Coping With the Past in Rwanda: The Road to Forgiveness

Twenty-four years ago, up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the Rwandan genocide. In the village of Mbyo, perpetrators and victims now live as neighbors.

Linda Tutmann | July 2018
Strong woman: Jaqueline survived the genocide in Rwanda.
Jacques Nkinzingabo

Strong woman: Jaqueline survived the genocide in Rwanda.

It was a sunny day when the murderers arrived. With a few strokes of their machetes, they killed Jaqueline’s family. It had rained the previous day, turning the reddish soil into a muddy quagmire. But when the girl set out to milk the cows, the sky was practically cloudless. She struggled to balance the jug full of precious milk as she trotted down the narrow paths. The corn had grown tall that month, and she would learn later that the plants’ broad leaves had kept some of her friends hidden from the attackers. But the corn couldn’t help her family. When she returned with her brimming jug of milk, Jaqueline found their lifeless bodies. They never had a chance.

The genocide in Rwanda is one of the most gruesome atrocities in Africa’s recent history. In this small country — just a little larger than Belgium — located in the middle of the continent, radical Hutus murdered between 800,000 and one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The roots of the conflict extend back into Rwanda’s colonial history. The Hutu and Tutsi were originally social groups; they were recategorized as races by the colonial powers. After independence, the government exploited this distinction to incite the majority of the Hutu against the Tutsi minority. Government propaganda on the radio station “Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines” exacerbated the situation. On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, the president at the time and himself a Hutu, was shot down. Radical Hutus used this attack as a pretext to start the genocide that they had apparently already planned — militias began slaughtering people in the capital just half an hour after the plane crash.

Twenty-four years later, she sits on a sofa in her little house, where she lives with her husband and three children. Three rooms: a bedroom, living room, and kitchen, a corrugated metal roof over their heads, a stone floor underfoot. Here in the Burgesera region, an hour from the capital city of Kigali, is where she used to live with her family, as well.

They walked for four days, hiding behind bushes

“I was certain that I would die, too,” Jaqueline says of that morning in April 1994. She can’t find the words to describe the details of how she felt that day. In a panic, she ran into the Catholic church, where other Tutsis were huddled together in fear. She found her uncle there. He had been lucky, as well. Together, they made their way to Burundi; they walked for four days, hiding behind bushes, drinking water from puddles, and eating seeds they collected along the way. “By the time we arrived in Burundi, we were no longer human beings,” she says. Strands of colorful raffia are spread out on the table in front of her; she concentrates as she weaves the dry fibers into a colorful coaster that she will sell to visitors out in the little village square. Mbyo is the name of the village — a name known far beyond Rwanda’s borders.

In weekly talks, the villagers come together – victims and perpetrators.
Jacques Nkinzingabo

In weekly talks, the villagers come together – victims and perpetrators.

The idea from a revolutionary young priest

Mbyo is the name of the village — a name known far beyond Rwanda’s borders. The village owes its fame to a fact that was unbelievable when it was first founded: in Mbyo, Hutu and Tutsi, perpetrators and families of victims like Jaqueline, live next door to one another. The revolutionary idea for the village came from a young priest, who himself is a Tutsi survivor. “How can we be ever be happy again in this country?” he asked himself, and he knew: Forgiveness was the only answer. With trembling knees, he went to a prison to meet the men who had killed members of his family. They were Hutus who, in the meantime, had been sentenced to prison terms by the new government. When he thinks back on that situation, he remembers the shouts of the prisoners that rang in his ears: 
“Why is he still alive?” they yelled. 
“He is a Tutsi! We should kill him.”
“I’m not here to accuse you of 
anything,” the priest called out. 
“Let him talk,” they agreed.
“We can always kill him after that.”

This man is Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza; he calls himself Bishop Deo. He wanted to change these men. Every two weeks, he went back to the prison and talked to the men about their crimes, about God and his faith, and he read the Bible with them. “I saw them as people, not as animals,” he says. “They learned to trust me.” What happens to the perpetrators when they are released from jail?, the pastor wondered back then. Will hatred swell up in them again?

