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May 9, 2023

Encountering Genocide: How the Kigali Genocide Memorial Teaches the World to Forgive

The genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda is a key component of bringing the nation’s achievements in truth and reconciliation to the world.

By Benjamin Reeves

In 1994, the world watched in horror as a genocide tore through Rwanda. Some 800,000 people were killed by brutal acts of violence in just 100 days. Now, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi, the people of Rwanda have become a radical example of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. The nation has become a beacon and an example to the world of how individuals can end cycles of violence, revenge, and hate and restore societies to peace. The Aegis Trust, which created and manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a key player in this process by teaching about the genocide and the process of truth, justice, and reconciliation that followed. Its work now serves as an example of how people and nations around the world can incorporate these principles into their own lives.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a chorus of voices declared that such a genocide should never be allowed to happen again. However, it did happen again, many times, from Cambodia to Bosnia to Rwanda. While the instinct to say “never again” was a good one, the reality on the ground was that many societies — riven by deep divisions, simmering hate, and social instability — could easily tip into a period of atrocities. And, despite words to the contrary, the global community was not able to intervene early enough or with sufficient will to prevent genocide from occurring.
James Smith, founder and CEO of the Aegis Trust, already had a history of grappling with the consequences of genocide prior to the founding of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. His family had founded the National Holocaust Centre in the United Kingdom, which opened in 1995, barely a year after the events in Rwanda and as another genocide was tearing through Srebrenica in Bosnia. Four years later, he was a doctor with the International Medical Corps with yet another genocide roared to life in Kosovo. “I was there, and I met refugees — colleagues, doctors — Kosovo Albanians who had had their bags packed for some three months before the ethnic cleansing happened,” Smith says.
Those encounters led Smith to wonder whether there were signs which could be identified in advance to disrupt the pattern of genocide elsewhere. “We felt we were part of the whole failure of the international community to recognize earlier. By the time we understand the genocide was happening, it was nearly all over,” he says. He wondered whether “there’s a window of opportunity to intervene, not with big military interventions, but with earlier intervention, maybe diplomatically or with education?”
The Aegis Trust was originally founded to answer this question. Through this work, it built connections in Rwanda and on the basis of Smith’s prior experience with the National Holocaust Centre, was approached to help the Rwandan people develop the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The Memorial opened in 2004, and in the years since, Aegis Trust has worked closely with policymakers, diplomats, and NGOs to try to develop a genocide early-warning system and to refine a post-conflict toolkit — modeled after its work in Kigali — for forgiveness and reconciliation.
A Rwandan Story
In the years since the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, there has been a torrent of writing from foreign policy wonks, historians, political scientists, and NGOs of every flavor about its causes and the nation’s remarkable story of reconciliation. Tutsis now live side-by-side with Hutus, in some cases with the individuals who killed members of their families. This is in no small part thanks to a national push for truth and reconciliation. While the most senior figures responsible for commanding the genocide were tried in an international proceeding, most perpetrators faced their communities in the context of gacaca — traditional community courts where the process centered around establishing the truth and engaging perpetrators to listen to the stories of those they had harmed, rather than on punitive justice system.
“It pushes the envelope of any capacity to forgive that I could ever have been able to muster,” says Spencer Niles, a Professor of Counselor Education and Co-Director of the THRIVE Research and Intervention Center at the William & Mary University School of Education, who has led student trips as part of a partnership with the Memorial. “It’s all part of the reconciliation strategy that Rwanda has developed, which is perpetrator and family members of victims living side-by-side. They share a common plot of land. They share a goat. And they’ve got to figure out a way to get along and make that work.”
The Kigali Genocide Memorial has served a similar purpose to the gacaca, becoming a shared place for survivors to share their stories and for the people of Rwanda — and increasingly visitors from other nations — to reckon with the consequences and tragedy of genocide. Critically, according to Smith, where memorials have at times contributed to continued divisions in societies, the Kigali Genocide Memorial incorporated both perpetrators and survivors in its peacebuilding mission from the very outset. “We wanted to develop narratives and stories and programs that bring people together and unite people, rather than divide,” Smith says.
From the beginning “the question was what this memorial would mean for survivors and for the community,” says Freddy Mutanguha, the Executive Director at Aegis Trust and Director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, and himself a survivor of the genocide. “This Memorial had to be a place for the process of reconstruction, forgiveness, and the process of reconciliation in Rwanda.”

