It isn’t very often that one gets the chance to speak with perpetrators and ask them questions, but today I had that chance. If someone would have taken me to a prison in the U.S. and told me this was a place that housed people who killed large numbers of people, I probably would have gone in with an attitude of disgust and anger. My mindset would have been that they deserved to be in prison and I would have wished the worse for them. I mean, they deserve the worst, right? Especially after all of the people whose lives they took. However, I didn’t have any of those feelings when visiting the Gikomero TIG Camp, here in Rwanda. I believe this is because we’ve experienced too much of Rwandan forgiveness and kindness for me to feel that way. Speaking with many Rwandans, I can see that they truly have forgiven the perpetrators, and if they have forgiven them, then that leaves no room for me to act angry towards them.
As we asked them questions we learned that they too were parents and grandparents, just like any other people. When we asked them how they got involved with the genocide, they responded by saying that the government had convinced them that the Tutsis were different from them and that they were bad. Also, if one wasn’t a killer, then they became a victim. It was hard to be against the government.
The prisoners expressed genuine regret and sorrow for what they have done. They said that now, especially with the teachings of the new government, they realize that all Rwandans are one in the same and they all bleed the same blood. When asked what they would teach their children about the genocide, they said that they would tell them not to kill. Their message to the world was “people shouldn’t kill each other. We will all die. We will die from diseases or whatever, so stop killing.” They also shared that they do experience guilt from time to time for what they did; but when they do, they pray to God, take ownership of their crimes, and ask for peace. They also realize it wasn’t worth because even their children do not want to see them because they know that they are murderers.
One cannot visit this prison without halving to evaluate the American prison system, or at least I couldn’t. I found it amazing how the prisoners weren’t locked behind bars and huge walls. One could say that we need maximum security in American prisons because the people in them are dangerous, but these were people who were involved in the killings of thousands of people. So, what’s the difference? The difference is that the Rwandan system views the prisoners as people who are capable of change and who can be integrated into society again. In fact, that was the goal. On the contrary, I believe the American system focuses too much on punishment and revenge rather than rehabilitation. In the Rwandan system, the prisoners are treated as human beings. They teach them to confess and ask for forgiveness, but they also offer them forgiveness and trust. The prisoners are allowed to leave the prison once a week to visit their families, and they always come back. Also, the work that they do while in prison is meaningful. They work to rebuild the city that they tried to destroy. They make bricks that are used for buildings, work in agriculture, and in construction.
There is so much that the United States could learn from Rwanda in general, but especially from their prison system.