Prisoner Suleman Muriandabigwi is brought in front of the Gacaca (local tribunal) to give information on where he buried his victims. Nyamata region, Rwanda, 2004. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum


Are they forgivable?

In a national act of redemption, Rwanda aims to embrace 30,000 perpetrators of mass ethnic slaughter now returning home

by Kenneth Miller + BIO

Prisoner Suleman Muriandabigwi is brought in front of the Gacaca (local tribunal) to give information on where he buried his victims. Nyamata region, Rwanda, 2004. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

The meeting hall at Gasabo Prison is a vast space, built to hold hundreds, with brick walls, a metal roof, and a view of green hills through barred windows. But on this May afternoon, the only occupants were 20 génocidaires and a handful of visitors, packed into a circle of chairs and benches. The inmates’ heads were shaved, and their dark skin contrasted sharply with their pink or orange uniforms. I wondered about the wizened convict who shared my seat, and about the others: how many of his neighbours did he kill? With what sorts of implements? With how much enthusiasm? Is he still dangerous? And if so, can the visitors’ teachings help transform him before he returns to the outside world?

Gasabo is an iron-gated compound of roughhewn buildings, in a busy market quarter of Kigali, Rwanda. The institution holds nearly 5,000 inmates, about half of whom are doing time for their role in the most horrific ethnic slaughter since the Holocaust. In April 1994, leaders of Rwanda’s Hutu majority ordered their followers to exterminate the minority Tutsi. The task was carried out by members of the army and police, by government-backed militias, and by legions of ordinary citizens. Although bullets and grenades were sometimes used, the favoured weapons were machetes and spiked clubs. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million people perished in the three-month bloodbath, which ended when Tutsi-led rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized control of the country. The new regime arrested 130,000 alleged perpetrators; about 30,000 remain behind bars. Most, like the men I sat with, are serving 15- to 20-year sentences – which means they’ll be going home soon.

This is not the first time that masses of perpetrators have been slated for release. To relieve severe overcrowding, waves of inmates were freed in 2003-07; they were reintegrated into their communities with only isolated incidents of violence. But for those still incarcerated, a peaceful return is far from certain. Their double-digit terms reflect the severity of their crimes and unwillingness to confess at trial. Many were exceptionally committed to what Rwandans now refer to as ‘genocide ideology’. They’ll be re‑entering a society that has changed radically in their absence. Over the past two decades, this nation of 10 million has become one of Africa’s rare success stories, with a booming economy, rising levels of health and education, and a strict taboo on ethnic division. The flood of returnees could bring a raft of troubles, from an epidemic of domestic abuse to a revival of the Hutu Power movement. ‘We’re all worried,’ an expat US businessman told me. ‘We have to be.’

Inmates take mandatory civic-education classes, and have access to vocational training and other courses. Yet aside from prayer meetings led by faith-based NGOs, little is done to prepare them on a deeper level for release. Rwanda remains a poor country – unable to provide prisoners with more than two meals of maize and beans a day, let alone extensive counselling. It’s also a country whose culture prizes discretion. ‘Rwandans don’t talk’ is how locals commonly put it. Although each prison has a clinical psychologist on staff, and social workers visit daily, inmates often balk at revealing their inner struggles even to close friends.

The visitors’ mission was to get them sharing. The leader of the delegation was Jared Seide, a 52-year-old American. Balding and stocky, in a loose shirt and yoga pants, he shook each inmate’s hand and bowed Japanese-style. Then he pitched a Hacky Sack to one prisoner, gesturing for everyone to toss the footbag around. When the men had loosened up, he introduced himself. ‘I work in many prisons in the United States,’ he said. ‘We try to create a way for prisoners to come together and tell their stories. We speak about what is alive in us and listen to each person. We call that a peace circle.’

Seide is the Director of the Center for Council, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that promotes a practice based on the talking circles used by many aboriginal cultures to resolve conflicts and make communal decisions. Although the details of such traditions vary widely, the basics are simple: participants sit in a ring, pass a ‘talking piece’ that entitles the bearer to undivided attention, and take turns speaking as the spirit moves them. The term ‘council’ is used by Native Americans to describe such a ceremony. In Hawaii, it’s known as ho’oponopono; in Zimbabwe, as daré.

The version Seide champions was developed in the 1980s at a Southern California retreat centre, the Ojai Foundation, with the aim of fostering empathy and community in various settings. By listening deeply, advocates say, people learn compassion; by being heard, they gain insight into themselves. And when they gather in a ritualised ‘sacred space’, whatever their religious or cultural identity, they open up in ways that might otherwise elude them.

