of their crimes and asked for forgiveness from their victims, they would either be freed or have their sentences halved.

The perpetrators would have to face a gacaca court, a traditional form of justice where perpetrators ask victims for forgiveness and the community as a whole decides their punishment.

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