A core element of the Memorial is an education program. Rather than being a static monument to victims of the genocide, the Kigali Genocide Memorial teaches about the path to genocide, how ideological build-up transformed into violence. Moreover, the educational program was actually developed by survivors, such as Mutanguha. (Mutanguha spoke about the science and practice of forgiveness at the Harvard Forgiveness Conference co-hosted by Templeton World Charity Foundation in 2022). Survivors’ stories, which they often tell to visitors in concert with the perpetrators who harmed them and their families, are the core of the Memorial’s educational efforts.
“When we looked at Rwandan society right after the genocide, the survivors and perpetrators were living side-by-side. That means their children go to the same school and are in the same classroom,” says Mutanguha. “Whatever kind of education we do shouldn’t bring collective blame to the children. Nor should it increase anger among survivors.”
Balancing these competing interests — the desire of survivors to be heard and for the perpetrators to reckon with their actions with the need of younger generations to move on and not become trapped in a cycle of violence — is a challenge. To accomplish it, the Memorial adopted a “storytelling methodology.” According to Mutanguha, “when a student in the classroom does that, shares their own experience, what they know, how they’re suffering, their pain, we observed a huge empathy building in the room. That’s how this program has an impact on both sides.”
This storytelling program isn’t limited to the geographical confines of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Mutanguha’s team has developed a mobile version that travels around the country facilitating storytelling and building empathy around the shared experience of the genocide. As in the gacaca process, “when perpetrators start to confess and ask forgiveness” survivors and others in the space “will ask, why did you do that? And they say the authorities came and told me that my neighbor was a bad person,” Mutangua says. “They believed it without thinking about it, so we’re trying to bring this aspect of questioning and questioning. What do you see and how can you try to understand and bring critical thinking skills into those kinds of ideologies?”

The Memorial first launched a peace education pilot program in 2008, and, working in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, it had expanded to 22 districts around the country by 2013. Independent analysis showed that the Memorial’s peace education program changed attitudes and behavior among students and communities, according to Mutanguha, and, as a result, in 2014 the Rwanda Education Board incorporated interdisciplinary Peace and Values education — modeled on the work of the Memorial — into the national curriculum, which impacts more than 2 million Rwandan students annually.
Beyond Rwanda
Rwanda’s process of truth and reconciliation, including the educational program developed by the Aegis Trust and Kigali Genocide Memorial, translates across borders and cultures in powerful ways. Almost thirty years after the genocide, the purpose of the Memorial is beginning to evolve, and it has become a teaching center for the world, even as it continues to serve new generations of Rwandans. For instance, seven U.S. universities now have partnerships with the Memorial and regularly bring students there to learn about genocide, forgiveness, and peacebuilding.
The storytelling and encounters with survivors and perpetrators is integrated with visits at the physical sites of the genocide. This combination serves to make it incredibly real, and emotionally intense, even for visiting outsiders. “You go to these killing sites and see exactly where this stuff occurred,” says Niles. “You’re in a church and go to a little building just outside the sanctuary, and it’s a tiny brick room with a dirt floor. It was a Sunday school, and one of the students in the group says, ‘what is that? Why’s that wall so much darker than the rest?’ And the explanation is that’s how the Hutus killed the Tutsi children; they threw them against the wall.”
Niles notes that when confronted with the facts and the physical remains of genocide, people feel compelled to learn and turn that learning into some kind of change. “We talk about the fact that now that you’ve been taught by our Rwandan teachers who have opened themselves up to their deepest pain in their lives to teach us about this experience, you have an obligation. An obligation to honor that by integrating it into your life somehow.”
Mutanguha recounts one story of a student who visited the Memorial. He was a U.S. military veteran and had been working in the Pentagon when it was attacked on September 11, 2001. “Everyone who had been in his office lost their lives,” Mutanguha says. “He delayed a meeting, and a minute later, he heard all the noise and everything, and he experienced the death of people. But he had been on many missions as well and experienced horrible things in Afghanistan and places.”

When the student experienced the Memorial and witnessed the stories being told, Mutanguha says, “he questioned himself from his experience, whether he can forgive, because he said, ‘I was trained to be a perpetrator.’ So he feels that he is a perpetrator but also a survivor… This program was very, very impactful for him to understand the process of forgiveness, because he had been living in this place of confusion and grievances for many years. He left feeling much more healed.”
Such experiences are common among those who visit the Memorial and hear the shared accounts from perpetrators and survivors of the genocide. Evan Miller, a first-year student in William and Mary University’s clinical counseling program visited the Memorial as part of a partnership with the university. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a Rwandan citizen and to have survived [the genocide], but the recounting of it certainly brought up some of the deeper pain points of my own life, like growing up in a violent home,” she says. The same was true for her fellow students. “People’s military service came up. It drew out what was underneath the surface and perhaps had been buried for a long time at an individual level. It evokes a shared experience of suffering in a person who encounters the individuals who hold this body of work.”
Miller also said there was an innate challenge in the process: “The emphasis of their work is on application and how are you going to live this in your own context. Who is it that you have found difficult to forgive or who do you avoid? It brings some things into focus that are painful and necessary, I think, to explore.”

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at or follow him on Twitter.