Josephine Munyeli: After night comes the day

A survivor of the Rwandan genocide labors with World Vision International to bring healing to her country.

After learning to tell her own story of brokenness, healing and reconciliation, Josephine Munyeli was trained to help others as a specialist with World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian organization. Drawing on her personal experiences of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Munyeli leads others in her country through a process of grieving, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Munyeli is trained in various trauma-healing processes, including those developed by Rhiannon Lloyd and the Antares Foundation, and has taught more than 300 people to facilitate healing in their communities.

Munyeli spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke University as a guest of the Center for Reconciliation.

Q: How does your work at World Vision relate to your personal experiences with genocide and trauma?

At World Vision I work in the Peace Building and Reconciliation Department with a team of 80 people in different regions. We are a mixed group; some are from Rwanda, others were living in the Congo or in Uganda. It’s God's grace [that I am doing this work.] When I joined World Vision I didn't know even what reconciliation was, or that it was necessary.

I joined the department of rehabilitation [in 1996] when the displaced people were returning to Rwanda. Their houses were destroyed; their schools were destroyed and they had nothing. After six months [with World Vision] I attended a workshop on healing. It transformed my life... My husband died when I was 29. I hadn't had an opportunity to revisit my story ... surviving genocide, the pain of raising my children alone. [The workshop] gave me the opportunity for healing from those things. I noticed that I was really broken and that I had a story to tell about healing and reconciliation.

World Vision leadership transferred me from the Rehabilitation Department into the Healing and Reconciliation Department to lead the healing workshops. We are dealing with the people's wounds because we believe that healing is the foundation for reconciliation. Church leaders used to tell us to forgive and forget, but if you have to forgive, it's an obligation. It's like a mask. Forgiveness is a long process.

When you share your story it is a step toward healing; it's easy to reconcile when you know that your story has gone from the inside outward. This is my job.

Q: How do you reconcile such intense trauma as you experienced?

In the middle of the suffering God was there; he was beside me. When you discover that God has a plan for your life, he ends the suffering. It is hard to understand, but this is the key. When you see that God is present in the midst of suffering and you know that he has a plan for you, then you know that life doesn't end with the suffering. You discover that after the night comes the day. In the healing workshop I discovered that the light is there and God is my light.

Q: Were you a Christian before the genocide?

Yes, I was a Christian. I have a Catholic background but I'm Pentecostal from Assemblies of God.

Q: What is the process that you take people through in the workshops?

We have many processes depending on the group and the funding. We have a biblical approach to reconciliation and we have another approach, which is more psychological -- people share their stories of pain and we do the bereavement process together.

When you don't mourn you can't take a step forward; we in Rwanda have many things to grieve, many losses in Rwanda. People explore the pain connected to their losses and they share together, they cry together. This process takes three days in the workshop. During the process, we introduce theories about bereavement and the different steps of the bereavement process so that people can understand themselves and the way they are coping on their journey.

After three days of bereavement we interrupt the process. After a month, we take another three days and focus on dealing with emotions. During those three days we learn the management of feelings. We explore the way we reacted to things when we were young children in our families. Many times the way we react [to trauma] is connected to our upbringing. People try to make new choices about how to deal with what happens to them.

In the third month, we explore forgiveness together for three days. This is the last stage of the bereavement process. We see how reparation is involved in reconciliation. When people understand what true forgiveness is, they can make the choice to forgive properly.

Q: What does it mean to “forgive properly?”

Forgiveness doesn't happen without expressing how you feel. You have to express all the tough things in the heart before you can say, “Please forgive me” or before you can say, “I forgive you.” You have to feel the pain and reconnect to the pain because forgiveness is costly. It costs our emotions.

The process of forgiveness involves expressing how you feel and saying, “Now I want peace in my heart; please forgive me.” I don't want to keep connected to the bad memories of when you did evil to me. I don't want to be a prisoner of my pain. When the memories come, I don’t want to be devastated by them. I want to be able to sleep. This is what we think forgiveness is about.

Q: Where does the Christian aspect of the process come in?

We are a Christian organization. We don't do anything without prayer, without reading the word of God. [At the beginning of the workshop] we pray. At the end we reflect on Scriptures; we call it breakfast. When you eat breakfast in the morning, it gives you strength for the day. This is how we share the Scriptures. We ponder on the breakfast and everyone shares -- like you share tea -- what we learn from God’s Scriptures. We take it as our food for the day. It will be our energy and our strength. The Bible is full of expressions of loss. When you want to learn about forgiveness and reconciliation you read the Prodigal Son and you compare the son who is faithful and the one who is the prodigal. There are many lessons you can learn.

