Breaking the Cycle: Rwanda 20 Years On

For the 100 days following April 7, people around the globe will be marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, which killed as many as one million people. Through a project called Kwibuka20 (Remember20), Rwandans have asked "the world to come together to support the survivors of the genocide, and to ensure that such an atrocity can never happen again - in Rwanda or elsewhere."  In this activity, students learn about and consider the lessons from Rwanda’s remarkable efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation in the two decades since the genocide. 


(9 minutes)
Tell students that the East African country of Rwanda is likely to be in the news beginning on April 7 and continuing for the following 100 days.  Ask students if they know why Rwanda would be in the news during this period in particular.
Elicit and explain that Rwanda is a country in what is known as the Great Lakes Region of Africa.  Point it out on a map.  A small land-locked country with beautiful mountainous landscapes, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa.  
These days, Rwanda is known for its dynamic economy, the fastest growing in Africa. In addition to its dramatic economic growth, Rwanda has also registered remarkable successes in public health and education.  The country, currently lauded as one of the safest in Africa, is attracting business from across Africa and Asia as it continues to develop its infrastructure.  Unlike its neighbors, Rwanda is low on natural resources.  As a result it aspires to become a knowledge-based middle-income economy by the year 2020.  To get there, it aims to grow its information technology sector, its financial services industry, as well as its transportation, logistics and healthcare services.  Rwanda is looking to become East Africa's indispensable services hub.
But beginning April 7, Rwanda will be in the news for another reason: it was exactly 20 years ago, on April 7, 1994, when Rwanda descended into genocide.  On that day, extremists from the majority ethnic group known as the Hutus unleashed a murderous campaign against the minority ethnic Tutsis who live in Rwanda. Over the following 100 days, between 800,000 and a million people were killed as the world stood idly by. The Rwandan genocide was the most brutally efficient mass killing in history.
A series of events known as Kwibuka20 was launched earlier this year to commemorate this tragic chapter in Rwandan history 20 years on.  Kwibuka means "remember" in Kinyarwanda, the country's official language.  This year's Kwibuka20 events lead up to the country's national commemoration of the genocide, which is held every year on April 7.  The message that organizers of Kwibuka20 want to send to the rest of the world is below:

Twenty years later we, Rwanda, ask the world to unite to remember the lives that were lost.   We ask the world to come together to support the survivors of the genocide, and to ensure that such an atrocity can never happen again - in Rwanda or elsewhere.  ...  Kwibuka20 is also a time to learn about Rwanda's story of reconciliation and nation building. 


Check agenda and goals

(1 minute)
Explain that in today's lesson we'll look at what Rwanda has done to recover and heal from the atrocities of genocide, with the aim of interrupting further violence.

Violence begets Violence

(10 minutes)
Ask students to turn to a partner and talk about the age-old adage "violence begets violence."   What do they think about the saying?  Do they agree?  Disagree?  Ask them to illustrate their opinion by talking about a time in their lives that confirms or refutes the saying, either by sharing a personal experience or an event they witnessed.  (This experience might be of violence, a fight, or other harmful action.)

  • Ask a few volunteers to share their experiences.
  • Ask how, in their scenario, things turned out.
  • Was the violence or fighting brought to a stop?  If so how?
  • How do they feel about the person with whom they had the violent/harmful encounter, or the people they saw engaged in this encounter? 

Rwanda: Interrupting and Closing the Cycle

(25 minutes)
In the 20 years since genocide engulfed Rwanda, many researchers have studied the events of 1994 to better understand the extreme group violence that took place in the 100 days following April 7.  They have tried to identify what it takes to interrupt cycles of violence so that everyone - including the survivors, perpetrators, bystanders and those who have recently come back after leaving Rwanda as refugees decades ago - can live together without continuing the violence.
The term "cycle of violence" refers to a self-perpetuating repetition of violence that is fueled by peoples' feelings of anger, grievance and a desire for revenge.  Those who have studied cycles of violence say that there are six ways to interrupt and close this cycle.  They are:
1. Justice
2. Emotional Healing
3. Forgiveness
4. Reconciliation
5. Compensation and Reparation
6. Truth
These six ways are all interrelated.  Sometimes one follows the other.  Sometimes they happen simultaneously and go hand in hand.
The website Rwandan Stories has been documenting stories that touch on all six of these ways to interrupt and close the cycle.  In today's lesson we'll look at a few of these stories.  (We encourage teachers and their students to further explore the website and other resources over the next three months, as Rwandans have asked us to "remember the lives that were lost" and "learn about Rwanda's story of reconciliation and nation-building.")
Post signs around the room with the six ways that can interrupt and close "cycles of violence."  Ask students to keep these in mind as they learn about and discuss two stories in Handouts 1 & 2.
First, ask students to read Handout 1, and then, if possible, watch an accompanying 3-minute video Justice an Experiment at:
As a large group, consider the following questions and discuss:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the gacaca court system in Rwanda?
  • Why did the Rwandan government opt for this kind of justice?
  • Kagame, vice president of Rwanda at the time, said the people called for strong justice.  Did he think, at the time, that gacaca was able to provide that?  Do you think gacaca was able to provide that?
  • How was gacaca justice different from other forms of justice that are based on punishment and jail?
  • How does confession factor into this community approach to justice?
  • Ask students to look around the room and talk about how gacaca relates to the various ways that can help interrupt the cycle of violence in Rwanda.

