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How Prison Fellowship Rwanda has fostered unity and reconciliation

Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza is the Executive Director and one of the founders of Prison Fellowship Rwanda (PFR), a not-for-profit, inter-denominational Christian organisation that reaches out to people involved in and affected by crime to promote reconciliation in the criminal justice system and surrounding communities.

The fellowship was created in 1995, a year after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. However it was officially registered in 1997. 

We are also members of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), which is headquartered in Washington DC. 

We work as a non-profit Christian organisation doing some programs in reconciliation and also for transformation of inmates. 

We help prisoners to reintegrate into their communities and meet with the victims, and to this end we have been able to create some villages where ex-prisoners live peacefully side-by-side with their victims.

Where are these villages located?

We have seven such reconciliation villages spread across the country: The Reconciliation Village in Mbiyo village, Bugesera district and Rweru village near the border with Burundi. 

Most people know about these two reconciliation villages because they are relatively close to Kigali. 

There are two villages in Musanze, the biggest of which has over 200 houses with each house holding as many as six family members. 

In Kayonza district, we have three reconciliation villages, another in Ngoma, and one each in Eastern and Western provinces. 

Prison Fellowship has a vision to see communities and individuals in Rwanda transformed through practical reconciliation efforts such as agriculture projects in prisons, community house building efforts, counseling and evangelization in prisons and communities, or working with vulnerable women and children to provide opportunities for economic mobility and spiritual transformation.

We are very happy to see how the people come together in reconciliation to form some cooperatives where they work together for their economic empowerment.

How easy is it to forge unity between former perpetrators and survivors? 

Of course it was not easy, because reconciliation is a journey that brings the victims together with the perpetrators. This process is not automatic and it is not just an event but it takes time for people to for instance understand why they were involved in genocide, and how after receiving the message they are now able to ask for and receive forgiveness from the victims and survivors, but so far we are very proud to see the positive results.

In each of these reconciliation villages we have women and men, and every time the women came to see me they told me about the need for some social activities to help them interact between survivors and perpetrators. 

Often they feared to approach their neighbors, but through the introduction of interactive activities in the villages they were able to dialogue among each other and exchange stories about their lives and backgrounds. 

It was a strategy not just to have these people get a material start in their lives -this was a psychological exercise to release their minds and come together to share their life experiences.

Through such programs and activities like sewing and farming, these people not only earn a livelihood to support their families, but also they get to attain new vocational skills which they can still pass on to other members of the community.

This is very important because as an organization and as people we are here to help in human transformation through social and economic initiatives to empower their lives.

The achievements of our community initiatives is seeing how from zero people are now building so slowly their capacity in terms of their local economies, and how they have been able to send their children to school.

Many people need psycho-social healing to deal with trauma through social activities and initiatives like cooperatives. It’s not only just cultivation or sewing or handcrafts, but the human contact is also very vital. 

They have wounds on their hearts – wounded healers. You are wounded, I’m wounded, but when we sit together we change our stories. Everyone gets to put out their bitterness.

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