, CYENDAJURU, Mar 6 – In the years that followed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Immaculee Mukankundiye would hear nothing of the word reconciliation.
Th 56-year-old lost her husband and three children to Hutu extremists, who happened to be neighbours in her village of Cyendajuru near the southern city of Butare.
“I thought it would be impossible to find reconciliation, to forgive my neighbour who killed my children,” she said.
But in 2007, she joined the Modeste and Innocent Association (AMI), a Catholic group set up to promote reconciliation between victims and killers. Mukankundiye says she has now been able to forgive.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down over the capital Kigali, an event that served as the spark for a genocide that had been months in preparation.
Over the next 100 days, at least 800,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them members of the ethnic Tutsi minority were murdered — by soldiers, Hutu extremist militia and even ordinary people armed with little more than a machete.
The southern province of Butare was home to around a quarter of the small central African nation’s Tutsis, and for the first 15 days of the genocide was largely untouched. When the killers finally descended on the area, around 200,000 people were killed.
Twenty years on, the question of reconciliation is still a central issue in the country, and one promoted heavily by the government of President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi and former rebel leader whose army ended the killings.
The issue is particularly felt on a daily basis in rural areas, were victims and killers who lived side by side in peace for years before the genocide now have to live together again.
Genocide survivor Laurent Sarambu, 57, regularly passes relatives of the people who killed his two daughters and who also took part in the killings but have been released from prison after serving their sentence.
“I didn’t want to speak to them or see them, and if I had had the chance I would have even taken revenge,” he said. “At first everyone stayed in their corner, but slowly, little by little, some kind of unity has returned.”
– Sharing a beer –
“I was afraid of seeing my neighbours because of what I did to them, but today I have the courage to to tell them the truth, to ask for forgiveness,” explained Emmanuel Havugimana, 52, who served time behind bars because he profitted from the genocide by looting the homes of victims.
According to Dieudonne Munyankiko, who heads AMI, ordinary Rwandans need to be pushed to express their painful emotions — something his group has been organising by setting up talking groups that mix victims and perpetrators.
“People are asked to say what they think of each other. It’s been really hard to get people to speak, and a lot of precautions needed to be taken to avoid scuffles,” he said.
For survivors, the killers were “monsters”, he explained. And for the killers, the victims were “incapable of showing forgiveness”.
Part of the scheme has involved getting the killers to help victims work the land.
That was a way of speeding up reparation payments imposed on many of the two million people sentenced between 2001 and 2012 by the “gacaca” courts, a community justice system set up to try those involved in the genocide.
The non-payment of reparations “has been one of the main obstacles to reconciliation,” said Jean-Baptiste Bizimana, executive secretary of AMI.
In addition, group members also meet for community activities, again sometimes including manual agricultural work on each others land, and afterwards they gather around a bowl of Ikigage, a local beer.
“Community projects are a way of speeding up reconciliation, because the killers and the victims would otherwise not normally get together and share a beer. But in this particular environment, people can talk while thinking about the task at hand,” Munyankiko said.
“But it doesn’t mean that people won’t be falling back into old ways, especially during the commemorations, which will be a very emotionally-charged moment,” he added, referring to a string of nationwide events marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide.
For Vianney Nkurikiyumukiza, aged 48 and one of the killers of 20 years ago, Rwandan society has come a long way.
“I never thought that I could be reintegrated, like I am now,” he said. “I’m still ashamed though about what I did.”