When I found Narcisse Ruhangintwali and Gusta Mukansonera cracking funny jokes, laughing and patting each other’s shoulders as they spread newly harvested groundnuts to dry, I thought the two residents of Ngeruka Sector, Gihembe Cell in Bugesera District are childhood friends. They are not.
Behind the strong bond between these two members of Duhumurizanye Twubake Ubumwe n’Ubwiyunge, a local self-help community organisation, is a chilling murder in 1994 of three children during the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Mukansoneras children; Liberata Uwamahoro , Emmanuel Nshimiyimana and Silvain Nizeyimana who were six, five and three years old respectively, were murdered on a Saturday afternoon in April in their home as they hid from marauding extremists.
The killer happened to be a neighbour, Narcisse Ruhangintwali, now their mother’s best friend.
In Ngeruka, memories are still fresh among residents how Ruhangintwali hacked to death children even as they wailed and pleaded to him to spare their lives.
Yet, while Mukansonera narrates the story, in the presence of Ruhangintwali, how her children were killed and buried in a shallow grave in her compound, she talks with the calmness of a mother who has since put behind her painful past and taken giant strides on a long journey to reconciliation.
The journey to reconciliation started when Ruhangintwali was in jail in Rilima Prison for his role in the Genocide.
“A priest used to come to tell us that we shall never have peace of mind, let alone go to heaven, unless we repent and seek God’s mercy for our sins,” said Ruhangintwali, who is in his late 50s. The sermons worked.
In 2001 Ruhangintwali wrote to the head of Rilima Prison and poured out his heart, detailing how he murdered Mukansonera’s children and with the help of a gang of killers, buried them in a shallow grave. He concluded by seeking pardon from Mukansonera’s family, and forgiveness from God.
His testimony and apology was sent to Mukansonera to confirm whether the inmate had given a full account of the murders and whether she would forgive him.
Her initial reaction to the apology was not near.
“The testimony only revived my sadness and I felt that instead of forgiving that man, I would rather commit suicide,” she said.
With time however, Mukansonera changed her mind.
“I understood that after all, my neighbour was not the one who killed all the [nearly one million] Tutsis across the country. I was convinced that Satan was behind the evil spirits and it was the same that influenced Ruhangintwali,” she narrated.
So, she chose to forgive the killer of her children, unconditionally.
In 2003, a presidential order gave amnesty to inmates who freely and accurately confessed and apologised for their acts in the Genocide. This was aimed at promoting unity and reconciliation.
That is how Ruhangintwali was released. However, as he walked back to the community, he says that he had “more than one million reasons” to be afraid.
“First of all, Mukansonera’s brother was a soldier and I was sure that he would shoot me the first time I ran into him. Besides, Mukansonera was in extreme poverty and my conviction was that she was bitter,” Ruhangintwali said.
“You can also add that I couldn’t manage to understand you, whenever I saw children of the age of those you killed,” Mukansonera interjected as she looked straight into Ruhangintwali’s face who nodded in approval.
It was Ruhangintwali’s brother who convinced him that indeed Mukansonera had indeed forgiven him.
Today, Mukansonera is blessed with five other children from her husband who also survived the Genocide. She has three cows which graze together with Rugenintwali’s four.
“Our families are always together in times of happiness and times of sorrow. Our children play together and consider each other brothers and sisters,” Mukansonera said.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi has its genesis in Bugesera district where killings started as early as 1992. During that time, the government of the day pursued Tutsis expelled from then Gikongoro, Byumba and Ruhengeri and settled in the Tsetse fly-infested Bugesera forests.
That year, thousands of Tutsis perished, and survivors fled to neighboring Burundi. However, many others stayed in the country hoping that the situation would improve, only to be killed in The 1994 Genocide.
Most of the perpetrators were arrested, and after some time in jail, they embraced the amnesty and, like Rugenintwali, returned to their communities.
Several organisations have come in to preach reconciliation between survivors and the killers. One such organisations is the Commission of Justice and Peace, operating in all the parishes of the Roman Catholic Church country-wide.
Desiré Gakumba, a volunteer with the commission in Ruhuha Parish, said 127 perpetrators have since apologized to 67 survivors and have been forgiven. They are grouped in associations based in their neighborhoods.
Rugenintwali and Mukansonera’s association has 50 members, 20 of them survivors. Another 20 are perpetrators while ten are neutral neighbours.
A part from promoting reconciliation, the association seeks to provide shelter to those who do not have it, donate livestock and farm together. So far, the association has built over 40 houses for members, while 80 cows and goats are in rotation.
“When we give a survivor a goat, he/she gives its offspring to a former inmate and vice versa. Now we are in second rotation,” said Antoine Ngendahayo, the association’s president.
In order to raise money for a project, each family contributes Rwf 200 during weekly meetings that take place every Monday. So far, they have Rwf 2.5m on their account.
The association recently bought four hectares of land on which they planted groundnuts which I found Rugenintwali and Mukansonera drying when I visited last week.