Dozens of LA schools adopted council to heal racial rifts after the riots of 1992. Corporations and charities employ it as a team-building tool. Middle Eastern peace groups use it to foster understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. More recently, council has spread to California prisons, where officials are desperate for ways to reduce violence and recidivism.

Rwanda once had its own circle tradition, ibitaramo, which was banned by Belgian colonists in the early 20th century. That’s one reason why Rwandan officials see council as a promising tool to help redeem the last imprisoned génocidaires – a group whose crimes could be seen by many reasonable people as unforgivable.

But even for offenders whose misdeeds are less heinous, the path toward redemption can be hard to discern. Can a California-style ibitaramo help Rwandan mass-murderers find their way?

The journey of council to Rwanda began in 2008, when Issa Higiro encountered the practice at Auschwitz. Higiro, then 40, worked as a school administrator in Kigali; he also helped run a genocide-prevention NGO, which he’d co-founded after finding a cache of children’s skulls buried by a roadside. He travelled to the concentration camp in Poland for a ‘bearing witness’ retreat held by the Zen Peacemakers, a social-action organisation founded by a New York-based Buddhist priest.

Sitting among the ruins of the gas chambers, as Holocaust survivors and descendants of their persecutors passed the talking piece, Higiro was deeply moved. ‘Council created a peaceful space where people could feel equal, feel free, feel a sense of trust,’ he recalled. He arranged for a series of Peacemakers retreats to be held in Rwanda, and asked the priest to send someone to teach council to Rwandans. That someone turned out to be Seide.

A former screenwriter and actor (he once played a bad guy on Miami Vice), and a devoted Zen Buddhist, Seide had fallen in love with council at his daughter’s elementary school in LA. He became a trainer for the Ojai Foundation and rose to lead its council programme before establishing his own. In January 2014, he headed to Rwanda.

Despite their disparate backgrounds (Seide was raised Jewish in Manhattan; Higiro, a member of Rwanda’s Muslim minority, grew up in exile in Uganda), the two men clicked. Both were natural salesmen, phenomenally driven, with gifts for theatre and for cultivating useful friends; both had found the promotion of cross-cultural understanding to be a fulfilling outlet. On his first trip, Seide taught Higiro and members of other Rwandan NGOs the rudiments of council – enough so that they could lead their own circles, with his help, at a retreat commemorating the 20th anniversary of the genocide.

The event, held at the Murambi Genocide Memorial that April, made a powerful impression on many who attended. Murambi is a former technical school where 50,000 Tutsis were murdered; hundreds of desiccated bodies are displayed as testimonial. A Tutsi woman whose arm had been chopped off addressed the gathering, along with the Hutu man (now, improbably, a close friend) who attacked her and murdered her baby. In the council sessions, members of both groups confided their hopes and sorrows with unaccustomed candour. Seide described his plans for the California prison system, where he envisioned groups of inmates teaching council to others. And some of the Rwandans suggested that such a scheme could be a cost-effective way to help reintegrate jailed génocidaires.

Higiro agreed. Soon afterward, he established a new NGO: the Rwanda Center for Council. By autumn, he had recruited a dozen members and convinced top correctional officials that the practice used for healing at the German death camp could have value in Rwanda as well.

The parallels between the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are easy to see: in both cases, national authorities led a systematic effort to wipe out a minority group, and came appallingly close to succeeding.

Yet the differences are also striking. To begin with, the Nazis exploited a homegrown prejudice – anti-Semitism – common across Europe and centuries-old. The hatred of Hutu for Tutsi, for all its intensity, had shallower roots. The two groups once lived in harmony as fluid social castes (respectively, peasants and herders), with the Tutsis constituting about 15 per cent of the population. But when Belgian colonists arrived in 1918, they declared the typically taller, lighter-skinned Tutsis racially superior, and began turning them into oppressive overseers. When anti-Tutsi violence erupted in the 1950s, the Belgians switched sides, helping Hutu demagogues rise to power. After independence in 1962, those leaders organised a string of pogroms, culminating in the putative Final Solution of 1994.

The murders took place in homes and offices, in schoolyards and churches, in hospitals and on the street

The two genocides differed in their execution, too. In Europe, Jews were shipped to distant camps and worked to death or liquidated using industrial methods. In Rwanda, the butchery was low-tech and intensely personal. Nearly 1 million people participated directly, with an estimated 200,000 doing the actual killing. The murders took place in homes and offices, in schoolyards and churches, in hospitals and on the street. Neighbours killed neighbours. Teachers killed students. Doctors killed patients. Priests helped death squads massacre their parishioners.

