In Kibirizi, a remote village in Nzahaha Sector, Rusizi District, two families have done the unthinkable, turning reconciliation into a union.
Bernadette Mukakabera, who survived the Genocide against the Tutsi with her four children, took the first bold step toward reconciliation by forgiving Gratien Nyaminani, 55, a father of six who was part of the militia that killed her husband, Vedaste Kabera.
That was in 2005.
Two years later, they enlisted for the six-month module on reconciliation path, a system designed by Fr Obald Rugwizangoga in Mushaka Parish.
The priest reminded them what a sin is, the value of a human being, and the redemption that comes with confessing for a crime committed and reaching out to the aggrieved party to seek forgiveness.
But even before they were through with the course, Mukakabera’s son and Nyaminani’s daughter were getting anxious. They wanted the reconciliation sealed faster.
Mukakabera’s son, Alfred Uzabakiriho, who is currently serving with Rwanda Defence Forces, asked for a hand of Nyaminani’s only daughter, Donata Yankurije, in matrimony.
“At first, I thought he was joking, but when I found he was serious, I referred him to my father,” Yankurije said.
“I could not interfere; after all, our families were already on a track toward reconciliation, and I only saw this as an opportunity to further the process,” said Yankurije’s father,.
Today, Mukakabera is all praises for her daughter-in-law.
In fact, without any condition, Yankurije used to spend most of her days running chores for the widow whose husband her own father had killed.
Uzabakiriho, who was 12 during the Genocide and witnessed his father’s death, threw the community into confusion when he took the bold step of asking the hand in marriage from the family of the man who took his father’s life.
He is currently serving as part of an RDF peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan, and the young family has been blessed with two sons; Patrick Mahoro Gisa Da Silva, 3, and Fred Mico, 1.
Efforts bearing fruits
This case is just one among hundreds of success stories of a nationwide reconciliation efforts initiated jointly by, among others, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) and Mushaka Catholic Parish.
Fr Rugwizangoga, the then vicar of Mushaka Parish, in 2007 said followers who pleaded guilty for their role in the Genocide would not partake in the Holy Sacrament until they successfully underwent the reconciliation path.
He resolved that the perpetrators cannot be reintegrated without penance, and part of this was to reach out to those whose relatives they killed, says Fr Jean Eric Nzamwita, who succeeded Rugwizangoga.
So far, Mushaka has 148 former inmates who apologised and an equivalent number of Genocide survivors who forgave them.
Book to explain module
In a book that is currently in the editing phase, Mushaka priests explain their model of reconciliation. It starts with former inmates who join survivors in their daily challenges.
When they come together, the church puts them into groups that jointly partake in activities, such as farming and engaging in small income-generating activities to foster trust and fraternity.
Mukakabera and Nyaminani’s families are among the first fruits of Rugwizangoga’s efforts.
Their neighbours also have turned good friends; they become godfathers to their children.
Pastor Deo Gashagaza in 1995 repatriated from DR Congo and found the country in ashes.
“Being my first time in my country, and learning firsthand what had happened, I even momentarily questioned God’s existence… how could He allow such atrocities to take place? I prayed hard and God convinced me that I should do something.”
From this revelation, the concept of a national chapter of Prison Fellowship, a faith-based NGO, was born.
With colleagues, Pastor Gashagaza started preaching reconciliation in correctional centres across the country.
After the 2003 presidential amnesty to Genocide convicts, they also accompanied the former inmates, “because they were afraid the community would not accept them.”
Since then, they found a need to find shelter for the families of both survivors and former inmates who had nowhere to call home.
That is how the six-village concept, dubbed “Unity and Reconciliation Villages,” was born in Bugesera, Musanze and Kayonza districts.
Igiti cy’Umuvumu village, a name that has a biblical connotation, is one of these villages. It was set up in Mayange Sector, in Bugesera.
More than 53 families worked together to build houses that now constitute the village, where they all live in harmony and have since formed a cooperative.
Frederic Kazigwemo, the president of the village’s Abahuje cooperative, said the only problem they still have in common, is lack of enough land.
They have just a hectare where they grow cassava and the village collects money to send the youth for vocational training.
Women in the village weave traditional baskets for sale.
Bishop John Rucyahana, the chairperson of NURC, says “reconciliation in Rwanda has reached a level beyond the human imagination.”
The indicators, he said, include the fact that the community offenders pleaded guilty, apologised, and were pardoned.
Rucyahana said the remaining challenge is that the country is still dealing with wounds that were left, mainly psychological.