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  • Book Review- AS WE FORGIVE: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda
Book Review- AS WE FORGIVE: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

LARSON, Catherine Claire AS WE FORGIVE: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda (Zondervan 2009)

If beauty stills the world, then violence wakens it

AS WE FORGIVE is a fascinating and disturbing book all at the same time, evincing real life stories that shock the conscience of mankind. It depicts a side of the human being, incited to the extent of killing those intimately involved with. The book delves into the lives of nine people affected by the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and explores their lives from the view of victim and perpetrator. It ‘s a compelling story of how a country filled with beauty and promise experienced enormous human rights violations that awoke its own people and the world to question International law, sovereignty and colonialism in unusual ways. It is a book that expresses how humanity can be so vile yet so forgiving; it brings The Christian’s faith in God and international law to the same table and emphasizes metaphorically how situationality in international law can be employed in promoting restoration and social progress in a community imbued with immense human rights violations.


The book presents an amazing background of events leading to the Rwandan genocide- in graphic detail Catherine Claire Larson provides individual narratives of loss that give evidence to the human capacity for evil. This is a powerful story that not only reveals the story of the victim but of the perpetrator as well. It’s an interesting story with several intertwined themes that cannot be expressed on their own but by merging one into the other, yet five main themes stand out; human rights, faith in God, forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation.


The author in telling seeks to paint a picture of the path from atrocities that could otherwise draw lines of demarcation between one that shows scars can become the intersection between justice and mercy leading to forgiveness; giving birth to a supernatural hope. The book evokes questions and debates on criminal justice exercised in international law today and questions its effectiveness in promoting social progress and peace in a world filled with conflict.


The story provokes questions such as what is justice. Is justice sewed at the exercise of the law or when human beings can find ways of reconciling away from the stand of retributory justice? With the book’s emphasis on the fact that conflicts will always exist, the question then arises as to what is the best way to resolve conflicts as any one of us can become a criminal when incited. The author deconstructs criminal justice as one that solves crime retributively and demands that rule breaking deserves punishment, which justifies the sense of justice but questions the goal of punishment; thereby questioning retributive justice while advocating for restorative justice.


This book will provoke human rights and international law students and practitioners to question criminal justice as the best option in dealing with atrocities and rebuilding societies. Where the law has been standard and definite, reconciliation in this book questions the hierarchy and authority that international community has given it. With an emphasis on restorative justice the author refutes the idea of retributive justice under international law being a means of social progress; she argues that true justice should possess the goal of restoration for peace for the victim, restoration for the peace of the community and finally restoration for the peace of the offender.


The book upholds the gacaca courts as they involve all participants in a way that helps all affected parties take ownership of the road forward. It emboldens the concept of tribunals in the form of gacaca courts for the international lawyer and provides international law a gap to consider the importance of allowing individuals take part in the legal process of justice.


The author devotes a chapter to exploring the origins of a justice with a goal to building peace, reconciliation and social progress in the Rwandan society after the genocide. Those who have read OUTI KORHONEN NEW INTERNATIONAL LAW: DEFENSE, SILENCE OR DELIVERANCE?(EJIL Law.1996; 7: 1-28) will see how International law is best when situated and conveyed practically in situations where the victims need for justice is coupled with norms that are acceptable to a society. In advocating for restorative justice the author believes that the exercise of law should not simply aim at punishment but in restoration, restitution, and reconciliation.


She draws a distinction between retributive and restorative justice, where in the latter; the encounter tends to humanize (victims and offenders) to one another and permits them substantial creativity in constructing a response that deals not only with the injustice that occurred, but with the futures of both parties as well; while the former focuses on the offender and not the victim. The author argues that criminal justice basically leaves victims out of the picture, ignoring their needs and in a moment the perpetrator is different from the victim and should be locked up. Rather than promoting healing, it exacerbates wounds and reasons out that retributive justice often assumes justice and healing are separate –even incompatible issues. The author balances the argument in elaborating that in cases of violent crime restoration has its limits and no price can be put on human life, the violation a rape victim endures cannot be undone, and yet in all this restorative justice still calls for elements of punishment or for isolating the offender to protect others.


Larson compliments ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU’S NO FUTURE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS (Image 2000), where he tells the story of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), formed to address the countless crimes against humanity committed on all sides in apartheid's dark history. Instead of criminal trials where the victims are constrained to defend themselves against the threat of imprisonment and are only expecting state-mandated retribution as a form of justice the victims and the accused had the opportunity to simply tell their stories.


