Few stories of cultural transformation are as compelling as the story of Rwanda's ongoing recovery from the unthinkable brutality the country suffered in the spring of 1994. As the 15th anniversary of the horrific genocide approaches in April 2009, a number of books, films and documentaries are being released not only to remind people of the horror but also to show them the remarkable progress toward reconciliation and healing that the country is experiencing today.
That progress is nothing short of a miracle --- not by the trite use of the word "miracle" that has been cheapened by overuse and misapplication, but miracle in the purest sense: a change brought about by divine intervention in human affairs.
The reasons for the Rwandan genocide are complex and tangled up in a web of international interference in the country's government, but the result of the massive killings is clear: hundreds of thousands of members of the Tutsi tribe were slaughtered, raped, dismembered and tortured in other ways by Hutu tribe members who had once been their friends and neighbors.
No family was unaffected. What the survivors experienced and witnessed left unimaginable scars. And then, in a desperate attempt to ensure the survival of the nation and its people 10 years later, the post-conflict Rwandan government asked the seemingly impossible of the surviving Tutsi refugees who had returned to their homeland: allow some 50,000 Hutu war criminals to return to society and live among them.
This is the story Larson tells so compellingly in AS WE FORGIVE, the story of radical forgiveness sought by the perpetrators and extended by the victims. What sets Larson's book apart from others commemorating the anniversary is the personal faces of forgiveness that she portrays. Larson tells the stories of more than a dozen Rwandans, some killers, some survivors, who are all struggling to move forward even as they are unable to erase the memory of the past.
The stories are difficult to read --- the account of a four-year-old huddled in the brush, hiding with her mother and baby sister as their home is torched and her father is butchered by a machete-wielding neighbor; a young teenage boy's memory of the night his sleep was shattered by a grenade that left his mother bloodied and mangled and by the sound of soldiers brutally raping his older sister; and so many more. But in reading them, readers see the miracle, the hand of God in the lives of those Rwandans who chose forgiveness over revenge and so many other possibilities.
Larson wisely intersperses these stories with reflections on various aspects of forgiveness, providing a much-needed break from both the profound sadness and incomprehensible hope the stories convey. Larson's is no academic, historical account; it's a beautifully written, deeply touching, powerfully moving chronicle of lives once torn apart that are now on the path to restoration.
AS WE FORGIVE is among the best of the many books on Rwanda. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on January 27, 2009