Ngeruka Sector in the heart of Bugesera District is home to two courageous neighbours; Chantal Umbereyimfura and Jean Nzabonimpa.
Ordinarily, the two would not be seeing each other eye to eye, but thanks to various initiatives, they are now the epitome of genuine reconciliation in the village, that many agree, was the laboratory where the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was experimented two years earlier.
Their story starts sometime in 1992, when Nzabonimpa, as member of the nascent Interahamwe militia, hacked Umbereyimfura’s father.
According to Nzabonimpa’s own testimony, authorities then mobilised them to kill the Tutsi in Bugesera, claiming that they were “our” enemies. So, his gang moved from one home to the next, killing, burning houses, looting property and the livestock of their victims. “I personally killed Umbereyimfura’s father using a machete,” he said.
Survivors such as Umbereyimfura fled to neighbouring Burundi, while others hid in churches.
Following pressure from civil society organisations and the international community, authorities made a pretentious attempt to arrest the killers.
“I was forced to escape and hide among my relatives in Huye, Southern Province,” said Nzabonimpa.
The man who said he did not kill during the 1994 Genocide, returned from the southern province in 1994 but continued into exile in Tanzania. He returned in 1996 and was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for his role in the 1992 killings.
It was in 2005 that he finally realised that he was never going to free himself from guilt unless he faced Umbereyimfura and apologised for his heinous crime.
Even after confessing to the murder and benefiting from the presidential pardon, total peace of mind eluded him as long as he did not apologise to the bereaved family.
Umbereyimfura, who returned after the Genocide was halted in August 1994, could not cross Nzabonimpa’s path, fearing that the man who killed her father, and was now free, would harm her as well.
“I stopped cultivating gardens near Nzabonimpa’s home. About forgiving him, I couldn’t imagine doing it.” She said. For about three years, the two avoided each other until 2008 when mediators intervened.
“One day, Nzabonimpa approached me, knelt down and apologised with tears. But I was not yet ready to forgive,” said Umbereyimfura.
Then another day, however, the man brewed a sorghum beer (ikigage), filled a pot and took it to Umbereyimfura’s house as a sign of remorse.
“I don’t know where the courage came from and I told him to go in peace because I had forgiven him,” she said.
The two then shared the beer. They have since shared more beer, food, exchanged gifts and even solved domestic problems together.
They agree that if love ever developed between a pair of their children, they will support the union.
This testimony has won the two some recognition and praise. For example, in 2009, the Justice and Peace Commission, a faith-based organisation run by the Catholic Church to reconcile victims and perpetrators of the Genocide, gave Umbereyinfura a heifer following her moving testimony on how she had unconditionally forgiven the man who killed her father.
That cow later became a symbol of stronger reconciliation.
“I decided that the first person to get an offspring of my cow would be Nzabonimpa. Indeed when the cow produced, I invited him to take a heifer.”
Unfortunately Nzabonimpa’s cow died before producing, denying him a chance to reciprocate the gesture. In Rwandan culture, reciprocating a donation of a heifer is considered the best way to cement a lasting friendship.
But he has not lost hope because he has invested the Rwf 50,000 a butcher paid him in piglets from which he will buy another cow when they multiply. Meanwhile Umbereyimfura’s cow continues to produce more calves. “I am looking at the possibility of finding another cow for my friend,” she promised.