The Killer in Me is the Killer in You (Guest Post by Rebekah Witzke)

I am excited to share with you a post from my dear friend, Rebekah Witzke. As Rebekah writes on her NEW website, she recently traveled with our mutual friends Chris and Phileena Heuertz (through their organization, The Gravity Center) to Rwanda on a pilgrimage where she made a major discovery: her wild space. I'm excited about Rebekah's new website where she will explore this idea with us. 

Rebekah has graciously agreed to let me cross-post this striking post from her blog. In the coming weeks, Rebekah has uber-graciously agreed to write something original for this blog. 

I think Rebekah has an important voice. I am thrilled to share it with you here.


The Killer in me is the Killer in You

What  I Have in Common with a Convicted Perpetrator of Genocide.

By: Rebekah Witzke

Charles, convicted Genocidaire.                                                   Photo: Aaron Strumpel |  Buatre, Rwanda 2014

Charles, convicted Genocidaire.                                               Photo: Aaron Strumpel |  Buatre, Rwanda 2014

I want you to think about the worst thing you have ever done. Not the thing you would admit to during a boisterous game of ‘Never have I ever.’ Not the one you can manipulate and somehow come out looking like the humble hero. (Hint: if you can categorize it under “What is your biggest weakness?” in a job interview, you haven’t even scratched the surface.) I’m talking about that which shames you. The truth that you’ve sworn you will take to your grave. The thing, which if exposed, could threaten your standing at work, in your home, community or church. (Second hint: you probably judge other people harshly for a similar offense)

For me in was an act, but for you perhaps it is a thought. Either way, the effects are universal. If kept in the dark, this thing threatens to destroy you. It will keep your true self hidden in the dark where no hope of healing can touch you. This thing runs on power and we continue to feed it by keeping it hidden from the light.

Ok. Now imagine confessing this truth to perfect strangers over lunch.  A dozen or so people sharing banana beer and goat skewers, (this was in Rwanda) all of whom have come to listen to your story; line by line, detail by detail, horror by horror. Are you shaking yet? Throat suddenly dry? Yeah, me too.

One month ago- almost to the day, I was given a seat at a table where two Rwandan men, Francois and Charles, told us their story of life before, during, and after the 1994 Genocide.  They were friends and neighbors. In spite of their identity differences (Charles is Tutsi, Francois, a Hutu) they related easily and without conflict-as did most Hutus and Tutsis at the time. But when the mass killings began on April 7, 1994 the Interahamwe ( Pro Hutu-youth militia)  played on the fears and emotions of many Hutus, and as a result, made them complicit in their plans to completely eradicate the Tutsi population. Like so many previously non-violent, non political Rwandans, Francois got involved and sought to reclaim the power he was told had been taken from his tribe. So he killed people. And not just any people. Charles’s siblings, relatives, mother and father. A total of seven people in Charles’s family alone.

After the 100 days of killings ended, Francois was captured, convicted and sent to prison while Charles attempted to re-build his life in a village where most people he knew had been murdered.

Years later, the Rwandan government rolled out an initiative to offer early release to perpetrators of Genocide if they were willing to come forward and confess the specifics of their crime, and return to their village to seek reconciliation. It was a bold move unfathomable to Americans, but most of these killers were not criminals before this atrocity, and the Government believed they were capable of re-integrating into society, not to mention able bodied workers who could help repair the economic crisis they were facing and offset the cost of long term imprisonment. Francois was skeptical that the government would truly reduce his sentence, but began to consider this possibility and wondered if it would be offered to him. He waited every day to hear his name read from a list, and when it was, he accepted. After eight and a half years in prison, Francois was released, but forgiveness would not come overnight. He would have to ask first.

