Rwandan Widow Forgives Her Children’s Killer

Today is the end of the mourning week in Rwanda, which commemorates the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 Rwandans. While many Rwandans have moved on, others are still coming to grips with the people that committed crimes against them and their families. Lane Hartill, Catholic Relief Services’ regional information officer for west and central Africa, talked with one woman who has taken forgiveness to a new level.

Nicholas and Innocent used to be buddies. Innocent, a fisherman, would bring Nicholas fresh fish that he caught. They’d share beers and sit in the shade of the banana trees and chat about village life.

But slowly, almost imperceptibly, Innocent, a Hutu, started to change. His wife Dorcella says he was never into politics, but something came over him, a hatred for Tutsis that surprised her.

Rwanda forgiveness

Jeanne, left, sits with Dorcella, whose husband, Innocent, killed two of Jeanne’s children during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Jeanne has forgiven Dorcella and Innocent. She even visits Innocent in prison. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

In the early months of 1994, that hatred started to peak throughout Rwanda. Radio stations denounced Tutsis. There were menacing, veiled threats against Nicholas and his family that had him and Jeanne, his wife, worried. They wanted to leave, but Nicholas’ job as a security guard and Jeanne’s farming were keeping the family afloat. Besides, they had nowhere to run.

In the first weeks of April, it took a dark turn. Neighbors—Jeanne and Nicholas’ former friends, the ones whose weddings they attended—showed up at their house. They lined up the family—all 11 kids—and toyed with them. They told them they would be killed; they called them snakes. Even the youngest snakes need to die, they said. Because they will grow up and bite you.

Jeanne fled to the forest with nine of the kids. The two oldest sons stayed at home. That’s when Innocent—who used to be such good friends with the boys’ father— showed up with a cutlass and killed them. Nicholas was also killed, coming home from work. Jeanne doesn’t know who did it. But she knows who killed her boys. Because Innocent told her, admitted to it and then asked for forgiveness.

After two years in which she couldn’t sleep, in which she’d ramble on to everyone about her loss, Jeanne started to change her mind. Innocent, racked with guilt, sent messages through Dorcella to Jeanne, asking, begging, for forgiveness. After much reflection, and help from a CRS and Caritas project that trained community outreach workers and the priest at Jeanne’s parish, Jeanne decided it was time. She knew that forgiveness could calm her mind, that it could set her free from those awful thoughts in her head.

She forgave Innocent unconditionally. She does not have an ounce of resentment toward him.

She now visits Innocent—who is serving a 27-year prison sentence—as often as she can. She brings him sugar and bread to supplement the bland prison food. They have become friends, and they don’t talk about the past anymore; all that happened 16 years ago. It’s over now.

Jeanne, who says she’s moved on and doesn’t think about the loss anymore, hopes to keep visiting Innocent for the rest of her life.

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2 Responses to “Rwandan Widow Forgives Her Children’s Killer”

  1. Gladys Schmitz Says:

    What a powerful and inspiring reminder that opening oneself to receive God’s love and grace empowers one to do the seemingly impossible act of loving one’s enemies as Jesus commanded all of His followere. Also a powerful example of the freedon and peace that follows. Thank you for this story.

  2. Mary O'Donnell Says:

    What else can you say about this story, it is tragic and beautiful. One thing, it seems impossible a person could forgive like this, but once you put yourself in God’s hands it’s unbelievable the strength you can get.

    Wouldn’t this be a great world if we could all remember these courageous stories coming out of Rwanda.

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