Next, ask students to read Handout 2, and then, if possible, watch the accompanying 8-minute video The Best that We Can Be at:
As a large group consider the following questions and discuss:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the way forgiveness is presented here?
  • How is it different from "traditional justice" in Rwanda, or justice as it is seen and implemented elsewhere in the world?
  • Ask students to look around the room and talk about how forgiveness relates to the others ways that can help interrupt the cycle of violence in Rwanda.



(5 minutes)

Ask students to go back to the saying "violence begets violence."  Having heard stories from Rwanda, have they changed how they feel about this saying now?

Additional resources

Over the next 100 days, consider exploring more Rwandan stories of healing and reconciliation, as well as stories that provide a more critical view of the precarious coexistence between Hutus and Tutsis living in Rwanda today.

A particularly powerful source is LoveRadio in Rwanda, an online documentary about the Rwandan reconciliation process. 


Handout 1: 
Justice and Reconciliation as Part of Healing 

(adapted from

By 1999, five years after the genocide, about 120,000 alleged genocide criminals were being held in Rwanda's prisons.
The court system was swamped - it was going to take over 100 years to get through the backlog of cases. Clearly, they had to find another way of delivering justice.  In 1998 the [Rwandan] government started looking at the possibility of re-introducing Rwanda's traditional community justice process called gacaca. The word refers to the small grassy area where villagers would traditionally get together to solve disputes.
It was a controversial idea. Was it wise to hand over the responsibility to the community? What would the rest of the world think? Would it emphasize punishment or reconciliation?
President Kagame, who was Rwanda's vice president at the time, said, "I wasn't convinced that gacaca was the best approach. I still don't think gacaca gives us all we need... but it gives us most things... I wanted something stronger than gacaca. The survivors were calling for strong justice. After all, they had been through genocide. Was gacaca going to be enough for them? ... Eventually I was persuaded that gacaca would help us deal with the massive number of genocide suspects who were in prison."
The government knew that putting the gacaca system in the hands of ordinary people was risky.
So they allowed about two years to develop the system, train the judges and educate the population. Josephine Munyeli was one of the people responsible for explaining the new gacaca process to the community.  She says: 

We went out into the community and explained the law, explained the benefits for survivors, the benefits for criminals and the benefit for the community.
We went into prisons and explained the need for healing, for accepting you were wrong and for asking forgiveness. We taught them about the need to see justice done, the need to punish the wrong-doers and the benefits of being forgiven - it was all provided for in gacaca law...
We started bringing prisoners into the villages as a test for gacaca. They were brought back into the communities where they had been living so that the people could see them and say, "this one is innocent, this one did this, this one did that..." And even in that quick process some people were released from prison.
But the prisoners could see the audience too, and they'd point to people and say, "Why is that person not in prison? You're asking us to tell the truth about who did these things and here they are among you! We were together in the killings."
When the gacaca started properly we took an inventory of the people who were living in the community, the people who were killed, the way they were killed and the people who saw it. We got a picture of the community. "And whoever confessed would see their penalty reduced, because you cannot confess and still remain the same. You know, confessing is something that changes people. Some people confessed just to get a reduced sentence, but the community sees that and if they decide you are not telling the truth, your confession is not accepted.


Handout 2:
Breaking the Cycle

(adapted from
"Long before I was born, the traditional justice for murder was revenge," said Josephine. "When blood was involved, blood had to be shed from the other family. Revenge was the only option. You kill someone in my family - I kill someone in yours." She smiles. "And that was really discouraging."
And there's the problem with using revenge as justice: it's a depressing, disheartening, unsatisfactory, destabilizing, demoralizing and toxic way to deal with disputes. Man's inhumanity to man is passed onto the next generation. The cycle of killing continues. No one is happy.
Rwandans talk a lot about forgiveness. One schoolteacher said, "forgiveness has become the national pastime." It's an enticing concept, with the potential to break the cycle of killing and revenge like nothing else.
But it's not easy. Like so many of the things Rwanda is doing towards recovery, it's incredibly ambitious, it's brave and it's healthy, but for most people it's very, very difficult.
... "I learned this from two Rwandan women," said John Steward, the former manager for healing, peace-building and reconciliation with World Vision Rwanda. "Both of them had faced the person who killed their closest relative.  "They helped me to understand that forgiveness has two parts. The first is letting go of the feelings of bitterness or revenge for what happened, but the second part is in what these two women said to the killers: ‘What you did was wrong. What are you going to do to help repay - and help repair - some of the damage you have caused?"
For these Rwandans, the concept of forgiveness is a strong one. It is a conscious decision not to take revenge, yet it contains elements of justice, individual healing for the damage done to hearts and minds, and the offer of freedom for both victim and offender to go on and live productive lives without being prisoners of the past.
"Alisa nearly died from her injuries: "When I got out of hospital I felt like I had become an animal. I thought that every Hutu should die - I hated them."
As she tells her story, we're sitting on wooden benches in the shade of a large tree. She points to Emmanuel, the person beside her and says, "This is the man who cut me. I forgave him, and I feel that he's my brother now."
How is that possible? Is it real? If so, what has actually happened to make it possible?
Despite all the talk of forgiveness in Rwanda, situations like this are not very common. As Rwandans say, recovery is a journey, and people are at different points along that road.
A few would start a fight again tomorrow if they thought they could get away with it; many are just glad to have moments of happiness with friends and family, pleased with the progress that Rwanda is making, but still really struggling with the after-effects of the genocide. Through gacaca, most adults have engaged with the public reconciliation processes, but many have found it very difficult. In a few cases like Alisa and Emmanuel, however, the stories are stunning.