‘At first you cut timidly, then time helps you grow into it,’ a Hutu named Alphonse recalls in Machete Season (2003), an oral history by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld. ‘Some colleagues learned the exact way to strike – on the side of the neck or the back of the head – to hasten the end.’ But efficiency often took a backseat to sadistic pleasure. A common technique was to sever a Tutsi’s hands and feet (‘cutting him down to size’, in the génocidaires’ parlance), and leave him to die in agony. Women were raped en masse, then drenched with petrol and set on fire; others were skewered from vagina to throat with sharpened poles. Parents were forced to drown their children in latrines before being tossed in themselves. Hutus who refused to kill were often slain as well. After a hard day’s work, the murderers partied together, swilling beer and barbecuing stolen cattle.

The aftermaths of the Holocaust and the Rwandan catastrophe were equally dissimilar. The victorious Allies tried 22 Nazi leaders at Nuremberg; 12 were sentenced to death, and seven to prison. Aside from a few hundred lesser war criminals, the vast majority of Holocaust perpetrators went unpunished. And Hitler had triumphed in one crucial respect: Germany was almost entirely Judenfrei.

But in Rwanda, about 300,000 Tutsis survived the genocide; another 700,000 returned from exile after the RPF victory. The RPF proclaimed that Rwandans must learn to live again as one people; they formed a coalition government with Hutu opposition figures, and outlawed all forms of discrimination. Among societies that have experienced genocide, such an effort at reconciling perpetrators and survivors was unprecedented. ‘No one else has attempted it,’ observes Philip Gourevitch, whose We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998) is among the definitive books on recent Rwandan history. ‘Nobody has even come close.

Rwandans would have to move beyond a grudging co-existence. True unity would require a kind of psycho-spiritual sacrifice from the offender as well as the offended

The new regime, under General and later President Paul Kagame, also promised justice. But the jails were filled to bursting, and the judicial system was overwhelmed. So Rwanda turned to an unorthodox alternative for rank-and-file perpetrators: informal gaçaça courts, based on traditional practices. Between 2005 and 2012, these assemblies – presided over by elected judges, and attended by entire villages – tried 2 million people, convicting 65 per cent of them and acquitting the rest. Defendants who confessed and apologised were given reduced prison sentences or remanded to community service.

Implicit in gaçaça was the idea that reconciliation is more important than a strict accounting for the crimes of ordinary génocidaires. Kagame preached a vision of transformation, in which Rwanda would become a prosperous, orderly, modern meritocracy – an African Singapore. To reach this goal, Rwandans would have to move beyond a grudging coexistence. True unity would require a kind of psycho-spiritual sacrifice from the offender as well as the offended. After paying at least part of his debt to society, the perpetrator would be encouraged to request forgiveness; the survivor would be encouraged to grant it.

‘There is no other remedy but to work together,’ Kagame said. ‘In grief we must find strength.’

In some respects, council seems to be a perfect vehicle for cultivating this type of attitudinal shift. I first saw the method in action in 2013, as Seide began his programme at Salinas Valley State Prison in Central California – a fortress of cellblocks and dusty yards bounded by a 5,000-volt electric fence. A dozen inmates showed up for the two-day training: African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, a pre-op transsexual. Acting as facilitator, Seide encouraged participants to speak and listen ‘from the heart’.

At the start, the inmates sat separated by ethnicity and gender identity, their tattooed arms defensively crossed. But as the weekend progressed, they began to bond. They laughed, wept and achieved epiphanies – about the people they’d hurt, the armour they’d hidden behind. By the end, they seemed astonished by their breakthroughs. I was impressed, too. Over the following months, Seide secured funding to start programmes at 12 more prisons across the state. When he got the go-ahead to introduce the practice in Rwanda, I was eager to see how he would fare with a very different prison population.

But when I first followed Seide to Kigali, in September 2014, a bureaucratic logjam arose. Seide and Higiro spent three weeks trying to clear it. Between appointments with government officials, our group toured massacre sites, with Higiro – goateed and shrewd-eyed, in constant communion with his BlackBerry – as escort. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where 250,000 bodies lie buried in mass graves. We moved on to the Ntarama church compound, where 5,000 were murdered. The pews in the Roman Catholic sanctuary were draped with victims’ clothing, and in a Sunday-school classroom there was a large stain where babies’ heads had been smashed against the wall.

