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A Ministry of Reconciliation: The Umuvumu Tree Project in Rwanda

With the imminent release of thousands of genocide prisoners angry over eight years of imprisonment without trial into communities still bitter over the violence and death, Prison Fellowship Rwanda, a local NGO, saw the potential for renewed violence and decided to act.
Over 110,000 people are still being held for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Because the leaders of the genocide targeted judges and lawyers, the national judicial structure has had to be rebuilt.  Meanwhile, the Rwandan prison system that was designed to house only 10,000 inmates relies on tents and other temporary structures to hold the large prison population.

Because trying offenders in the Rwandan courts and the UN tribunal would take hundreds of years, the government has decided instead to resurrect a traditional conflict resolution process called gacaca.  These are local, open-air hearings overseen by "People of Integrity" who have been elected by their neighbors.  Although ringleaders of the genocide are not eligible, a large majority of prisoners could be tried in these informal processes.  Those who are found responsible may be sentenced to prison or to community service, or to a combination of both.  The first prisoners are due for release to the gacacas sometime this month.  

With the imminent release of thousands of genocide prisoners angry over eight years of imprisonment without trial into communities still bitter over the violence and death, Prison Fellowship Rwanda, a local NGO, saw the potential for renewed violence and decided to act.  PF Rwanda, a Christian outreach to prisoners, had begun to minister in the genocide prisons soon after they were built.  In addition to providing spiritual assistance, it has also addressed problems of sanitation and the lack of medical assistance.  It recently coordinated a two-week trip by North American doctors recruited by Prison Fellowship International.  Half the doctors' time was spent in the prisons and the other half providing services to genocide survivors.

In December 2001, a team of people organized by the PFI Centre for Justice and Reconciliation (PFICJR) met in Rwanda to discuss how to prepare prisoners for the gacaca hearings and their subsequent release. Most of the team members were Rwandan, although two representatives joined from the US and England.  After conversations with victim support groups, elected officials and prisoners, the team decided to adapt Prison Fellowship International'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
  • repentance
  • forgiveness
  • amends
  • reconciliation

Given the large numbers of genocide offenders soon to be released to the gacaca courts, the program was revised to feature six weeks of small group discussion among prisoners, with genocide survivors and prisoners’ family members making presentations during the remaining two weeks.  This revised program was called the Umuvumu Tree Project (UTP) after the tree in Rwanda that is closest to the biblical sycamore tree. 

Deo Gashagaza, the PF Rwanda Executive Director and director of the project, organized a team of 80 people to facilitate the UTP sessions at 19 genocide prisons.  He scheduled a seminar in June 2002 to train these facilitators to implement UTP with the genocide offenders.  Immediately after the training, the project began in all prisons. 

When the project began only 5,000 offenders had confessed their crimes despite the knowledge that a confession would lead to lighter sentences and in some cases outright freedom. After less than six months of UTP, the number of prisoners confessing their crimes increased to more than 32,000. 

In an interview, Deo said, "The programme was launched officially at the Ruhengeri Prison in August, in the presence of top government officials and a large crowd of prisoners.  More than 200 prisoners who had gone through the Umuvumu Tree sessions spoke and confessed publicly to their crimes. One man admitted to killing 42 people and then said that he was happy to be saved in Christ, thanks to the Umuvumu Tree Project." 

PF Rwanda's chairman John Rucyahana adds, "We have prisoners who are realizing the agony they have caused and are repenting and asking to meet with their victims.  We have cases where the victims have accepted the confessions and are taking food to the prisoners. Some prisoners are even challenging victims who think reconciliation means trying to smooth it over and say it's all right.  It's not all right." 

The government has supported UTP from the outset, and Justice Minister Jean de Dieu Mucyo has asked PF Rwanda to expand the project into the community, particularly into churches and schools.  This will not be easy.  "The hardest part is telling the victims and survivors that they must forgive -- for their own sake, first," says Bishop John, himself a survivor.  "Living with anger eats you up inside, and you can never be free until you forgive."

 

Kathie Friedley

February 2003

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