Forgiving the Killer Next Door

The punishment usually involves direct ties to making the victims lives better and improving the entire community. Under gacaca many of the perpetrators are building houses for those victims of genocide whose houses were lost, or are working on farms to help rebuild the wealth a community lost.

"Our leadership today has decided to cement the foundations of our nation, which means all Rwandans should be inclusive and integrated into further development," Victor Karega, minister of state in charge of industry and investment, told ABC News. "Therefore they need to reconcile, break from the past. We need to go through justice, but justice that is embedded in our culture that brings people to reconcile, at the same time eradicate the culture of not addressing or not punishing the crimes."

The government and civil rights groups say that having perpetrators and victims work and live together is the best way to hold those responsible accountable for their actions while also ensuring Rwanda moves forward.

"I believe the healing process has to be forced a bit," said Donald Ndahiro, who directs the U.N. Millennium Villages project in Rwanda. "If you leave people to choose what to do, they will choose to stay in their homes, isolated from one another. But now that it is a condition that people come and live together, they are forced to interact, they are forced to talk about their past and they are forced to ask for forgiveness in the process."

The policy seems to be working. Rwanda's economy is experiencing unprecedented growth at an average of 6 percent to 7 percent annually in the last 10 years, and industries from coffee to basket weaving are booming. Success, according to Karega, is directly tied to the reconciliation policy. "It has played a key role in changing the mindset and motivating people to work hard for change and economic growth," he said.

But some victims of the genocide question whether a policy of reconciliation has been as good for justice as the economy. One man, who did not want to be named, calls the policy unjust and unrealistic.

"You admit to killing 17, 20 people, and because you ask for forgiveness you just go free? That is not justice," he said. "It will not work."

He says he knows families who have moved to other communities because they could not stand having to interact with people who caused them so much pain.

The worst of the genocide perpetrators — people considered organizers and instigators of the killings such as teachers, clergymen, members of the media, businessmen, as well as government and military officials — remain in prison and will go through the classic justice system.

But Ndanziga admits that even with the gacaca, wounds are deep and getting victims to agree or understand reconciliation is still difficult.

"When you look at genocide and how it has impacted our society, the older generation has been the most affected by the past, either as victims or perpetrators or as people who have been refugees for so many years. Reconciliation with this group is not easy," she said. "You can talk about reconciliation, they can be comfortable with coexistence, they can be comfortable with tolerance … but they always have the bad reminders of what happened."

"Healing is a process," said Ndanziga. "It's not something you can rush or give people a deadline."

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