He kneels besides the alter inside Rugango Catholic Parish, not for the ordinary penitence before a priest, but to apologise for the crimes he committed inside that very church during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Twenty-four years ago, Boniface Hakizimana, together with other militia members, attacked those who had sought refuge in the church, killing hundreds with machetes and other traditional weapons.
Standing next to Hakizimana are two women; Beatrice Mukangamije and Speciose Mukamugema, who lost seven and five family members, respectively, at the hands of Hakizimana.
They are all close neighbours and residents of Mbazi Sector in Huye District
Hakizimana admits he personally killed all of them. Even though he served a ten-year prison sentence, he says his life in the community after release was always difficult because of the stigma.
He said that he was always nervous to meet people he wronged or talk to them.
“When the Genocide started, we had been mobilised to kill all Tutsi to protect our ethnic group, I personally killed Mukangamije’s seven family members, including her mother and siblings. I also killed five members of Mukamugema’s family and several others, I can’t remember the number,” he revealed.
Hakizimana was on Monday addressing hundreds of people who flocked to Rugango parish where 18 people apologised for their roles in the Genocide.
For many years, Mukangamije and Mukamugema never knew Hakizimana was the one who killed their loved ones until late last year when a healing process, which involves former convicts apologising to survivors to be granted forgiveness, started.
The programme is an initiative of Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga and seeks to foster healing of wounds of Genocide survivors and the guilt of perpetrators as part of efforts to promote unity and reconciliation.
At the Rugango parish, the programme started in September last year after both sides agreed to a facilitated joint healing process.
It is through this programme that Hakizimana made up his mind and decided it was time for him to approach the two survivors to seek their forgiveness, a journey he says was not easy.
“Having been released from the prison was not enough and I felt I was still a prisoner in my heart. I never felt relieved, when I approached Beatrice and Veneranda to apologise, I found it difficult to tell them what happened and my role,” he says
During the mass, that marked the end of the two groups’ healing journey, Genocide convicts who had served their sentences knelt down in the church with survivors holding on their shoulders as clerics prayed for complete healing.
“I now feel relieved than I ever thought I could be. I live in harmony with the families that forgave me and I support them in any way I can. I always visit Veneranda and Beatrice and we share meals and drinks, though we can’t bring back the lives of the people we killed, there is hope for unity and reconciliation, thus a better future,” he says
Survivors speak out
Mukamugema said that, for many years, she could not imagine speaking to anyone who had killed her family let alone forgiving them.
It was not until she was approached by facilitators who took her through the healing process, along with those who killed her loved ones and realised it was in her interest to listen to the perpetrators, forgive them as it would help heal her and those who wronged her.
“I wondered how Boniface could be my church mate and read the Bible for us. I walked far from him and I could rarely talk to him, but as we continued to pray together I started thinking he might have changed, one day he came to my home and asked for forgiveness, he told me he had killed my family members, he burst into tears and I went back to my room and cried,” she says.
“Boniface was not among the people I could suspect to have killed my people until he opened up. I forgave him as I realised he had changed, thanks to the healing process we underwent together. I forgave him and felt relieved,” she added.
Unity and reconciliation as a journey
Fidel Ndayisaba, the executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), hailed the Catholic Church’s efforts, especially Rugango parish, in promoting unity and reconciliation.
He said the timing was good for Christians who believe in Easter and just as the country is about to embark on commemoration of Genocide.
He urged both parties to always look forward to better relations and to foster unity.
The healing process, that ended on Monday, was started by 27 people but only 18 of them graduated. At least 60 Genocide survivors have undergone the process and forgiven those who killed their people.
Started in 2005, the programme has so far seen over 300 Genocide convicts pardoned and reconciled with Genocide survivors in various parishes including Mushaka (Rusizi District), Ntendezi (Nyamasheke District),Nyamata (Bugesera District), Kibirizi (Southern Province) and Rugango in Huye District, according to officials.