Q: Can your organization have an impact on a broad enough scale to change Rwandan society?

You cannot process [experiences] as we do with a crowd. We divide into small groups to be free to express our feelings. At World Vision, we train others in the community to do this. We are like yeast. A little bit of yeast makes [a whole loaf] of bread. In our area we have trained a [small group of individuals] to lead this process and we are not finished.

I completed the [healing] process, I live in a family and I am in the neighborhood. My neighborhood can be influenced. My family can be influenced. Sometimes family members such as husbands ask us, “What have you done with my wife? She is a totally new person.”

You can't measure forgiveness and it's not something that you can touch, but you can see many people reconciled, genocide survivors and perpetrators. We now have an association of more than 2,000 such people carrying the message of reconciliation to their communities.

Q: Do you bring together the victims with the people who injured them or killed their family, raped them or raped their family members?

It happens. Once we invited a group in the community to attend the [healing] workshop. The one from the community who had cut [the workshop participant,] saw her. The perpetrator thought that the lady was dead. They met in the workshop and after the three days they came together with tears and forgave each other. They reconciled; then went and gave their testimony. Now they are members of that association. That is one way of making [the work] count.

Also, when people who have attended the workshop go back home they don't feel at peace until they reconcile with the one they have to reconcile with; they [find that person] and reconciliation happens.

The journey is different for each person. When you want to reconcile with someone who has not yet started the journey, it's difficult. Sometimes a perpetrator says I'm sorry and the victim says, “No, I'm not forgiving you. Go away from my sight.” But you plant a seed in them, and as the days pass they process this request for forgiveness. They start the process and eventually they say, “You know what? I have to forgive you. I have been watching you. You have really changed. When you asked me to forgive you I thought you were not genuine. I was remembering what you did, but now I realize that you are a human being to be forgiven. I forgive you.” Each story is different, but there are 2,000 people that reconciled with each other in this way.

Q: Why is it important to work with the perpetrators as well as the victims?

The conflict unites the victims and the perpetrators, whether they want it or not. They are connected by violence. You can't get away from that connection. For the perpetrator there is guilt and shame, the feeling of not forgiving themselves for what they did. Perhaps they are full of hatred. They have to deal with that because it kills them. When you are guilty and feel ashamed, you are not at peace.

It is the same for the victim. The perpetrator has killed their relatives, and the victim feels angry; they don't even want to meet with the perpetrator. Yet they see each other every day in Rwanda so they are not at peace at all. Some want revenge but they can't have it because in Rwanda you can't revenge. We have security. In the beginning there was some revenge, but this is no longer and people are full of anger and sadness. There is so much hatred [for the perpetrators.]

But the other side is suffering of shame and sometimes one of them decides to go to the other. It's not always the perpetrator who comes to ask forgiveness. Sometimes it is the victim who says, “I feel angry at you. Really I don't feel well.” Sometimes it is both ways. When they see someone come and approach them, they are relieved. They are relieved.

Q: What is your feeling about the state of Rwandan society today?

People are still bitter. People are still unforgiving. Government leaders have put in place some helpful systems. They have put in the Unity and Reconciliation Coalition. Its role is to provide a platform for people to share their experiences and to cultivate respect. We have mediators in the community to help people who have conflicts. We have church processes that bring people together to talk about the genocide.

The Catholic Church is doing a tremendous job. In the community they have what are called “foundational families.” It is something that takes place in all the country. The foundational families are groups of Christians in a community who come together once a week; they share about the challenges they are facing. They talk about how they feel, about what happened to Rwanda. They discuss issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. There is a bond among the Christians. It's a good foundation and we can hope for the best.

Q: Do you ever experience this work as tiring or discouraging?

It's hard working with people and with strong emotions [such as] shame. Sometimes you want to pray with someone but they say “No. I don't want to pray. God is responsible. He was there. He was looking and he was not sleeping. Don't talk to me about that God.” Slowly the people heal; they understand God is still loving them; they hold onto his promise that when you walk through fire he'll be with you. They discover how God protected them, how they didn't die. That was the presence of God in their lives. When they see that good thing about God, then they can pray. Until they understand, it is difficult to pray.