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The Umuvumu Tree Project in Rwanda

A Vision of Reconciliation Returning to his homeland of Rwanda in 1995, Déo Gashagaza found scenes of unimaginable horror; the grisly aftermath of 13 weeks of genocide and terror resulting in the mass extermination of the Tutsi minority in 1994.

A Vision of Reconciliation

Returning to his homeland of Rwanda in 1995, Déo Gashagaza found scenes of unimaginable horror - the grisly aftermath of 13 weeks of terror during which Hutu leaders ordered the mass extermination of the Tutsi minority in 1994. Death lay everywhere.  Skulls and bones, body parts, the corpses of men, women, children, and babies littered the landscape. His family had been decimated; his older sister and brother-in-law along with their five children and a number of his cousins had been killed. He was devastated.

“I prayed and fasted for three days, asking God for the strength to overcome my anger and depression. Then I heard a voice telling me that I was being called to a ministry of reconciliation,” Déo recalled.

From that moment, Deo‘s life was changed. He began visiting the prisons on weekends where the genocidal prisoners were housed, buying Bibles and hymnals from his own salary. However, with 110,000 genocide offenders housed in Rwandan prisons, he wanted to do more. So he started to work with Bishop John Rucyahana at PF Rwanda, eventually leaving his job and its lucrative salary to become executive director.

Déo and Bishop John faced a great challenge: how to bring the message of reconciliation to so many prisoners and victims of such an unspeakable atrocity? The situation itself provided an answer.

Trying the Prisoners in the Gacaca Courts

The Rwandan justice system was overwhelmed with 110,00 extra genocide prisoners housed in prisons built for 10,000. Trying that large a number of offenders in the Rwandan courts would take literally hundreds of years. So, the Rwandan government devised another approach. The prisoners would be returned to their villages to be tried in open-air courts called gacaca.

To help facilitate that process, PF Rwanda hosted a restorative justice conference in 2000. It was the first national conference on reconciliation that had taken place since the genocide. Then, at the Johannesburg Council Meetings in 2001, Bishop John met with Dan Van Ness of the PFI Centre for Justice and Reconciliation to talk about how PF Rwanda could help prepare prisoners for the gacaca hearings and their subsequent release. A few months later, Dan and Peter Walker, PF England and Wales‘ Executive Director, met with PF Rwanda staff, victim support groups, elected officials and prisoners. Out of those meetings emerged an adapted version of PFI‘s Sycamore Tree Project®.

Named after the Biblical account of Zacchaeus, the Sycamore Tree Project® brings prisoners and victims together over a period of eight meetings to discuss what the Bible says about responsibility, confession, forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation and restitution. To fit the situation; Dan, Bishop John and Déo revised the program to feature six weeks of small group discussion among the prisoners followed by two weeks of presentations by genocide survivors and prisoners‘ family members. The tree in Rwanda that is closest to the biblical sycamore tree is the umuvumu tree, so the revised programme was called the Umuvumu Tree Project. “It‘s the tree Zacchaeus would have climbed had he met Jesus in Kigali rather than Jericho,” explained Bishop John.

Déo was appointed director of the national ministry, and he quickly organized a team of 80 people to facilitate sessions in the 19 prisons. Dan returned to Rwanda in mid-2002 to train those facilitators to implement the Umuvumu Tree Project with the genocide offenders.

Challenges Ahead

Although those who confess to crimes committed during the genocide receive lighter sentences, only 5,000 had done so. Less than six months after the Umuvumu Tree Project began, the number who confessed increased to more than 32,000 and many have developed a personal relationship with Christ. The project enables offenders to hear the Gospel - and feel God‘s powerful hand at work.

Prisoners are now being released to the gacaca courts and the fruits of the Umuvumu sessions are evident. “We have prisoners who are realizing the agony they have caused and are repenting and asking to meet with their victims,” said Bishop John.

 “The next phase is to take the Umuvumu Tree Project into the community to work with the victims. To successfully reintegrate these offenders, we need to help the victims and survivors prepare their souls,” said Deo. “The hardest part is telling the victims that they must forgive - for their own sake,” said Bishop John. “Living with anger eats you up inside. You can never be free until you forgive.”

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