Forgiving the Unforgiveable

One warm, overcast afternoon, Chantal Nimugire took me to the place where she almost died. The clearing, roughly the size of a football field, was nestled amid hillsides in Kicukiro, a suburb of Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
08/10/2015 05:14 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2016

One warm, overcast afternoon, Chantal Nimugire took me to the place where she almost died. The clearing, roughly the size of a football field, was nestled amid hillsides in Kicukiro, a suburb of Kigali, the Rwandan capital. On one side of the clearing was patchy grass and red dirt framed by tall eucalyptus trees, and on the other was a two-story cement building painted pink. It was constructed to commemorate the 1994 massacre of some three thousand men, women, and children during the genocide that claimed the lives of more than one million people in just three months. Only an estimated fifty people survived the massacre, and Chantal, now thirty-five, was one of them.

For today's visit she wore a brilliant peacock-blue dress and a delicate silver cross necklace. Her cheekbones were prominent, her eyes clear. When she smiled, her whole face opened up, lit by a wide grin that made her eyes twinkle. But as we walked toward the building, she grew serious, a faraway expression settling onto her face. Inside, we met Adelite Mukamana, a staff psychologist for IBUKA, an umbrella group of organizations that help genocide survivors. Adelite's office was in the building, and she had agreed to take us on a tour of the site.

We went back outside and stood alongside rows of large mass graves topped with cement. Chantal explained to the psychologist, a cherub-faced woman with braids, that I was writing a book and that she had survived the massacre here in 1994. Adelite flashed her a look of understanding. While most of those buried here were killed throughout the larger vicinity, Adelite explained, some three thousand were part of the group that sought sanctuary at a nearby school guarded by Belgian peacekeepers, but were left defenseless when the troops left. Chantal told her that she was among those who fled the school and wound up here. "Then you know there weren't many survivors," Adelite said. "It was a small group, with serious injuries."

Chantal stood with her arms crossed. I studied the thick, raised scar from a machete wound that snaked along the length of her left forearm and transfigured the shape of her bone at the deepest part. Another scar was visible on her face, just below her mouth. Looking at her, I recalled her telling me how she often felt strange walking down the street, because "people know who you are, that you survived--it's hard to describe how that feels."

I found Chantal by chance. If you're interested in forgiveness, the director of a non-profit wrote me, you must talk to Chantal.

I met her on a Sunday afternoon at the four-star Umubano Hotel in Kigali, where men in suits and women in dresses were having a pleasant brunch. Set back from a wide, tree-lined boulevard, the hotel lobby opened onto a large patio with outdoor seating and a stage, where a four-piece band played the blues. While visitors and upscale locals relaxed at the hotel, outside, "The Land of One Thousand Hills" bustled with activity: taxi motos sped along, children walked hand in hand, women in colorful traditional kitenge dresses carried bundles atop their heads. Above it all, the sun beamed in a bluebird sky.

When I visited, the country was preparing for the Twentieth Annual Genocide Commemoration. One of the most unique aspects of post-genocide Rwanda is that, unlike in many other post-conflict societies, Hutus and Tutsis don't live in segregation. Hardly two separate tribes to begin with, they live and work together in villages and neighborhoods, hospitals and schools, churches and companies. I wondered: How are Rwandans coexisting after the most extreme genocide of the modern era claimed an eighth of the population?

As Chantal and I sat on the patio eating vegetables and roasted goat, we discovered we were born just six weeks apart. We were sixteen in 1994. I was spending my weekends skiing and writing college application essays. Chantal's sixteenth year couldn't have been more different. She wanted to tell me about it, and how it took her almost twenty years to forgive, in the hopes that her story might help others.

Now, at the memorial, she watched as Adelite pointed at a ten-by-twenty-foot wall behind us, across the walkway from the mass graves, which held the remains of some ten thousand people. Seven columns of names were engraved in the cement. "There are only some names listed--you can't know exactly who is here because only some have been identified," Adelite said. "This site is evidence of how the international community didn't care about what was happening here and did nothing to stop it," she said.

"Yes," Chantal said. "When we were at the school, people explained to the Belgian peacekeepers that we would die if they left. They knew. But they left, anyway."

I looked from the wall of names to the graves. "If I were Rwandan, I would be so angry," I said, "I think I would hate the UN." They considered what I said.

"It's more a feeling of helplessness," Adelite finally said. "Because what are you going to do with hate? It's more helpful to express the feelings, and then focus on healing and moving forward."

For Chantal, forgiveness has been a crucial way to move forward. She calls forgiveness "the key to healing a broken heart." Even so, she and Adelite agreed that it's important to find forgiveness in your own way, and in your own time.

"Some people tell victims, 'Forgive! Forgive!'" Adelite said, wagging a sanctimonious finger in imitation. "But no--if someone is not ready to forgive, that is okay. Everyone has her own process. You can't force forgiveness. Anger, refusing to forgive--that's a defense mechanism, and it serves a purpose."

Chantal nodded. "That's right! Otherwise, you'd just stay in your bed, not eating, not sleeping, and die!" she said, laughing, marveling at our coping mechanisms. Then her face grew somber. "Yes. It took me years to even think about forgiveness."

MEGAN FELDMAN BETTENCOURT is an award winning journalist based in Denver, CO. This is an excerpt published with permission from her debut novel Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, on sale from Penguin Random House.