In the front yard of Kiziguro Catholic Parish is a blossoming small eucalyptus plantation.
Twenty-four years ago, this spot hosted a sector-level meeting that planned the massacre of about 20,000 people in this area and many others in neighbouring sectors during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The meetings were mainly chaired by the notorious former mayor of the former Murambi commune, Jean Baptiste Gatete, according to several eyewitnesses, including Genocide survivor Apollinaire Karangwa.
Murambi is part of the present-day Gatsibo District.
“The memories I have of this place are haunting… I remember passing by and saw many people gathered here and heavily armed with machetes, clubs and guns. It was a rainy afternoon, and I was running heading to the hospital (a few kilometres away) where many people were hiding,” Karangwa said.
Thousands of Tutsi were later murdered in and around Kiziguro Catholic Church. Karangwa’s mother, two of his brothers and a sister were among the victims. “I lost so many other relatives as a result of the actions of people like Gatete and other extremists”.
Gatete was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
One of the few relatives of Karangwa that also survived the killings is his brother Laurent Rutinduka.
Somehow, Rutinduka managed to flee Kiziguro and ended up in Burundi before returning to Rwanda in 1995. He later joined a seminary and today is a priest at the same church – Kizigura – where his loved ones and thousands others were killed during the Genocide.
Fast forward, 24 years later, the former killing ground was last week the venue for ‘a reconciliation encounter’ between Genocide perpetrators and survivors.
The same perpetrators who wielded machetes and clubs and combed the same village killing the Tutsi are now remorseful and have sought forgiveness from the survivors and the communities they terrorized back then.
Twenty-two convicts from Nsinda Prison in Rwamagana District, on their own volition, returned to their scene of crime to face the victims of their atrocious actions, many of them having lost loved ones in cold blood at the hands these convicts.
The decision is the result of years of outreach and engagement by Prison Fellowship, an international Christian organisation that conducted healing programmes in Nsinda – home to over 7,000 Genocide perpetrators – with view to help them overcome their dark past and gather the courage to show remorse and reconcile with the survivors.
Father Rutinduka, a survivor of the killings at this church and surrounding areas, led Mass that preceded the reconciliation exercise last week. In his sermon, he called for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
“God is transforming this place, we are all the children of God,” he said.
Speaking to The New Times after the sermon, Karangwa said: “We survived to love, to forgive and rebuild this community…and our nation, an all-inclusive country the next generation will be proud to call home”.
After Rutinduka had delivered the sermons, Pastor Pascal Niyomugabo, from Prison Fellowship Rwanda, took the microphone and began to narrate how he and other volunteers visited Nsinda Prison to engage Genocide perpetrators in pursuit of spiritual rehabilitation, with hope that they would reform and reconcile with the victims of their actions and the communities they come from.
He said many Genocide convicts had for so long lied to their families about their role in the killings.
This, he said, had undermined reconciliation efforts.
“It is commendable that these people have come out to face their past and make peace with their victims,” Niyomugabo said before calling the convicts by name, one by one to speak.
‘Please forgive us’
Among the convicts present were two brothers – Emmanuel Rutayisire and Faustin Rutaremara. They are both serving a life sentence for genocide.
Rutayisire, in his mid-40s, in a soft tone, is the next to speak – amid an air of silence.
He narrates how he was part of the militia that attacked village after village across Kiziguro Sector, killing the Tutsi, including neighbours and family friends he had known since his birth.
“Before the killings began on April 7, 1994, our mother (Bellancilla Twagiramariya) warned us against getting involved.
‘‘She asked us to protect the Tutsi instead because she believed that the crime would come back to haunt us if we ever took part in the killings. Unfortunately, we didn’t heed her advice,” Rutayisire said with regret.
Immediately after the Genocide, Rutayisire masqueraded as a pastor and teacher before his cover was blown.
“I have come back to apologise to the families of the victims I killed, the survivors and to my mother who, despite her good advice, I went ahead and took part in the killings; I am tired of hiding my crimes, I led the attack on Dismas Gasangwa’s home simply because they were Tutsi, I wholeheartedly seek forgiveness, I have nothing more to hide, we were killers, animals, no punishment is commensurate with the gravity of my crime, I want to clear my conscience before God,” he says emotionally.
He says one of the reasons behind his decision to come clean was an incident involving her daughter, who once visited him in prison, and when she asked him why he was behind bars, he lied to her that he was being victimised.
“I am also being haunted by our mother’s advice shortly before I and my brother got involved in the Genocide, she warned us saying that ‘my sons, they have started killing the Tutsi for no reason, but please never get involved in shedding blood’. I deeply apologise to my mother, even during the Gacaca courts I was never open to her, I kept insisting that I was innocent, I am very sorry about that mama, I am very sorry for the distress and pain we caused you,” Rutayisire confesses before asking his elder brother, Rutaremara, to step forward.
Mother says sons’ confession a relief
The two brothers then sink to their knees to seek forgiveness from the victims of their actions and the community. And from their mother too.
Their mother steps forward from the crowd. She joins her two sons in front and takes the microphone. With a heavy heart, she recalls how she discouraged her sons from taking part in the killings but in vain. “They caused me unimaginable pain.”
“I raised my kids as a single mother but in the best way possible, I taught them to love everyone, but they disappointed me when they chose a wicked path, against my advice and the values I had imparted in them,” Twagiramariya says emotionally, causing many around to shed tears.
She adds: “I am ashamed of their deeds, I am terribly sorry to all those who were affected by my son’s actions, and to all the Genocide survivors and the community.
Twagiramariya, however, says that she was somewhat relieved by their courage to confess and seek forgiveness. “I didn’t know all about that, I am somehow relieved as well.”
Ultimately, one by one, survivors whose loved ones died at the hands of Rutaremara and Rutayisire say they have forgiven the brothers. It’s an emotional scene. Hugs are exchanged. A few minutes of catching up, then some giggles here and there. And air of relief is evident.
Moments later, the inmates are driven back to Nyagatare Prison.
“Now I know that my sons will serve their sentence with a somewhat clear conscience, they have spoken the truth and it relieves them,” their mother says.
She adds: “For long they had refused to acknowledge their role in the Genocide and I was bitter about it.”
Languida Kamondo, one of the Genocide survivors whose relatives were killed by the two brothers, commended their “bravery”.
“It’s not easy to own up to such a crime, from what I saw Rutayisire was honest as he spoke,” she says.
Karangwa said: “I think if our country is to heal from the wounds of the Genocide, we need brave people who are going to come out, own up to their mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Survivors are willing to forgive and to start anew chapter”.
So far, over 25,000 Genocide convicts have admitted to their roles through Prison Fellowship Rwanda’s conciliatory programme.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi left over 1 million people dead.
According to a recent Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer, reconciliation among Rwandans had reached a commendable rate of 92.5 per cent in 2015, from 82.3 per cent in 2010.
However, it also pointed to several threats, including ethnic-based stereotypes (as expressed by 27.9 per cent of citizens), persistence of genocide ideology (as cited by 25.8 per cent of citizens), and the wounds resulting from the Genocide and divisive past (as reported 4.6 per cent of citizens).
But Pastor Niyomugabo believes total reconciliation and healing is possible. “Confessions bring walls down,” he says. “With more convicts opening up we see new possibilities.”