THEONESTE HABIMANA, like other survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, has had to defy many odds to reconcile with the people who murdered almost his entire family and orphaned him at the age of 13.
Habimana and his younger brother are the only survivors of the Genocide in a family of eight. Like other survivors, he was always upset, felt lonely and with bad memory of how his entire family perished.
“After genocide I was lonely and desperate, I had no hope for the future and didn’t want to meet any Hutu because I considered all of them killers,” he says.
“The only people I could talk to were fellow survivors, but they were very few in our area,” recalls the resident of Mataba sector in Gakenke District.
His healing process started when support started flowing in from Ibuka, the umbrella body of associations of Genocide survivors. “Ibuka and local leaders used to hold meetings and comforted us. They always told us we still had a future and encouraged us to work hard,” he says.
And as time passed on, he started feeling relieved from sorrow and started to freely interact with neighbours, irrespective of their ethnicity.
But the real relief came when Gacaca courts were introduced in the country and Habimana had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with those who killed his family members.
“When Genocide perpetrators appeared in Gacaca court and confessed their role in the Genocide with remorse, I found them positively changed,” he says.
His attitude towards the perpetrators changed because of the willingness of the perpetrators to freely confess their role in the Genocide with detail.
“Though my family and those of other Tutsis perished, I appreciated the way Gacaca courts worked. I saw it as a way of promoting national unity and reconciliation,” he says.
Gacaca courts were introduced by the government to deal with the over a million cases of persons suspected of committing the 1994 Genocide.
In 2009, Habimana realised that despite efforts to promote unity and reconciliation, neighbours still struggled to fully bury the hatchet.
“I saw that those found guilty faced justice. Others have served their sentences and have been released. I wanted to find ways through which we can live closely and harmoniously. That is why I mobilised neighbors to establish Ubumwe bwa Mataba, a farmers’ cooperative now with over 70 members. They include 27 survivors, 32 perpetrators and 14 other residents.
Habimana says that he approached those who confessed their role in genocide as well as the survivors and urged them to form a farmers’ cooperative. “I preferred a farmers’ cooperative because we are in the rural area but the main purpose was to find what could unite us. I encouraged one by one but it was a hard task. Neither survivors nor perpetrators could understand my point initially,” he added.
“I insisted until they saw my point and we started the association with 37 members.”
“We used to dig and thereafter hold short meetings to discuss unity and reconciliation. Today, I can’t tell whether one is Tutsi or Hutu because we share everything and support each other. We are all looking for a better future” he says.
Jean de Dieu Minani, a Genocide perpetrator, is a member of Ubumwe bwa Mataba.
“I participated in the killings and was jailed for nine years. When I appeared in a Gacaca court, I revealed my role in genocide and asked for forgiveness,” said the 44-year-old.
Minani says that he also revealed other perpetrators who were still at large so that they could also face justice. “Some of them were jailed after years,” he said.
“When I was released from jail, living among survivors was another big challenge. Despite having been forgiven, I still had difficulties interacting with them. I feared to approach them, but separately they approached me and we started living closely,” he says.
It was after joining the cooperative that Minani felt that those he wronged had indeed forgiven him. “We are united and I am hopeful that our children will inter-marry. I am optimistic that the future of Rwanda is brighter. No Genocide again, no discrimination,” he adds.
Another perpetrator, Jean Damascene Baragwira, said that if he had not joined the cooperative, he would not have transformed into a better person that he is today.
“The prison alone was not enough for me to get transformed, I needed social interactions and the cooperative has helped me a lot. I am now a new man who promotes unity and reconciliation and I am ready to fight against the Genocide ideology” he says.
Members of cooperative say apart from unity and reconciliation, the cooperative has managed to build its own house worth Rwf12million.
“We also make juice from our pineapples and we are looking for certification from Rwanda Bureau of Standards to start producing for the market,” says Vanessa Kabasinga, a survivor.
Members speak out
I am really transformed. I have forgiven my parent’s killer —Triphine Dusabemaliya 28.
The cooperative has helped me cope. I had never thought of living and working together with people who made me an orphan at a tender age, but now things have changed. In the cooperative we are friends, we visit and support each other—Providence Nyiranizeyimana.