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.

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."

Gallige says the process of forgiving the man who murdered six of his relatives was extremely difficult, but that the reward has been with worth it.

"I said I saw Mathius in two ways, but it's actually three," said Gallige who now wants to help other Rwandans with the reconciliation process. "The first is as my neighbor, the second, as the person who killed my family, and now he is my neighbor and my friend."

For Sendege, standing before his victim and asking for forgiveness was the hardest thing he says he's ever had to do. After the genocide he says he never imagined the men would be neighbors and friends again. He too hopes that other Rwandans will work toward true reconciliation.

"In this village now we are no longer divided based on our ethnic groups. Our children play together, we built each other's houses, we share food and water," said Sendege. "There's no more Tutsi, no more Hutu. We are just living together as Rwandans in peace."