Catholic Church in Rwanda Journeying with Prisoners to Heal Wounds of Civil War

Fr. Thégène Ngoboka, director of the Cyangugu Justice and Peace Commission in Rwanda. Credit: ACN

Nearly three decades after the Rwandan genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed, the wounds are still tender, and a lot still needs to be done to bring about forgiveness by those who remain wounded.

Fr. Thégène Ngoboka, director of the Cyangugu Justice and Peace Commission, is a volunteer at Rusizi prison, where he is journeying with prisoners seeking forgiveness from families of victims of the genocide that happened 29 years ago.

In his prison ministry, Fr. Ngoboka has observed that forgiveness is extremely hard work as some families are yet to come to terms with their loss, since the events of 1994.

“The wounds are still tender, even 29 years later. Some people don't want to open wounds when they start to heal,” Fr. Ngoboka says in a Tuesday, May 2 report by the Catholic pontifical and charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International.

In the report, ACN recalls that during the 1994 genocide that rocked the country for 100 days, Rwanda was “almost transformed into a slaughterhouse.”


“There were brutal situations of ethnic violence. Of Hutu violence against Tutsis. There were about 1 million dead. Even today, 29 years later, hundreds of people in prison have been convicted of the massacres,” ACN says, and adds, “It was a hundred days of mourning. Even today it is difficult to look back and remember what happened. But whenever those three months of violence are mentioned, words like massacre or genocide are used.”

The Catholic charity foundation is running a program in Rwanda to equip pastoral caregivers with skills to help with the reconciliation process in the country.

Among those that ACN has engaged in the reconciliation program is Fr. Ngoboka, whose work, the charity foundation says, is essential for forgiveness and reconciliation to become a reality.

The Catholic Priest is working against all odds, including having to deal with “extremely painful memories.”

Fr. Ngoboka’s main concern is to prepare inmates who are finishing their prison terms and who are therefore preparing to leave, but who still have to deal with a society that has not yet been pacified, which looks at them accusing, judging. 

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“I explain to the inmates that it is important and necessary to reconcile with the community,” Fr. Ngoboka says, adding that the task is very difficult, as it requires a lot of patience and dialogue. 

“It is a process of monitoring the prisoners, but also the community to which they will return and settle down, to walk together towards reconciliation,” he says, and explains, “First of all, we prepare the prisoners by making them aware of the need to ask for forgiveness.”

In this delicate process, the Church acts as an intermediary between the prisoners and the survivors, and their families. 

Fr. Ngoboka explains that the reconciliation process involves inmates writing a letter to everyone they feel they have to ask for forgiveness. 

There is a request for forgiveness and also the commitment that one is prepared to live in harmony with the community. 


The prison management authenticates the letters, which are then handed over to the survivors' families by Priests or volunteers from the Justice and Peace Commission. 

The process encourages a meeting in prison between the families of the victims and the now repentant aggressor, Fr. Ngoboka says, and explains, “Once a month we organize these visits with the prison's social services. We continue to be mediators and are present at these meetings. We help with dialogue. The emotions are strong.”

“If a pardon is given and accepted, we have to get him to the family members. Forgiveness must relate to the family, both the survivor's family and the prisoner's family,” Ngoboka explains to ACN, and adds, “Faith plays a fundamental role in the forgiveness process.” 

He notes that leaving prison does not end the reconciliation process. Leaving is just one step, the Catholic Priest says.

He explains, “That's why we started three years before liberation. And after they are released, that's not the end. We undertake to accompany them for at least six months, to allow prisoners and victims to overcome their fears. We organize meetings around the Word of God, community projects that allow them to work together in a field or on a construction site.”

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Ex-convicts are also encouraged to visit each other, and they journey together through the reconciliation process.

“Reconciliation is not automatic. Trust has to be earned. It is a long way,” Fr. Ngoboka further says, adding that if all goes well, the Church organizes a moment of unity and reconciliation. 

“The prisoners are welcomed into the church and officially ask for forgiveness. They publicly confess what they have done and ask for forgiveness.”

Sometimes, the process is riddled with setbacks when victims reject the request to forgive the repentant aggressors, the Catholic Priest notes, and adds, “It is necessary to respect the pace of each one and accompany them on this path.”

“For this reconciliation to have a chance of success, the victim must be convinced of the sincerity of the request for forgiveness and that all the acts committed have been revealed. Some victims still cannot grieve for their loved ones because they don't know where the bodies are. They are waiting for the executioner to reveal the scene of their crimes,” Fr. Ngoboka says.

He continues, “Either way, harder or easier, none of this would be possible without God's help. Forgiveness is a miracle, a gift from God… when you hear about all the atrocities committed… forgiveness is a power given by God.”

ACN has empowered 120 Priests, women and men Religious in Rwanda with skills to help them understand trauma as they journey with prisoners and victims of the Rwandan genocide. 

The pastoral caregivers have also been equipped with active listening techniques and psycho-spiritual support for community resilience.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.