Tutu shows how letting victims and perpetrators face each other as humans fostered courageous acts of penitence and forgiveness that serve as symbols for their nation and the world. She uses this to take the reader into an in-depth look at nine individual stories of Rosaria, Joy, Chantal, Monique, Devota, Phanuel, Claude, Saveri and Prisca; immensely affected by the genocide, and intimately shows us the struggle they experience on the path to forgiveness and reconciliation. The book traces the route from violation and violator to reconciliation in the lives of Rwandans – victims, widows, orphans and perpetrators whose past and future intersect.

Each chapter of the book leaves the human mind outraged, shocked and mesmerized at how someone so close can be an enemy in the wake of the hour. With mind reflective quotes introducing the chapters, the author creates an atmosphere of reflection, empathy and an interpersonal encounter with the individual characters both victim and perpetrator. It is not just emotions evoked here, questions and debates on the contribution of law in social progress come to the mind of the International human rights activist.


With a detailed account of chronological events in Rwanda and the world before, during and after (1885-2003) the genocide, the book presents a wider picture of international relations in a world where human beings became an unnecessary, insignificant bunch while other lives were elevated above others. It tells the story of a genocide tied in with politics, tribalism and colonialism.

The perpetrators in this book bear the responsibility of the genocide, and do not load it on colonialism as the catalyst. For those fed up with colonialism being placed at the heart of Africa’s problems this book will recreate a people ready to take responsibility for their actions, recapturing what is left of it and building hope allowing for the healing of their community.


For individuals interested in finding release through sharing tumultuous and painful memories the book offers an opportunity for a book club setting, counseling and therapeutic release with its questions and discussion structure providing avenues for reflection and discussion. It encourages one towards progress in individual life and reconciliation; through this the author proposes the book as help for those in need of healing by allowing the reader a glimpse of Rwandan stories of violations, justice and hope.


A couple of chapters in the book start with exempts from the author’s life, with this narrative the story is interrupted and detaches the reader from the story, the author tries to link her own daily life occurrences and conflicts in the American community to the genocide experiences. The flashes to the author’s situation of loss in the event of being robbed, having her property taken and peace of mind affected, may anger the reader as she again attempts to equate this loss to the loss of peace of mind of the genocide victims. It appears that she compares things that can be gained back to things that cannot be replaced, in a bid to draw the reader away from retaliation and retribution she demeans the impacts of the genocide, likening and molding it into some kind of misunderstanding within a group of people in the backyard of Africa.


At this point the author seems to be pushing the subject matter down the reader’s throat instead of allowing us to draw from it as it best suits us. She fails to draw a relationship between these conflicts and eludes the reader. As the author equates horrific occurrences in the genocide with a divorce and robbery, the reader may find him/herself perturbed as the author encourages the reader, “…in the world in which we live conflict -whether it’s on the job, in the home, or on the international horizon - will always make a part of our landscape. So when conflict arises, we should not be- grieved but not surprised.” (pg. 51)


The author presents an extremely idealistic perspective in abnegating surprise. How can one not be surprised when a man who was my father’s friend and had tea in our home the night before, comes back the next day and slices his head off, peeling my mother’s skin off from neck to wrist? How should that not surprise me? Is that not why we have human rights law? Is it not because the violations shock the conscience of mankind to the point that we have to react? Even though the author’s ridiculous attempts to correlate divorce and genocide irks to a degree the Interlude Chapter, reversing the downward spiral brings the two together beautifully,

‘Repeated criticism leads to Defensiveness. Differences are classified and

verbalized with absolute statements such as ‘you never’ or ‘you always.’ Spouses become polarized. Contempt for the other solidifies. Contempt-an intense feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless –is only a step away from dehumanization. The result is that spouses stonewall or deaden their feelings toward each other. They have closed out the other- a psychological exterminating of the other’s presence… Empathy dehumanizes the other. It removes feelings of contempt as we discover an emotional understanding of the other person’s thoughts, actions and motives (Pg 226-227).


In recounting horrendous events during the genocide, the images create shock, surprise and deep emotion at how humanity can be so vile, hacking friends, raping neighbors and how after all this humanity can still be forgiving.

The title connotes the idea of ‘a how to forgive work book’ yet with the more pages we turn the author derives information, analogies and practical examples and references from experts in the field of restorative justice, psychology and theology such as: Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Howard Zehr- professor of sociology who first coined the restorative justice, Yale Professor Miroslav Volf, Dr. Everett Worthington Chair of Psychology at Commonwealth University, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Dan Allender. The wealth of experience and contribution gives the book credibility as she explores areas beyond the limits of faith.