Nobody in the village leaves the past behind them.
Jacques Nkinzingabo

Memories: Photos in a villager's home

He wanted to create a place where Hutus and Tutsis could extend a peaceful hand to one another. A place of reconciliation. Today, he is guiding a tour of the village where Jaqueline lives. Fifty-four families live here now, both Tutsi and Hutu. There’s a school, children play together, and in the evenings, they all sit together and sing Rwandan folk songs. Corn and wheat are growing in the village fields again. Everything seems peaceful. Maybe it’s too peaceful. Eerily calm. If you ask the villagers whether they are Tutsi or Hutu, the answer comes quickly, almost mechanically: “We are Rwandans.” Whether they are Tutsi or Hutu no longer matters, they say. 

Without knowledge, there can be no forgiveness

When the village was founded 15 years ago, the residents couldn’t even sit together, Deo says. The mistrust and fear was just too strong on both sides. Many of them lost everything during the genocide. Working alongside psychologists, Deo supported the families whose relatives had been killed during the genocide, as well as the perpetrators returning from prison. Together, they rebuilt the houses in Mbyo. Working together to create something was important, Deo says. On the weekends, the residents hold active discussions. There’s a soccer team where children and adults play, and they all till the fields together. But the most important thing is that they break the silence. “Without knowledge, there can be no forgiveness,” he says.

How does a life next to and with the perpetrators work?

Jaqueline also met the man who killed her family, ten years after the fact. He’s a murderer, she thought as the man stood in front of her. A Hutu who hates all Tutsis. Would he take this opportunity to kill her? Forgive him, the priest told her, because one day, you will also be granted forgiveness for your sins in heaven. The man fell to his knees in front of her, pressing his face into the dust. She was afraid. But she said: “Yes, I forgive you.” “Life must go on,” she says today. “Reconciliation is a process.”

Life must go on. Reconciliation is a process.

She speaks freely now; this isn’t the first time she’s told her story to outsiders. Mbyo is often presented as a showcase project to foreign journalists and researchers, who visit to observe how reconciliation and coexistence between Hutus and Tutsis can work. “We understand each other,” is how they respond when asked how they’ve managed to do the impossible every day: to live next to and with the perpetrators.

Frederic is now the mayor of the village of Mbyo. He now speaks for everyone who lives there.
Jacques Nkinzingabo

Frederic is now the mayor of the village of Mbyo. He now speaks for everyone who lives there.

Frederic, one of many perpetrators, also stood before a local court to ask for forgiveness. He’s a small man with a compact physique; he lives a few houses down the road from Jaqueline. In a monotone, he talks about the day he headed out with other radical Hutus. How they blocked the roads to stop the Tutsis from fleeing. How he killed people. “I was following orders,” he says. “If I had refused, they would’ve killed me, too.” He was in prison for eight years. But Frederic can’t forget his past. He often starts, his heart pounding, when he thinks back on those days in April 1994. He can’t turn back time; he knows that. But he can live — for reconciliation. For a new Rwanda.

24 years after the genocide: Reconciliation work is still important

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Rwanda is a model African country. It’s a beautiful place; green hills nestle against the horizon, and the roads are clean and free from garbage. President Paul Kagame has helped develop the country’s economy, and he is also committed to reconciliation — so committed, in fact, that some people feel he is forcing an agenda, a “dictatorship of reconciliation.” Kagame rules the country with a very firm hand; Rwanda is far from being a democracy. Some families of the victims still don’t know how their relatives died or who the perpetrators were. Bishop Deo knows that, even 24 years after the genocide, he still has work to do.

The children of the village are growing up in a new Rwanda where people say they’re Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi.
Jacques Nkinzingabo

The children of the village are growing up in a new Rwanda where people say they’re Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi.

Today, Jaqueline and Frederic are neighbors; they trust each other. Sometimes Jaqueline’s children play in Frederic’s yard. When her cow occasionally fails to produce milk, she can ask him for help. The village elected Frederic its leader, the mayor of Mbyo. He is the one who speaks for everyone today; he mediates conflicts and tries to find solutions to problems. And he makes sure that old wounds don’t reopen.

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