In his office in western Rwanda, Father Ubald Rugirangoga keeps a sepia-toned black-and-white photo in a simple wooden frame. Unlike the beatific images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary gracing the walls nearby, there’s no transcendent joy in this one. It shows the priest, younger and wearing a dark coat, walking next to a mountain of corpses.

“Those were my people, my parishioners,” he said on a January evening earlier this year, gazing mournfully at the macabre tableau that he keeps as evidence of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, and as a reminder of why he works to ensure it will never happen again.

Some 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in just three months during the genocide, and among them were Father Rugirangoga’s mother and siblings and 45,000 of his parishioners. “I escaped miraculously,” he says. “I heard the mob was coming for me and hid at the bishop’s house, then fled into Congo and on to Europe until it was over.”

As Rwanda commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide this month, Father Rugirangoga is one of the country’s most influential icons of forgiveness and reconciliation. In addition to preaching throughout the tiny Central African nation, he has created an in-depth program to facilitate reconciliation among genocide victims and perpetrators.

Some 300 people have completed the six-month program he started five years ago in Mushaka Parish, a rural network of farming hamlets nestled in the lush, hill-studded terrain near the Congolese border. While discussing apology, restitution and forgiveness from a Christian perspective (more than 90 percent of Rwandans are Catholic, and many of the Mushaka participants learn of the class through church), the 16 course facilitators provide a forum for a sort of group therapy experience grounded in sharing and empathetic listening.

Victims, who often go through the course with the perpetrators who hurt them or killed their family members, have the opportunity to ask previously unanswered questions about how their loved ones died so they can have closure, while perpetrators listen to victims talk about the impact of the violence. Ultimately, they apologize and provide some sort of restitution.

“It’s not just about words, it’s about action,” said facilitator Aloys Uwemeyimana, a Hutu who saved 122 Tutsis during the slaughter by hiding them in his parish room and guiding them over the border to Congo at night. Some perpetrators help their victims cultivate crops, while others give them goats or other valuable animals.

The power of reconciliation

In addition to the one-on-one reconciliation process, every graduating class at the Mushaka parish creates a development project to collaborate on, the most recent being a communal vegetable garden. Graduates say the process has helped them heal and get along with their neighbors, a meaningful accomplishment in a country where genocide convicts are regularly completing sentences and being returned to their communities.

Jeanne Mukantwal, 40, was horrified to see her husband’s killer when he returned from prison. Seeing him triggered the trauma of being widowed at 20 while pregnant with her son. Yet the killer, Innocent Gashema, insisted on apologizing repeatedly and helping her work her land. He kept helping, even when she ignored him, and when she heard Father Rugirangoga describe the reconciliation program at church, she asked Gashema to do it with her. He agreed.

“I eventually forgave him, and it has helped me a lot,” she said on a recent rainy afternoon. She and her son stood talking with Gashema, and the three of them cut a striking image: Mukantwal in her orange traditional dress, talking and smiling with her shy 20-year-old and the tall, gangly man who killed his father.

Her son had been struggling in school, she said, but when he met Gashema and learned more about his father’s death (she had kept the details from him) it gave him closure and he began to improve, attending class and passing the standard exams.

Learning to forgive

Father Rugirangoga’s community efforts were born of his own genocide experience. Within months of losing his family and parishioners, he made a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, France. While he prayed, grief-stricken and inconsolable, he had a revelation: the only way such a monstrous wound could be healed, and such horrific crimes could be prevented, was through true forgiveness and apology.

He began preaching about reconciliation in the late '90s, even visiting prisons to talk to the hundreds of thousands of genocide convicts about how to repent, forgive themselves and apologize to their victims’ families.

During a 2005 prison visit, a man approached the priest. “He said, ‘Father, I have something to tell you: I killed your mother,’” Father Rugirangoga said. The prisoner wept and begged for the priest’s forgiveness.

For a moment, Father Rugirangoga felt shock and anger pin him in place. But then he thought of his epiphany at Lourdes, his promise to be merciful and Jesus’ exhortation to love one's enemies. He took a deep breath and embraced the man.

Later, he began mentoring the prisoner’s children, who were motherless and living with impoverished relatives. The daughter, Gisele, recently visited Father Rugirangoga, who calls her “daughter” and is helping her attend medical school in neighboring Burundi.

The priest’s Mushaka graduates tell similar tales. Gratien Nyaminani, an elderly man with a graying beard and sad eyes, returned from prison to discover that his daughter, upon hearing Father Rugirangoga preaching, had offered her housekeeping and farming services to the woman he had widowed. While living in the widow’s home and helping her in penance for Nyaminani’s crimes, the young woman fell in love with the widow’s son, and they are now married with two children.

“In prison, I couldn’t imagine ever being forgiven,” Nyaminani said, awestruck by the fact that he killed his grandchildren’s other grandfather, and yet they and their parents accept him. “Imagine: They call me grandfather!”

Philippe Ngirente, a program facilitator, said he forgave the man who killed his father, and doing so helped him complete his grief and move forward. When he and his wife discovered, through a community justice tribunal, that the man responsible for the murder was a distant relative of Ngirente’s wife, they were shocked.

The killer, a farmer named Teresphore Uzabakiriho, was shocked, too. He said he recalled only that he’d killed an old man and didn’t know that in the years since, that man’s son married his cousin. After apologizing to Ngirente and his wife, Uzabakiriho visited Ngirente’s four sisters to apologize to them, too.

Responsibility and restitution

Taking responsibility for one’s crimes is an important part of the Mushaka program. One recent morning, a woman named Anathalie Mukandagogora shared a problem with her class at the parish: She’d forgiven her mother’s killer, she said, but she was having trouble with the man who killed her father.

“I am ready to forgive him, too,” she said, “but he is not receptive.”

A tiny man named Nicola Nikuze volunteered to visit the convict in prison in hope of changing his mind. Nikuze, 53, spent years in prison for killing one of his neighbors as part of the Interhamwe militia.

“Afterwards, we celebrated by drinking beer — I didn’t feel anything,” Nikuze said, his eyes welling. “But then, I began to feel guilty and wonder, ‘Why did I do that?’”

He apologized to the man’s widow and began helping her gather firewood and maintain her home. “Now we live peacefully,” he said. “My calling now is to help former Interhamwe take responsibility for what they did and repair the damage however they can.”

As events are held throughout Rwanda this month to commemorate the genocide, Father Rugirangoga and his Mushaka graduates acknowledge the progress they’ve made but say there is still much more to be done.

“There has been no mass violence for almost 20 years, which is a big accomplishment,” Father Rugirangoga said. “But there are still so many wounds to be healed.”

Megan Feldman is an adjunct professor of journalism and public relations at Metro State University in Denver.