So the men embarked on an uncharted path of reconciliation. After his release, another eight years would pass as Francois and Charles would see one another here and there- after all, Francois was required to return to the same village to make things right and rebuild his life. But they were wary of one another, each suspecting the worst of the other, so they maintained a healthy distance.  Francois knew he was obligated to reconcile with Charles, but how could he without knowing if he could even forgive himself? Eventually, Francois found the resolve and courage to speak to Charles. He confessed to his crimes and asked for forgiveness. Charles, who was so moved by Francois’s request for forgiveness, and as a response was able to “unlock mercy and grace" in his heart. Not long after the two had reconciled, Charles became sick. With little family left to care for him, Francois took on the role of caregiver. He was very poor himself, but paid for his surgery, treatment and time at the hospital. Upon his release, he even rode Charles home on his bicycle. (Slowly and carefully to avoid bumping and bruising his post-operative incisions.) Naturally, Francois felt relieved to help Charles in this way. I think it is human instinct to want to “pay penance” for things we have done. While there is no “even” outside of children’s games and sports, we still make futile attempts to settle scores between us. But Charles is an exceptional human whom I am convinced has a larger than average capacity to give and receive love. Even so, he attempts to keep things “even” himself by offering Francois his cow to show his gratitude for saving his life. The gift of a cow in Rwandan culture is the highest level of honor one can show to another person. It is also the most valuable of possessions, so people do not make this gesture lightly. The cow was Charles's primary means to an income, but he insisted it must be given to Francois, and after many refusals, Francois finally accepted.

As a westerner who has grown up during mostly peaceful times (And when there has been violence- it was been far enough away to never disrupt my personal life or trajectory), Genocide is difficult for me to fathom. How do we connect to any atrocity that occurs outside our four walls? It is too other worldly for us to enter. A few times during the lunch I tried to contextualize the event were it to happen in New York City. It was nearly impossible to imagine mass killings among neighbors, friends and families. However, Francois and Charles’s struggle to reconcile -this back and forth dance of forgiveness-that felt startlingly familiar.

I have never killed anyone. But I have wounded the person I love most on this earth, and I was certain forgiveness was beyond my reach. Like Francois feared before confessing to Charles, I too doubted that my husband would be able to dig out the kind of forgiveness necessary to repair the damage I had caused. So I kept my truth out of the light. And I strengthened it every time I felt prompted to confess, but didn’t. I enabled it to grow each time I judged someone else for doing the very same thing. When the darkness began overshadowing what little light was left in me, I knew it was time: confess or bust- literally. And so with an exposed heart and trembling body, I released my confession unsure of how it would be received. My husband left the house for the better part of an evening but when he came back it was mercy and grace he brought with him. He forgave me, but it was not a momentary, inconsequential forgiveness. It was a hard, painful acceptance of my offer that we continue to work out to this day.

As these men let us into the most painful part of their life,  I was overwhelmed by Francois's vulnerability- both on the day he shared with us his worst offense, and in 2010 when he stood before Charles and humbly asked for forgiveness. It is perhaps the bravest and most outlandish thing I have ever heard. And Charles- a hero among men- to be so humble that he could lay down his own hurt, his own fears, his own desire for revenge and accept. To stumble towards forgiveness by receiving this killer whom he once called friend, into outstretched arms? I don't know I would have believed this story were I not sitting beside them and they vowed their story to be true, so help them God.  As we digested our lunch and this outrageous story, we had to know. "Which is more difficult- to ask for forgiveness, or to forgive?" Both men agreed. It is harder to ask for forgiveness.

While the reconciliation that has happened in the years since the Genocide is inspiring, it is almost as difficult to comprehend as the event itself.  In the New York Times 'Portraits of Reconciliation'  that ran last weekend, I noticed a thread among the different stories. Necessity. Several survivors featured spoke of their fear of being alone and having no one to call in times of crisis. In our Western culture, autonomy is prized and when we are wronged, we can bury that hurt deep down and manage just fine. And when we hurt others, we can simply escape it by removing ourselves from the source. Change jobs, move towns, unfriend, switch churches. But what if we couldn't? What if our resources and mobility were limited and instead we were forced to settle in for the long haul whether we liked it or not? Could we then utter the words 'I am so sorry' or 'I forgive you'?  I am choosing the latter. I am digging my heels in and saying that while I want to run, I will be still. I will stay and make every attempt at peace in my life. I will be vulnerable and ask for forgiveness. I will be humble and extend you mercy. I will fail at this many more times than I will succeed, but I will not stop learning the uncomfortable dance of forgiveness.

Charles and Fracnois,  friends.

Charles and Fracnois,  friends.