The new book's cover of Mr. Kizito Kalima
As a teenager, Mr. Kalima lost both parents and other family members during the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. During the genocide, he survived a serious head injury inflicted by a machete and hiding in a swamp for over a month. His survival was made possible by a man who risked his own life to save his. Mr. Kalima immigrated to the United States several years after the genocide but still suffered severe post-traumatic stress until he chose to forgive the genocide perpetrators. This choice has enabled him to live a life dedicated to helping others. To this end, Mr. Kalima founded the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Indianapolis, Indiana.
What do you think caused a Hutu man to risk his life to save your life during a time when society taught Hutu to hate and kill Tutsi?
There are several reasons. First, the man who saved my life, Aimable Munyaneza, was living on the streets until he was about 13 years old. Then my father hired him to do some work. From then on, Aimable lived with us, and my father raised him as if he was his own son. My father taught both of us to think of the other one as a brother. In some ways, Aimable was returning the favour my father had done for him, but Aimable is also a Christian, and his religious faith told him to help people in need. Finally, Aimable is courageous and unselfish by nature. That is just who he is.
Has having your life saved by someone influenced your own life and how you treat other people?
Certainly! Now that I think of it, watching my father be good to other people may have created some kind of humanity in me. I think seeing his behavior made me focus on the common humanity in others, regardless of the category people put them in. I think I learned to focus on the common humanity in others from both my father and Mr. Munyaneza.
You talk about the importance of forgiveness and the role it has played in your life. How has forgiving the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda influenced your life?
Forgiveness allowed me to live. I had to forgive if I was going to live because hatred and anger were killing me. Like many survivors of genocide, I had difficulty even surviving for many years, and I can tell you that existing in survival mode is not the best way to live. I suffered from anxiety, depression, and migraines. I tried a number of solutions to these problems, such as therapy and sports. But these only brought temporary relief, like putting a small band-aid on a large wound. I would have tried medication, but taking any kind of medication made me ill. And none of these things allowed me to do anything more than survive, and it was a struggle even to do that. Forgiveness was different. It brought the real me back to life. I started behaving like the real me, the person I was meant to be. When I was growing up, my dream was to be a priest just because I wanted to be the kind of person who would sacrifice their life for others. I wanted to be the kind of person who could remove obstacles from other people’s lives.
I know the concept of forgiveness is very controversial among survivors of the Holocaust. How have other survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda reacted to your decision to forgive the perpetrators of that genocide?
Oh, their reactions have been mixed. Some survivors have told me that forgiveness worked for them, but many survivors, probably the majority, were against the idea of forgiveness. This was certainly true when I first started to talk about forgiveness fifteen years ago. Some survivors said they hated the people who killed their families and friends too much to ever forgive them. Other survivors have criticized me for being weak and selling out to the killers. Some even suggest that I have some kind of mental illness that makes me so scared of the killers that I forgive them in the hope that it will keep them from killing me. I tell these people that the real reason is that I like the results forgiveness has had for me. Forgiveness has allowed me to live a normal and productive life. As time has gone by, people see what I have accomplished in my life as a result of forgiveness. The results of forgiveness speak for themselves. However, I always emphasize that I don’t negatively judge survivors who choose not to forgive the killers. I think different things work for different survivors.
What was it like to return to Rwanda last year for the first time since shortly after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi?
Rwanda really exceeded my expectations in a very good way. I knew that Rwanda had changed in the quarter of a century since the last time I was there, but I wasn’t emotionally prepared for how much it had changed. On the way from the airport to the hotel in Kigali, I found myself looking for dead bodies because I saw dead bodies the last time I was there. But of course, there weren’t any dead bodies. Then, the first night, when I looked out of the window of my hotel in Kigali, I couldn’t believe how quiet it was. I wondered why I didn’t hear any sirens or explosions. I even jumped back at one point because I realized my silhouette in the window was an easy target for anyone looking to shoot a Tutsi. But of course, this wasn’t a problem in the Kigali of today. Kigali is also the cleanest city I’ve ever seen. People smiled, and almost everyone had a job. But the biggest surprise was the friendliness and politeness of people, especially the police! I know Rwanda still faces many problems, but I returned very optimistic about the possibility of reconciliation between people who have had terrible conflicts in the past. Today’s Rwanda inspires me to apply much of what I saw in Rwanda to western cultures. If peace and reconciliation are possible in Rwanda, they are possible anywhere.
