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When enemies forgive each other

When enemies forgive each other

After the horrific events in 1990s Rwanda, a church leader sees lessons we can all learn about reconciliation. Hazel Southam reports...

When Rev Philbert Kalisa stood up to speak about conflict resolution at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town in October he was talking from experience. Now 44, Philbert was born a refugee in Burundi after his parents fled neighbouring Rwanda. But he was studying in the UK when, in 1994, the long-running tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda boiled to the surface resulting in Africa's worst genocide. Some 800,000 people - nearly a tenth of the population - were violently killed in just three months. Two million more fled to Burundi.

It was an episode that shaped the country, the region, much international foreign policy and the rest of Kalisa's life. He's spent the last 14 years working for reconciliation in Rwanda and believes the country's experience has much to teach the Church.

Knowing that members of his family were killed during the genocide, Philbert headed for the conflict-torn nation to see what was happening firsthand. "The country was destroyed," he recalls. "There was no unity between religious communities. I could see the suffering of the people in their despair."

One woman's story particularly struck him. Her name was Agnes, and she was from the majority Hutu tribe. Her husband was Tutsi. During the genocide her husband and children were killed. She was beaten and raped.

After the genocide it transpired that her aunt had arranged the murders. "Agnes was very shocked that a member of her family was involved," Philbert says. "She was out of control for months. But slowly she was healed and in the end she forgave those who did this to her. She also went to prison to visit those who had killed her family and gave them food. This action has changed the offenders, who have since come to her and asked for forgiveness. Through her story, many women have forgiven others. They say, 'If Agnes can forgive, then so can I.'"

Forgiveness, says Kalisa "is very powerful". And he believes its major effect is on the forgiver, not for the forgiven. "When you have been victimised or bullied, you live in despair and hatred. You become a victim twice: once for the act, the second time for the emotion. You have to carry it about. You can't be free until you forgive, but it's not an easy thing to do."

It's a message he's taken through his organisation Reach, a Tearfund partner, across Rwanda to 23,000 people. Some 3,000 of these now actively work for reconciliation in their villages - training others, helping the perpetrators of the genocide reintegrate into the community and visiting prisoners.

"The atmosphere in Rwanda after the genocide was shocking," says Philbert. "It was a country paralysed by fear. But now that's changed. People understand each other more, there is more openness and people are less traumatised."

All this may sound far from our day-to-day experiences, but Philbert believes that his work in reconciliation in Rwanda has wider implications for the Church around the world. "It's important that the Church is involved in reconciliation wherever you live in the world," he says. "Reconciliation is from God. He is its author. He reconciles ourselves to Himself. I can't see what the future of the Church is if it isn't doing this work of reconciliation. If we can't be ambassadors of reconciliation who can be?"

For someone who's seen a very bleak past, Philbert Kalisa is remarkably positive about the future. The Church is, he says, key to the future of the world. "If the Church can stand and focus on this ministry, I can see that peace will prevail in the world. When I look at how many Christians there are in the world, I believe that they can create peace."

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