Elsewhere, we saw a society that had gone far toward mending. The avenues teemed with vehicles and pedestrians. High-rises were going up. We visited a ‘reconciliation village’, where repentant perpetrators live alongside their victims’ families in neat concrete huts. Although most Rwandans are Christians, reconciliation has indeed become a kind of state religion, with apostasy punishable by law. (‘Genocide denial’ is sometimes used as a pretext to jail independent journalists and political figures; a few have died under suspicious conditions.) But the members of the Rwanda Center for Council were clearly true believers.

Solange Uwantege, a 35-year-old with delicate features, embodied the group’s spirit. When she was 13, her father was tortured to death by Hutu policemen. Two years later, during the genocide, Solange fled through the bush with her sisters until they reached a patch of RPF-controlled territory. Her mother and many other family members were killed. For years, anger gnawed at her, along with a yearning to understand the blood lust.

Pursuing a Master’s degree in genocide studies, Solange interviewed perpetrators in prison. ‘I found there was no why,’ she told me. These were normal people who’d been bombarded with the dehumanising propaganda of Hutu Power for their entire lives. Convinced that the Tutsis were treacherous ‘cockroaches’ bent on murdering or enslaving Hutus, they obeyed conscientiously when commanded to kill. For Solange, this revelation spurred a resolve to foster re-humanisation. She began working with the University of Rwanda’s Center for Conflict Management. And when she heard about Higiro’s talking-circle NGO, she joined immediately.

Seide held a training workshop for beginning practitioners at the headquarters of the Rwandese Association of Trauma Counselors. At the end, there was a council session, which morphed into a veritable symphony of mutual understanding. In a shed-like conference room, about 30 people – Hutus and Tutsis, Rwandans and foreigners, of several different faiths – shared stories about their families, fears, dreams, favourite foods, and cherished pastimes. After I described my tribe’s tradition of Passover, a Muslim woman brought me a trinket to take home to my wife.

But when our trip came to an end, we still hadn’t gotten inside a prison.

Like other Rwandan survivors who’d undergone a similar change of heart, Solange told me that forgiving her former tormentors liberated her from a crippling burden. Several scientific studies confirm this notion, finding benefits in forgiveness ranging from lower rates of depression to fewer heart attacks. But studies also show that forgiveness isn’t always positive. For women in abusive relationships, for example, forgiving a partner who fails to change his behaviour often leads to worsening abuse.

Another challenge for forgiveness advocates is that researchers disagree on the definition of the term. Some consider forgiveness to be simply a letting go of the wish to harm the offender; others insist that it must include the growth of positive thoughts or feelings. And cultural factors can further muddy the waters. When a white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers recently in Charleston, South Carolina, some of their relatives publicly forgave the shooter even though he expressed no remorse – a response consistent with Christian notions of charity and grace. Under Jewish law, however, no one is permitted to forgive a wrongdoer on another person’s behalf; murder is therefore unforgivable, because the victim cannot speak for himself.

Comparative studies indicate that Westerners tend to see forgiveness as occurring primarily within the personal experience of the forgiver and the forgiven. For people from more collectivistic cultures, including Africans and Latin Americans, acts of reconciliation often play a more central role. In Rwanda, a repentant génocidaire will reveal the location of a missing corpse, so that the victim’s family can bury the remains; he might also offer to care for a survivor’s crops or cattle.

Such gestures help rebuild civility, but restoring trust requires more. That is where Seide, with his focus on shared narrative, hoped to intervene. It was May 2015 when he finally received permission to enter Rwandan prisons, and we flew back from LA. Two days before the scheduled demonstration at Gasabo, however, during a planning meeting, he dropped a bombshell: ‘We don’t have a team that’s ready to go.’ No one in the Rwanda Center for Council, it seemed, was qualified as an instructor by US standards, which demand three levels of training and certification by a panel of experts.

Most of the attendees seemed stunned, and Higiro was furious. Not only was his competence being questioned, but the work he’d planned with prisoners could come to a halt. ‘This must continue,’ he said, and several Rwandan officials backed him up. I could feel all the carefully built cultural bridges begin to sway.

Seide insisted that the program could not begin in earnest until Rwandan trainers were certified, which could take several months. But two of his VIP backers – California’s inspector general and a former Hollywood producer – were already on their way. So on the appointed day, he went to sit with the génocidaires at Gasabo’s great hall.

