Yesterday we visited a work camp where prisoners convicted of genocide crimes serve their sentences. As we drove down the steep hilly road to the valley where the camp lay, I tried my hardest to rid myself of preconceived notions. These people had committed horrific acts of murder and other violent crimes, but the camp has been rehabilitating them, so I did my best to breathe away my fear and look with eyes of humanity.
The prisoners, all men wearing the same dark blue outfit, waited in a group in the center of a dusty yard. Chickens pecked around their feet. There were no chains, no bars, no handcuffs- they just stood there, looking perhaps a little nervous themselves. The warden, a woman named Pelly who wore military garb, stood with them and translated for us. We started with introductions, then we were told to ask questions. My mind went blank- what sort of questions could I ask of genocide criminals?- but then Carl began asking questions that put us all at ease.
“How many of you are married?” he asked, and when Pelly translated nearly all of them raised their hands.
“How many of you are happily married? How many of you love your wife?” The hands stayed up. Carl asked them a few other simple, human questions- do you have children, do you have boys or girls, are you grandfathers- and by the time he was done I wasn’t nervous anymore. He asked the grandfathers to give us advice, and the few who did said essentially the same thing- Don’t do what we did. Learn from us. Stay in school and focus on your studies.
Then they asked us questions. One man asked what people in America would think when we told them we had visited genocide criminals. Drew explained how we don’t have restorative justice in America- in America prisoners are stripped of their humanity, locked up like animals, and in several places America is one of the last countries in the world that practices the death penalty, which is teaching our children that killing is bad by killing. He explained that people would be afraid because in America we don’t have forgiveness in our justice system, and that people think that criminals should be locked up and the key should be thrown away. The man then asked a question that broke my heart- “Where does that hatred come from?”
And it’s true. America’s justice system, with prisoners returning again and again because they are dehumanized and never taught how to become good members of society, is incredibly damaging and flawed. Seeing these men in front of me who had committed these horrific acts of violence gave me the simple yet startling realization that any person who commits any horrible crime across the world is really just that- a person. We took photos with them, smiling arm in arm with these criminals who were looking at us with such love, and thinking that the hands around my shoulders and waist, so gentle, had killed people didn’t really fit the equation. When more questions were asked, they all seemed to feel the same way- they had all confessed, they had all asked for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness was a requirement to come to this camp, where they all agreed that the work they did made them feel like they were helping to rebuild the Rwanda they had tried to destroy. The hands that destroyed were now building.
Then something magical happened- it started raining, and the entire group of men started singing and dancing for us. They were clapping and laughing and spinning around, grinning ear to ear, so happy to share some joy with us- their new friends. Pelly, the warden, danced and sang with them, and it was so incredible to watch these men who have found themselves again, who are working to rebuild this country, dancing with their warden.
The rain poured down and we were given freshly cooked charred corn that they had grown and cooked for us. When the rain slowed to a drizzle we performed, only to have it come back in a downpour. The prisoners loved our play- I heard them laugh during my monologue and it felt incredible- and they stayed out in the rain to watch the whole thing. At the end they did a special thank-you clap they had taught us at the beginning, and they were all smiles.
Our bus driver, Gaga, was anxious to leave because the rain had left the hills very slippery. Once we piled in the bus we tried to leave but ended up getting stuck. So we got out and stood around waiting while Gaga attempted to maneuver the bus out. Then, like a scene from a movie, dozens upon dozens of prisoners came walking up the hill, with garden hoes over their shoulders, to dig the bus out and create a pathway for him to drive. They worked and worked as we watched in awe as the message of the day came alive right in front of us. We walked up the mountain so he could meet us at the top, and from there we saw the prisoners all pushing the bus up the hill until Gaga finally got it going. One man ran following it all the way to the top.
These men who had committed horrible crimes but through rehabilitation and the ability to give back they have regained their sense of peace and repented. Because they were given the opportunity to be forgiven and move forward, incredible things are happening. These people who have murdered danced with us and pushed our bus up a mountain. The United States needs to examine their fear and hatred and look at justice through the eyes of humanity. I really understand now that only with forgiveness and compassion can things actually get better.