Twenty-five years ago, Anne-Marie Uwimana watched as her neighbour, Celestin Habinshuti, butchered her two children in her home in Rwanda. Celestin Habinshuti was also involved in the murder of her two other children, and her husband. When he was released from his prison sentence after the conflict, she did not want to meet with him, “as it drew bitter memories of the loss of her children and husband.” With time, though, she came to realise that the only way for her to move on was to let go of those stifling feelings of animosity and resentment. While sharing her story at Kibirizi Catholic Church in Rwanda five years ago, she said that she forgave her neighbour “for the sake of healing.”
Anne-Marie Uwimana chose to forgive in order to heal, in order to let go of the idea of getting revenge, and thus accept coexistence with Celestin Habinshuti. Anne-Marie Uwimana’s story of forgiveness is a good starting point in understanding the challenges that come with restoring broken bonds in post-conflict societies, especially in those with severe divisions amongst groups and individuals. These divisions are founded in the narratives that are told during the conflict about who is fighting against who, about who are the bad guys and who are the good ones. These narratives cannot be ended in the same way that violence can be. Signing a peace treaty, or recognising the victory of one side over the other, does not suddenly eliminate the narratives that were fueling the divisions and the violence just yesterday. My point is that the divisions formed during a conflict tend to carry on into the post-conflict period, and that they hinder the rebuilding of connection between people; remaining divisions create hostility, tension, uncertainty. So, the question that I am looking to explore is this: How does the role of narratives in shaping divisions within society during a time of conflict hinder reconciliation later on?
Intra-community conflict, which you may know better as civil war or civil conflict, either originates from or creates ethnic, national, or religious divisions within society. During the conflict, these divisions are intensified as people begin to associate themselves with certain groups, or identities. They choose to believe in particular ideas, values, and perceptions of the world put forward by that group. “What people know or believe about each other, and therefore their perceptions of who is trustworthy begin to change.” And so, an “us” versus “them”, a “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative is formed, pitting one side against another.
These types of narratives that opposing sides fabricate about the causes, the evolution, and the ending of their conflict inevitably impacts their future relations. Future relations where bonds have been restored and connections reformed are possible where these narratives are consistent across conflicted groups; however, intra-community conflict means that there are sides, which tend to have different views about their disputes. “These contesting narratives describe past grievances and violence that groups inflicted on each other very differently, honouring and remembering only suffering and injustice inflicted upon the other group.” How bonds and social connections could possibly be repaired in the midst of these one-sided narratives is the issue at stake.
Two examples that come to mind is the Rwandan Genocide, with ethnic divides, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with both religious and national ones. Let me focus on the case of Rwanda. The Rwandan Genocide was an intra-community conflict; it was a brutal and savage ethnic conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. As a Tutsi, the narrative developed during the conflict went something like this: the Hutus are brutally murdering the Tutsi minority, seeking to eliminate us, and ultimately cleanse Rwanda of us. On the other hand, the narrative as a Hutu went something like this: The Tutsis are a threat, they are a danger wishing to seize political power at the expense of our being. This narrative is a “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative. Each side believes that it is being threatened by the other side. Because this narrative emerged before the conflict and continued to develop throughout, the division between the two tribal groups was particularly severe by the time the post-conflict period rolled around. In fact, the end of the violence could not suddenly mean the end of the division or the conflict between the two sides. As Ingrid Samset wrote in her book Building a Repressive Peace: The Case of Post-Genocide Rwanda, “Rwanda was certainly not ‘post-conflict’ in the first 15 years after the genocide in 1994. Collective violence occurred repeatedly, especially in the first four years.” This brings me to an interesting point about how the end of a conflict is identified. Even after the Tutsis had seized control of the government, or, more generally, after peace treaties have been signed between parties in conflict, the conflict is not necessarily over. While the violence may have eased, disputes may persist. So does the post-conflict period begin once the narratives and the divisions from the conflict are eliminated? Or is post-conflict period one in which these divisions are being addressed? These are important questions to consider that may have implications for how post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation is addressed.
Post-conflict societies seek to heal broken bonds and mend ruptured relationships, to ultimately rebuild connection. Truly, this is the fundamental way for a fractured society to maintain peaceful relations; if they don’t, they will remain on the brink of violence as tensions and feelings of uncertainty last. However, we cannot expect this to be an easy or immediate process. For me, rebuilding connection in a post-conflict society can be divided into the conversation stage, the forgiveness stage, and the acceptance stage, each of which come with particular challenges of their own.
Perhaps the most challenging part is overcoming the first stage. The problem with starting conversation in a society damaged by division, violence, and conflicting narratives is that oftentimes people are overwhelmed by sentiments of resentment, bitterness, vengeance, as Anne-Marie once was. People do not want to open conversation with the “other side” so long as they hold onto the “us” versus “them” narrative, so long as they see the other side as the bad guys. Yet, as Yuval Noah Harari once wrote, “History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.”
I began with a story of Anne-Marie Uwimana, a story of forgiveness, so let me end with that too. For her story is about abandoning the possibility of getting even, of accepting coexistence with someone that has caused you harm. Anne-Marie Uwimana sought to bridge the divide that had formed between her and her neighbour during the conflict. With time, she opened up conversation with him; with courage, she forgave him; and now, she accepts coexistence with him. Her story, while not the only one, remains unique, perhaps even quite shocking and remarkable to most. Let us be reminded of Anne-Marie Uwimana’s story as one which sheds light on the divisions which move from the conflict into the post-conflict society, but, that with time and with courage, can be mended.
Bp-News-1. “‘Why I Forgave the Man Who Killed My Husband and Children’ - Rwandan Genocide Survivor.” Believers Portal, 2 Nov. 2019, believersportal.com/why-i-forgave-the-man-who-killed-my-husband-and-children-rwandan-genocide-survivor/.
Jelić, Margareta, et al. “Competing Collective Narratives in Intergroup Rapprochement: A Transgenerational Perspective.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology, vol. 9, no. 2, 1 Sept. 2021, pp. 370–400, jspp.psychopen.eu/index.php/jspp/article/view/6939/6939.html, 10.5964/jspp.6939.
Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York, Ny, Harper Perennial, 2015.
Kijewski, Sara, and Markus Freitag. “Civil War and the Formation of Social Trust in Kosovo: Posttraumatic Growth or War-Related Distress?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 62, no. 4, April 2018: 717–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002716666324.
Samset, Ingrid. “Building a Repressive Peace: The Case of Post-Genocide Rwanda.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, vol. 5, no. 3, Sept. 2011, pp. 265–283, 10.1080/17502977.2011.566485.
Abaigael is a first year War Studies student at King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.