What are your future plans?
I want to take my message of forgiveness internationally. To that end, I am writing a book about my life and giving as many lectures as possible. The pandemic has forced me to move all of my talks to social media, but this has allowed me to discuss forgiveness and other solutions to social problems with people all over the world. This international discussion is crucial because we all have to live together.
Is there anything else you would like to say to the followers of Gariwo?
Finding solutions through forgiveness and reconciliation is crucial because we all have to live together. I think it is important to remember that it is ok to be yourself and reach out to others. Before we are police, teachers, or lawyers, we are people.
The following is an excerpt from Mr. Kizito Kalima’s new book, “My Forgiveness, My Justice.” Available at www.choosetoforgive.org
“You’re Not Killing Kalima’s Son!”
Stiff from the many hours on the hard floor, I struggled to stand up and obey Aimable’s directive to leave. Then he added, “And I am going with you.” Although his face was solemn, I might have noticed just a hint of his wry smile as he explained, “Killings are happening all over, and I can’t let you go by yourself. Your only hope is to go back toward your hometown to find a new hiding place, but the killers have set up checkpoints on all of the roads. I will lead you a back way without any trails in the middle of the night.”
We waited long into the night until everything was still. Then, following Aimable, we silently slipped out of the house, climbed through the hole in the fence, and disappeared into the trees. Guided by moonlight, we went down the steep side of a valley as quietly as possible. If I would have been alone, I would have been shaking with fear and sent into a panic each time I heard a branch snap. But with Aimable to guide us, my emotions were under control.
When we neared the valley floor, the moon went behind some clouds, making us slow our pace and feel our way along in the deepening darkness. Quietly, Aimable pulled us down under a large bush. He whispered that the recent rains had swelled the stream at the bottom of the valley and we would require moonlight to make a safe crossing. The one footbridge was not an option. It was sure to be guarded. He told us to wait under the dense canopy of leaves while he sought out the best place to cross the river once the moonlight returned.
It was nearly impossible to gauge the passage of time in the complete darkness under our ceiling of foliage. I grew increasingly impatient for Aimable’s return. Then I felt a branch move, and there he was beside me, signaling us to follow him. I was delighted to see increasing light as we neared the edge of the bush, but my heart sank when I stepped out into the open. The sky was still overcast. The growing light was not from the moon; it was the rapidly approaching dawn! It was morning, and we could see a group of killers with their clubs and machetes on their way to “work.”
We quickly dodged behind some trees before they saw us. Once they had passed, we managed to find a place to try to cross the stream. As we approached the rushing water, Aimable told us to stay with him no matter what happened. If the killers caught us, he said he would try to talk them out of murdering us. He would tell them he had orders to take us back to our hometown so the people there could kill us to show their support for the genocide.
Hope returned when we successfully crossed the stream and struggled up the bank on the far side. It was short-lived. A voice high up in the valley called out that he had spotted cockroaches! We hoped he had seen Tutsi somewhere else in the valley, but we also set off running as fast as possible. We sprinted for several hundred yards. Then our luck ran out. A gang of about fifty men surrounded us in a clearing.
As he promised, Aimable attempted to convince the gang of killers that the militia leaders had told him to take us back to our hometown for killing. They didn’t listen. Instead, they grabbed me and started punching Aimable.
Several of the men tried to position themselves to hit me with a machete or a wooden club called a Ntampongano y’ Umwanzi (meaning “There Is No Reward for an Enemy!”), Ntampongano for short. But there were so many men jostling us around that they were unable to find the space necessary to deliver a clean blow.
Finally, they bent me over, and I saw a club raised into a position to strike down and crush my skull. Destined to be the instrument of my death, the jagged rock-hard wooden club began its downward arc toward my head.
Then I heard a calm and determined voice say, “No! You’re not killing Kalima’s son! You are not going to kill Kizito!” But those words failed to halt the movement of the club. I closed my eyes and waited for death.
Interview by Graig T. Palmer, Anthropologist