‘Let’s begin with a dedication,’ Seide said, passing the Hacky Sack to the thin man on his left while Higiro translated back and forth. ‘What is the meaning of these items?’ the inmate asked, frowning at Seide’s display: LED candles, coloured stones, ceramic hearts, a Native American medicine bag. ‘He thinks they are juju – witchcraft,’ a correctional officer whispered in my ear. Seide explained that the objects could be used as talking pieces, but the prisoner seemed unconvinced.

‘Our main problem is what happens when we leave prison. We don’t have issues with anyone, but they have issues with us’

‘In our tradition,’ another inmate said, ‘if the family meets, it’s because an elder has chosen a topic. What is the topic?’

‘I don’t have an agenda,’ said Seide. ‘But in California, we find this helps people feel connected to their brothers and gives them a lot of strength. I would propose to show you the model and ask you if you think it might be valuable.’

The inmates still looked skeptical. Then Higiro rose and began an oration in Kinyarwanda, gesturing toward Seide, the circle, and the heavens. Finally a scar-faced giant said: ‘If we’re here to talk about our problems, our main problem is what happens when we leave prison. We don’t have issues with anyone, but they have issues with us.’

The thin man grabbed a candle, switched it on, and declared: ‘I want to dedicate this to my victims. I feel them in my spirit.’

A man in a yellow cap followed: ‘I dedicate this candle to the person who put me in prison. God says: “I will try you”, but I’m pretty sure I have overcome.’

‘I’d like to ask you to say something about your names,’ Seide said, looking relieved. But when the men chimed in, Higiro didn’t bother to translate, as if demonstrating the limits of Seide’s certified skills.

‘Say three words about how you’re feeling in your heart and your body,’ Seide tried again.

Several men simply said ‘calm’. Others went on at length – again, untranslated. Seide’s eyes grew glazed. He ended the session by asking the group to clap once in unison. It took three attempts to achieve a ragged synchrony, and they were gone.

‘The participation was not amazing,’ a correctional officer said, ‘but maybe next time it gets better.’

‘I would ask you to learn and listen,’ Seide chastised Higiro, who chose not to respond.

The mood lifted after the first VIP landed in Kigali. The California Inspector General Robert Barton is a muscular ex-prosecutor with a bullet head and a steely gaze. Our group accompanied him to a meeting with the Chief of the Rwanda Correctional System,where Barton, whose prison population of 130,000 is the same size as Rwanda’s at its peak, lauded his hosts’ accomplishments. ‘Your culture is doing a better job reintegrating a more horrific population than ours,’ he assured them. He also praised council, describing it as a tool for helping inmates accept responsibility and learn nonviolent ways of solving conflicts. Seide and Higiro beamed.

The next morning we visited Nsinda Prison, an hour east of Kigali. Inside the perimeter, inmates tended fields of crops that would feed the facility’s 7,700 residents. At Barton’s request, we were allowed a glimpse of the living quarters – a collection of huge dormitory tents and two-story cellblocks, set in a walled-off dirt yard.

In the prison director’s office, we sat on leatherette sofas as six inmates, all middle-aged or older, faced us on a wooden bench. An officer introduced them as members of the Anti-Genocide Club. The leader, a mild-faced man with gold-rimmed glasses, stood and spoke. Since the club started a year ago, he boasted, ‘there have been 753 letters written to families by 502 genociders.’ In many cases, the letters contained information on missing bodies.

‘These guys came up with an idea and put it in action,’ a correctional official said proudly. ‘They are good people.’

Good people? The phrase made my head spin. This official, I knew, was a Tutsi – a former RPF guerrilla who helped overthrow the genocidal regime. Who was I to question his judgement?

‘First, the world is filled with both good and evil – was, is, will always be’

Here was the forgiveness conundrum in all its perplexity. As the inmates filed out, I remembered the stain on the Sunday school wall. I also remembered a passage from The Lucifer Effect (2007), an investigation by the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo of the processes by which good people turn evil. Zimbardo ran the Stanford Experiment, a landmark 1971 study in which university students were assigned the roles of guard or prisoner. The young men were from ordinary families; none showed signs of cruelty or mental instability. But after a week of playing their parts, the guards had turned so abusive, and the prisoners so dangerously demoralised, that the experiment had to be halted.

Zimbardo posits three psychological truths: ‘First, the world is filled with both good and evil – was, is, will always be. Second, the barrier between good and evil is permeable and nebulous. And third, it is possible for angels to become devils and… for devils to become angels.’

