Giheta and Ruseke villages sit on two adjacent hills. The two villages are just a stone throw away from each other at the border between Musambira and Nyarubaka sectors of Kamonyi District.
They are typical of rural settlements, with scattered houses linked by sneaky pathways that snake through banana plantations before reaching homes.
It takes just about ten minutes for one to move from one village to the other.
Small streams that flow between the two villages offer fresh air and serve as the main source for the lone well that is a source of water to the residents of both villages.
But the story of the two villages is a clear testimony of how the divide between Rwandans was deepened during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi when people were hunted down by compatriots, their neighbours.
However, it is also an unravelling testimony of the true reconciliation that has taken root through repentance and forgiveness.
The tale of the two villages dates to the period before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Testimonies indicate that the two villages had noticeable differences. Giheta was mainly occupied by those who were called Hutu while Ruseke was dominated by those who were regarded Tutsi.
When darkness struck and the country slid into anarchy in 1994, the seeming friendship and ties between residents of the two villages soured and degenerated into massive killings.
Mobilised by some of the then local leaders and under the influence of the hate ideology that had been promoted long before the Genocide, many of the Giheta residents took up arms and launched attacks against their neighbours in Ruseke.
Many Tutsi were killed and those who survived were left with both physical and psychological injuries.
The attackers also looted property, destroyed houses and crops belonging to their neighbours as the killing spree intensified.
“Those who didn’t participate in the killings or looting did nothing to prevent the massacres,” narrates Claude Mutarindwa, 38, a resident and leader of Giheta village.
Thorny reconciliation path
Mutarindwa says after the Genocide was stopped, the villages sunk into total ‘partition’-with residents on either side refusing to greet each other.
Relations, he says, were at the time strained and extremely tense. Even the lone trail that links Giheta village to the nearest trading centre through Ruseke village was abandoned.
“People preferred other paths, walking longer distances instead of moving through this village and risk meeting survivors,” Mutarindwa says.
After years of deliberations and careful consideration, Mutarindwa decided things must change for the better and started pioneering efforts to reconcile the two villages.
He called for a meeting of residents of the two villages attended by victims of the Genocide, perpetrators and those who did not participate in the killings but looked on as the Tutsi were being killed.
During the discussions, he encouraged perpetrators to take the initiative to seek forgiveness and the victims to forgive and seek reconciliation.
The majority agreed that time for change had come and heeded his advice.
“At the beginning, it was our own initiative as residents of both villages. But after forwarding a report of what we did to the authorities, they later came in and supported us,” Mutarindwa says
After contacting their counterparts in the other village, in the mid-2000s, the Giheta residents went to seek forgiveness for the heinous acts some of their members had committed against their neighbours.
“We wanted to show the survivors that we had changed. It was like paying a small price for what happened,” Mutarindwa says.
Around 2006, many Giheta residents headed to Ruseke and this time around, everyone carried something, ranging, from hoes to seedlings.
“For three consecutive days, we tilled their gardens and planted a variety of crops as a sign of repentance and good neighbourliness,” Mutarindwa says.
He says that there were, however, survivors who doubted the ‘killers’ intentions and remained cautious.
“We thought it was a malicious way of bringing us closer for easy extermination,” admits Domitila Mukabandora, 66, a survivor, adding that many Ruseke residents fled for dear lives the first day Giheta residents came to cultivate in the village.
But as days went by, Mukabandora says, the survivors realised that their offenders were sincere, and forgave them.
“It was a painful decision but we realised that forgiveness would enable us put the past behind us and start a new life,” she says.
“We forgave those who killed our relatives and looted our property unconditionally,” says Daphrose Mukarubayiza, 50, another survivor.
Forgiveness opened up a new chapter in the relations of the two villages, once again bringing them closer despite their bitter past.
Gradually, residents of the two villages begun to visit each other and started growing crops together.
To cement their ties, residents from the two villages resolved to create an association that unites them.
They named their association ‘Ndaje Muvandimwe Twiyunge Tugana Iterambere’ loosely translated as ‘I come to you my brother, let’s reconcile and move towards development.’
Today the group boasts 22 families, including Genocide survivors, perpetrators and other residents.
“We are now friends. We attend parties together and are no longer afraid that those who caused us pain by killing our relatives might do it again,” Mukarubayiza says.
Looking to the future
At the beginning, the association focused on building unity and cementing reconciliation among its members and, about four months ago, after realising that their prime target had been successfully attained, they started a micro-saving and credit scheme (Ikimina) to help transform the lives of members.
Each month, every member contributes Rwf500 which goes to the association’s account. Members can then borrow for personal use.
The members of Ndaje Muvandimwe Association, however, say they still face the challenge of lack of financial capacity to further invest into activities that could significantly uplift their living conditions.