Twenty years ago, the world reacted in slow-motion horror as ethnic rivalry between Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi peoples erupted in genocide. More than 800,000 -- the vast majority Tutsis -- died in a Rhode Island-size country.
The UN Security Council apologized last week not only for failing to intervene and refusing to recognize the genocide, but also for withdrawing UN peacekeeping forces as the wanton slaughter was spreading. The lives lost can never be recovered, and the victims who survived can never be made whole. But the lessons for humanity are invaluable.
Rwandans' uninterrupted display of savagery defied explanation. Neighbour turned against neighbour. Even mixed Hutu-Tutsi family members turned against one another. Tutsi women were raped by the hundreds of thousands. HIV infections became rampant. Thousands of children from rape-induced pregnancies serve as constant reminders of their fathers' crimes.
The violence "completely devastated the nation," Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana told us last week. About 70 members of her family were killed, including her mother and father, while she attended school abroad. She returned and joined thousands of others grappling with the challenge of reconciling, healing and rebuilding a tattered nation.
First and foremost, Mukantabana said, was to dispel all notions of revenge. Jail time was mandated for all who took steps outside the judiciary to exact revenge. Second, the country abolished the system in which national ID cards required people to declare themselves as either Hutu or Tutsi. There are no physical traits that distinguish a Hutu from a Tutsi with certainty, she said. But during the genocide, the ID card became a principal tool to mark Tutsis for death.
Other priorities focused on restoring trust in a central government that had been a major instigating force behind the genocide. Equally important was a program of national reconciliation that required prison time for those proved to have committed atrocities but that also urged aggrieved Rwandans to forgive.
Rwanda's reconciliation experience closely mirrors successful programs in other places ripped apart by civil war and ethnic or religious violence, such as South Africa, El Salvador and Northern Ireland.
All emphasized forgiveness. Why? Because, as Middle Eastern violence has demonstrated for decades, the cycle of violence cannot be stopped as long as blind revenge and retribution remain the motive guiding people's actions.
The world has much to learn from Rwanda, which today boasts high levels of government accountability and transparency, immaculately clean streets and a strong record of environmental stewardship. Rwanda has found peace, mainly because its people have come to grips with their past and reconciled.
If there's an uplifting message here, it's that we humans do seem capable of forgiveness even when the overwhelming urge is to seek revenge. There's hope for us yet.