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Report from Rwanda: “The Power to Kill”

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Jessica Cooley recently went with our team to Rwanda for the Peacemaker Bearing Witness retreat and then back again a few months later to document “Rescuer Stories” This report is from her visit to the prison. Jessica is a graduate of our Integral Peacemaker Training.


The Power to Kill by Jessica Cooley

So on Sunday, I met with four people who participated in the genocide. Rev. John, who is one of the Rwandans from the April Bearing Witness retreat, works with prisoners and ex-prisoner and facilitates personal transformation and reconciliation between these men and the surviving family members of the people they killed. These four men are in this program. Three were killed during the genocide, and the fourth ironically joined the Interahamwe to protect himself from being killed by the Interahamwe because his father was a Tutsi. He didn’t kill but was unquestionably complicit in the killings and has spent 10 years in prison.


When I greeted them at the guesthouse gate, I was met with bright smiles and warm hands. I wish I had the ability to wiggle my nose and stop time at that moment so that I could just collapse and grieve. One of them was obviously my age or younger. Knowing thing that I was 14 when the genocide broke out, I knew that this man was himself a victim of circumstance and not a born killer. And none of them were! But I smiled, recycling my three Rwanda phrases while escorting them to my “office just outside my room.


They all grew up knowing Tutsis and having Tutsi friends, two not even knowing that they were Hutu until adolescence. But none of them had role models, none of them remember having someone in their life that told them that killing was wrong or that they should love people, and two of them were on their own after primary school. They all believed the propaganda, which proclaimed that the RPF was the enemy who was coming to kill all of the Hutus, and the RPF were snakes and cockroaches with big ears and long tails. Interestingly, even though they all had Tutsis whom they referred to as close friends, they still believed the whole enemy thing. (When the rescuers heard such propaganda, they talked about cross-checking it with their reality. The evidence from their personal experiences with the Tutsis in their life didn’t fit with the propaganda, so they saw right through it).


Interestingly all four of these men used the word “power” at some point during the interview, which was a word that had not come up ONCE in my interviews with the rescuers. All were also a part of some political party (so that they could be where the power was), which is also something that almost none of the rescuers participated in. Most of the rescuers wanted nothing to do with politics because, for them, it reinforced divisionism, which they seem to be immune to or even phobic of. Rwanda was a one-party system until 1991, and the results of becoming a multiparty system created more competitive discord than healthy democratic debate.


So, they all explained falling for the propaganda, believing that their lives were at risk and in need of protection. (All of the rescuers were also fearful for their lives, a few even describing extreme anxiety and PTSD symptoms, but they were all willing to die.) Not one of the perpetrators had ethnic hatred for the Tutsis, and they even admitted to not even thinking that the person they were killing was a human being. They all expressed going through some transformation in prison, granting them the time to contemplate the consequences of seriously their action is a way that they had failed to previously consider. Almost all of the rescuers referenced some foresightedness into the consequences of killing or even just having hate in your heart. I shared with the ex-prisoners how I’ve been asking the Rescuers why they think the killers killed and they rescued. I told the ex-prisoners how the Rescuers usually reply that, in their opinion, the killers lacked a heart of love, and I was curious what they (the ex-prisoners) thought about the Rescuer’s analysis. They all agreed. They said their hearts were closed, they didn’t see the humanity in the person they were killing, and that it wasn’t until after they realized the impact of what they had done. They also discussed the role of “bad leadership” as a causal factor in their actions, which is the case for the man who was 13 during the genocide, but overall this felt less prevalent as the main ascribed cause of their behavior than it was for the people I met in April who were still in prison.


As their Fanta’s faded and the interview was coming to a close, one of them asked me to please help him to get a pair of shoes. I asked the other men what things would improve their lives, and they all said having new shoes! It makes sense since they all do physical labor through the community service program they're now in, and their only transportation IS their shoes. I was touched by their absence of greed and the simple practicality of their request. I told them I’d send them shoes by Christmas. For me, it’s apparent how their stories are an asset to the research on rescuers, and the process of transformation is fascinating. I’ll continue with this exploration on my next trip.


Jessica in Rwanda, photo by Peter Cunningham

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