Deborah Rankin

How Rwanda pursued reconciliation

What makes one country embrace peace and reconciliation while another devolves into tribal, genocidal civil war? This is the question I often ask myself when contemplating how Rwanda rose from the ashes of its past, while South Sudan, once the darling of the conflict resolution world, has fallen into petty bickering which often results in mass murders of its own people.

I lived and worked in South Sudan from October 2011 through 2012 and experienced firsthand all the excitement that comes with being, literally, the newest nation on Earth. I liked to joke at the time, if there was an NGO (nongovernmental organization) or nonprofit, it was in South Sudan following their independence in July 2011. Indeed, I loved my time in South Sudan and look back on it fondly as a Golden Time in its short, brief history.


By December 2013, South Sudan had fallen back into civil war. During my Christmas break in Vienna, Austria, that year, I spent much of my time Skyping with former staff members to find out if everyone had survived the initial wave of violence. Fortunately, “my” staff were fine. The country itself has not, to this day, recovered.

So why and how has Rwanda, home of arguably one of the worst genocides in recent history, embraced peace and reconciliation and thrived? Volumes will be written by peace and reconciliation students on these questions. I can only offer an opinion based on my experiences in South Sudan. I believe there are two key factors which led Rwanda to the peace and stability it enjoys today, in comparison with South Sudan.

The first factor was Rwanda’s commitment to a formal process called The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC). NURC was established in 1999 with the specific purpose of reconciling the wounds of genocide. South Sudan established no such formal reconciliation process. Rather, the focus was on governance and rule of law. While policing and justice is my particular interest in the peace and reconciliation process, without a formal, public healing process, the basic social contract is written on paper so flimsy it could disintegrate under the weight of past grievances.

The second factor that distinguishes Rwanda’s success and South Sudan’s failure is that Rwandans consider Rwanda home. In contrast to the Rwandans, the South Sudanese who returned after independence, had lived most of their lives in other places, many in refugee camps. Those known as “Lost Boys,” taken to the West to live and be educated, for the most part, did not want to leave the West to live in what can only kindly be called “harsh conditions.” A sense of home and belonging simply did not exist for the majority of South Sudanese, whether they returned permanently or not.

What do these two lessons from Rwanda teach the West today? Looking at the most recent terror attacks in Europe, imagine applying these two factors. If there is public, honest discussions about the horrific violence inflicted on one part of society, healing allows the society to move forward. And, if there is truly a yearning to make a home in Europe, peace and reconciliation, moving forward, could be possible.

Through Rwanda’s example, peace, reconciliation, and the resulting prosperity, are possible, even in the wake of genocide.

–Amy Millican,

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