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Rwanda's miracle of forgiveness

A man with a machete attacks and kills your family. Repeat this scene on a genocidal scale. Would you forgive? Could you? Rwandans are, as human instinct and faith intersect in this African nation.

By Amy Sullivan

KIGALI, Rwanda — Rosaria Bankundiye and Saveri Nemeye are neighbors in the tiny village of Mbyo, south of Kigali. On a steamy morning, they sit in the cool living area of the clay house Saveri helped build for Rosaria just a few years ago. Two of his sons roll around on the floor while the adults talk. At one point, Saveri leans over to say something to Rosaria and she starts laughing, her smile wide. They have known each other for a long time.

Nearly 16 years ago, during the genocide that wracked this African country of 10 million people for 100 days in 1994, Saveri murdered Rosaria's sister, along with her nieces and nephews. Genocidaires also attacked Rosaria, her husband and their four children with machetes and left them for dead. Only Rosaria survived. Yet when Saveri came to beg her forgiveness after he was released from prison in 2004, Rosaria considered his request and then granted it. "How can I refuse to forgive when I'm a forgiven sinner, too?" she asks.

Nearly every religion preaches the value of forgiveness. To most of us, however, such an act of mercy after so much pain seems unthinkable — maybe even unnatural. Scientists have long suspected that we are born with an instinct to seek revenge against those who hurt us. When someone like Rosaria overrides that vengeance instinct with an act of radical forgiveness, it can only be a miracle from God.

Now a growing number of researchers in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology also believe that humans have a built-in inclination to forgive. In Rwanda, where government and church leaders are actively encouraging citizens to forgive each other, Rosaria's remarkable reconciliation with the man who killed her loved ones was not inevitable. But it is surprisingly understandable.

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