In the West, Zimbardo writes, most institutions treat the criminal as ‘sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane, or irrational’. But history shows that social forces can turn masses of decent people into bad ones. To cure them, Zimbardo calls for a ‘public health model’ of therapy and rehabilitation, which relies as much on treating the community as the individual. The Rwandans seem to have come to this insight on their own.

Back in the van, our group traded observations: the relaxed demeanour of the guards, who were sometimes seen with an arm draped around a prisoner’s shoulder. The polite behaviour of the inmates, who showed none of the aggressive posturing common among their American counterparts. ‘If that had been a prison back home,’ Barton marvelled, ‘they would have been yelling at us.’

We drove on to a work camp for convicts who were doing community service in exchange for reduced sentences – a program known as TIG (Traveaux d’interêts généraux). The guards here were unarmed; the inmates, dubbed tigistes, are trusted to remain in camp of their own accord. About 200 blue-uniformed parolees, including a few women, sat in an outdoor amphitheater. Having risen before dawn to do construction labour, they looked profoundly weary. But after the visitors’ speeches, they put on a rousing song-and-dance routine, in which the officers participated heartily.

The convicts then engaged the visitors in a Q and A, gasping when Barton mentioned the prevalence of inmate violence in the US and the 740 prisoners on California’s death row. Rwanda, they reminded him, abolished capital punishment in 2007. No one needed to point out that elsewhere — even in the nation that styles itself the global arbiter of human rights — most people in this camp could have received the ultimate penalty.

The slender woman who led the singing stepped forward. ‘The past government encouraged many Rwandans to participate in killings,’ she said, ‘but this government encouraged us to be unified again. For those who confessed and pled guilty, the government allowed us the freedom you are seeing here.’

The woman could have been a plant, or merely out to win points with her keepers. But it was also conceivable that she was genuinely grateful for the chance to pay her debt and reenter society.

The producer’s arrival dispelled any remaining animosity between Seide and Higiro. Scott Budnick is a short, hyperactive, unflaggingly schmoozy 38-year-old with cropped dark hair and a scruffy beard; after making many millions on the Hangover movies, he now devotes himself to his longtime passion – correctional reform. He mentors juvenile offenders most weekends, and founded an organisation that supports and advocates for ex-cons.

We returned to Gasabo with Budnick for another council demonstration. Again, the circle held about 20 inmates. But this time, instead of laying out an intimidating assortment of objects on the central mat, Seide placed a single straw calabash – a Rwandan symbol of reconciliation. And instead of launching directly into ritual, he did some explaining. ‘I’m the Director of an NGO that helps prisoners get ready to reenter their communities, and helps communities get ready to receive them,’ he said, as Higiro translated. The men looked eager to begin.

Seide made the first prompt: ‘What is the most beautiful thing in the world to you? I would say the eyes of my daughter.’

‘My wife,’ said a prisoner missing several teeth.

‘My family and my country,’ said a wiry man in his 30s.

‘The God that has protected me and brought peace to our country,’ said an elder with a staff.

When the round was done, Seide pulled a piece of rose quartz from his duffel bag. ‘This was given to me by a prisoner in California named Donny,’ he said. He passed the stone, asking that each inmate say the name of someone he hasn’t seen in a long time.

Then Budnick took the talking piece. ‘We have a society in the US that weighs too heavily on punishment and not enough on forgiveness,’ he said. ‘We’re here to learn from you. And we’d love to invite any of you to California when you get out.’

Unless he paid for the trip, of course, it was unlikely they could afford it. But the Rwandans, ever courteous, just laughed.

The next day we drove with Budnick to the TIG camp. My companions seemed optimistic again about council’s chances in Rwanda’s prisons. On the way out, along a bone-shaking dirt road, I tried to weigh the odds. Five members of the Rwanda Center for Council had committed to fulfilling Seide’s certification requirements, which would involve travel to LA as well as visits from US trainers. Seide had offered to write a grant proposal. But could the cultural gaps be bridged? And would the trainees be able to take the time out of their work and family lives? Perhaps they would decide the inmates didn’t need a California-style talking circle after all. Maybe they would invent a new Rwandan version.

At the camp, Budnick recorded a video addressed to the White House. ‘Your Excellency, President Obama,’ said a bald man with a lined face, ‘we are requesting that you do all possible to unite Americans so that those who were offended and the offenders become one.’

Then the tigistes began to dance again. Seide, Higiro and others from our group joined them. When someone beckoned me into the scrum of penitents, it seemed wrong to refuse.