Without giving it the work book effects she states five steps to reconciliation as 1) recall the hurt 2) empathize 3) exercise the altruitistic gift of forgiveness 4) commit publicly to forgive 5) hold onto forgiveness. The author shares various methods that individuals have used in reconciliation after horrendous human rights violations and balances it out with a view that does not believe in a method but rather ‘forgiveness as a truth to be lived.’


The book takes a deeper look at forgiveness, good confession - it states is when a guilty person admits wrong without excuses, specific apology should be offered, an offer to make some kind of restitution also shows that the guilty party is serious about the apology. Larson argues that in confession, reconciliation proceeds through risk and trust –“with each risk when one is honored by reciprocal risking, there is an increase in trust, ”(pg.129) in elevating trust, goodwill and care in the practice of rebuilding relationships, she concludes that harmful interactions are replaced by positive actions.


The author acquaints us with an interesting illustration in the event that the offender is incapacitated, dead or otherwise inaccessible; “Even as the forgiver offers the gift of release to the offender, in order for the offender to accept the gift he or she must accept the condemnation for the offense. If the offender fails to repent, he or she has failed to receive the gift. The gift transaction has been stopped midway,” (pg. 89) noting that once forgiveness has been offered and that frees the giver, whether or not the perpetrator receives it.


With an emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness, the author shows that forgiveness is not a smooth and easy path, nor should it be looked in a purely therapeutic light but is a form of suffering as Mirolav Volf wrote, ‘under the foot of the cross we learn however, that in a world of irreversible deeds and partisan judgments redemption from passive suffering of victimization cannot happen without the active suffering of forgiveness’ (pg. 262). The book exemplifies the importance of the victim expressing their hurt, facing the perpetrator and coming to terms with the fact that life goes on after a violation.


Splicing the Rwandan Genocide to conflicts all over the world, personal and intimate tales not heard in Hotel Rwanda (the Movie) and in many Rwanda genocide accounts are revealed as individuals recount amazingly coherent stories, the author makes an interesting distinction between fiction and nonfiction that is absent in JEFFREY FLEISHMAN PROMISED VIRGINS: A STORY OF JIHAD (ARCADE PUBLISHING 2009), in which Fleishman argues that human rights victim’s narratives may come across as incoherent and distorted giving the appearance of unreliable memory especially in cases where post traumatic stress syndrome may have played a role, memory maybe clouded and distorted. Yet the characters in Larson’s as we forgive appear coherent and attuned to their past intricately showing how daily lives can be dismantled and fouled up by violence.


With all the accessible literature, movies and documentaries on the Rwandan genocide many may heedlessly turn their heads at this book, one must remember though; that not enough can ever be told about a story on human rights violations, reconciliation and rehabilitation. Just as case law is a reference to cases in a daily court encounter, this book is a reminder that the Rwandan genocide will always be referred to in the field of International law, colonialism and in historical reconciliation prelims.


This book portrays the side of the Genocide tale not told in many accounts; the intimate connections between the victims and perpetrators. Perpetrators who called victims friends, grew up together, played together, had tea at each other’s houses in the evenings and neighbors. The betrayal story of David in the Bible seemed to come real, ‘Even he who shares my bread has lifted his heal against me.’


“This was much more personal. Michel who lived down the road had thrown the grenade, Kanyenzi, also a man he’d known all his life tracked him in the night. Edison- someone Claude passed every day on his way to graze cattle- had dragged off his sister, Rode. The faces of these neighbors haunted his waking and his sleeping

(An exempt from the Chapter: a killer called me friend pg 235)


The intimacy of relationships between perpetrator and victim here provides International law a unique route in dealing with human rights violations. In any society engulfed by human rights violations there is a place retributive justice, yet one wonders how appropriate it is to have over six hundred thousand people locked up in a country of about eight million people. Here is where International tribunals have a place and the law conveyed in ways that provide the victim and perpetrator a chance to decide what happens from then on.


The book, regardless of its Christian approach is a must read for all, no matter what faith one subscribes to, violations happen in this world and the book provides a chance for us to see how Rwandans in dealing with the massive human rights violations, are transcending boundaries of tribalism and hatred, and are heading towards a hopeful future with a justice that is transforming Rwanda. At the end of the book the author avails a wealth of resources available for those interested in finding help in and after tumultuous situations.


As we forgive may first come across as a ‘how to forgive book’ yet as the reader turns the pages it takes one to a world in which we live where human rights violations are real, retributive justice exists and has been adopted as the best option and then bends into a justice that goes beyond retribution, one that calls for forgiveness and reconciliation. It shows that in dealing with wrong; society must opt for, revenge, retribution or restoration. It brings the reader to a stage where doubts and hope come together, where criminal justice and restorative justice are put on a stand and the one that promises hope and social progress is the best option.

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