When FIGHTERS of the then Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) took over the northern town of Ruhengeri in early 1991 and freed hundreds of inmates, Joseph Bagirinshuti was one of those who walked back into public life from incarceration.
The 54-year-old resident of Bukinanyana Cell in Jenda Sector, Nyabihu District says he had been in prison for more than a year on what he labels “arbitrary detention.”
Bagirinshuti returned to his home village and was never re-arrested, which he says points to the fact that he had been detained on trumped-up charges.
However, in 1994 irony struck Bagirinshuti square as he found himself committing atrocities against the people the then government had linked to the same “liberators” (RPA) that had given him a chance to walk out of prison three years earlier.
During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Bagirinshuti, then aged 34, joined other extremist militiamen in the hunt and killing of Tutsis.
After the Genocide, Bagirinshuti was not immediately arrested; he remained a “free member” of his community.
But his guilt continued to gnash at his conscience.
“I couldn’t sit and relax because of the crimes I had committed,” he says sitting on white plastic chair in Mukamira centre. “I knew by taking part in the killings I had committed grave crimes.”
“It was a traumatic experience. My heart was always telling me that what I did was terrible; that I needed to do something to correct it.”
Fight against insurgents
So, in 1997, when remnants of Interahamwe militia intensified attacks in the north and north-western parts of the country, Bagirinshuti thought he had been offered a chance to make amends.
“I was ashamed by what I did and wanted to prove that I was a changed man,” he argues.
“If I took part in the killings (1994), it was because leaders had for years taught us to hate Tutsis. So I believed that Tutsis were our enemy. But afterwards, I realised I was totally wrong.”
He then joined the ranks of the Local Defence Forces (LDF) with the will to assist in the fight against insurgents.
Bagirinshuti says as an LDF member he helped soldiers who were fighting to tackle insurgency in the late 1990s, sometimes accompanying them to the battlefield.
“I was ready to pay any price for my mistakes, even if that meant losing my life,” he says. “I wasn’t ready to see the same people who lured us into killing our neighbours coming back to destabilise the country that was clearly on course toward peace and unity.”
Bagirinshuti says insurgents, angry at his support of government forces, killed his wife in retaliation.
Back to prison
Bagirinshuti remained a member of the Local Defence Force even after the soldiers had defeated the infiltrators. This time round, he worked with others to enforce security in his home village.
When the homegrown Gacaca courts were initiated in 2002 to try those responsible for the 1994 pogrom, Bagirinshuti was charged with genocide.
Before a Gacaca court, he owned up to his acts and publicly sought forgiveness.
In 2005, he returned behind bars, spending two years and seven months in correctional service.
While in prison, Bagirinshuti says he approached his fellow inmates who were yet to own up to their acts and encouraged them to seek forgiveness.
“I told them that repentance will help both them and survivors to heal,” he says, adding that many heeded his advice.
When he was released from prison in 2007, he returned to his community where he says he continues to work with others on the journey to reconciliation, unity and national development.
“The Genocide was a product of bad leadership. Many of us had been brought up to hate instead of love and that led us to kill our fellow countrymen. I strongly regret what I did,” Bagirinshuti says.
“After the Genocide, the new government invested efforts and resources in building a new country and did all possible to foster unity. That is an unequalled opportunity we have today.”
He says he is now a reformed man dedicated to preaching unity using own life experience.
Bagirinshuti adds that younger generations are being given a chance to live in a country free of discrimination and divisionism, something he says gives him hope and makes him confident that there will be no more genocide in the country.
“I will continue to invest my efforts in anything that seeks to ensure that the darkness that befell our country never happens anymore,” he vows.
“I’ll continue preaching love and unity among my children, friends and neighbours. I will actively stand up against any ideology that might promote divisionism, hatred or discrimination. That is the least I can do for a country I helped destroy 20 years ago.”