Kwibuka25: How reconciliation groups have fostered cohesion among Huye residents

Sylvestre Rwasa (Left) sitting together with Jean Nepomscene Kayibanda. Marie Anne Dushimimana

Have you ever heard about the tale of Nyagakecuru k’Ibisi bya Huye? The legend goes that this old woman had her home on the slopes of Butare, in the present day Huye District.

According to folklore, Ibisi Bya Huye was the home to a certain Nyagakecuru who was a strong political opponent to the King Ruganzu Ndoli, who reigned around the 1500s.

The story goes that Nyagakecuru owned a magical snake, which she would unleash on the king’s army whenever they came for her and this is what kept her safe for long.

Later on, the king devised a trick to send many goats that ate the herbs that used to shelter the snake, which sent it further away from the old woman to find shelter elsewhere.

Huye Mountains, where resided the famous Nyagakecuru. At the bottom, it is Moyogoro Cell where genocide survivors and convicts reconciliated. Marie Anne Dushimimana

A few days later, Ruganzu sent back his army to capture Nyagakecuru and that was the end of her resistance.

Such folklore kept the people from the area intact until a few years to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, when seeds of division started to be sown, culminating into neighbours turning on neighbours they had lived with for generations.  

Jean Nepomscene Kayibanda is a resident of the area, and was 40 years when the genocide erupted.

He lost seven members of his nucleus family, including his wife, four children, and his elder brother among others.

Most of the Genocide victims from the area died at a centre called Mubimana, that was dominated by the Catholic Church with a school, a monetary and a church all belonging to the Catholics.

Kayibanda’s kinsmen were killed by neighbours whom they shared everything, including history.

“Before (the Genocide), it didn’t matter whether you were Hutu or Tutsi. We used to share beer and even inter-marry,” he told The New Times.

One among genocide perpetrators who killed and destroyed his family was Sylvestre Rwasa, a young man who was like a son to him, one he had known since he was born.

“He was like a son to me,” he said.

“It was very strange to see a person who was like a family member or a close friend being at the forefront of the killers to your family and also taking the lead in looting and destroying your property.”

Fast-forward to Genocide aftermath, another even stranger scenario confronted these neighbours.

They had to remain our neighbours we had to live together again,” he said.

Rwasa was tried under Gacaca courts and convicted for looting and destroying Kayibanda’s property, which earned him 13 years of imprisonment.

During Gacaca, he was ordered to pay Kayibanda Rwf500,000 in compensation of the property he looted and destroyed.

But there was a problem; Rwasa couldn’t find the money as he had no means.

After being released from prison in 2008, he came to see Kayibanda at home to ask for forgiveness.

However, Kayibanda was at first suspicious of the young man’s intentions.

“I had to put aside my wife (new spouse) to get her opinion because, I did not think this young man meant well for me because of what he had done in the past. This was the first time a genocide perpetrator had directly asked me for forgiveness,” Kayibanda said.

After reflecting on it, he decided to forgive the younger man especially since he knew him and his family well enough to determine that he had no capacity to pay the reparations as directed by court.

Kayibanda said his two houses and a lot of property were destroyed or taken away, while his cows were eaten by Interahamwe, mostly his neighbours including Rwasa.

Paying back through farming

Rwasa was just 25 when the Genocide against the Tutsi erupted.

He said that after serving his term, he knew he would not get the money to pay Kayibanda but says he was determined to make amends to the neighbour he wronged in very many ways.

“At that time, we had lost humanity. Sometimes I look back at what we used to do against other human beings, we had simply become monsters,” he said.

When he came out of prison in 2008, he directly went to Kayibanda’s home to ask for pardon.

“I was not sure on how he would take my request but I had to take that risk in order to be able to live together again. I have been glad as he didn’t hesitate to show me humanity compared to what I did to him during the genocide,” he said.

Since then, he joined Association Modestes et Innocents, a local NGO which brings together genocide perpetrators and survivors, operating in Huye District.

A few days later, Rwasa had an idea on how he could redeem himself. He proposed to Kayibanda to give him a hand in farming as a way to pay back and a symbol of reconciliation.

“I mobilized 28 people including genocide convicts and survivors whom we live together in the association. After working on his farm three times, we computed the work done and it was valued at Rwf50,000,” he said.

After that, Kayibanda decided to exonerate him, since he had shown goodwill and had been remorseful since being released from prison.

A divided community

Leocadie Uwera 31, a Genocide survivor from the same area says that shortly after the genocide, residents were divided to the point that many survivors were hesitant to return to this community where they would once again live side by side with those whose relatives killed their loved ones.

“I remember it was not easy to go to work in the farm alone. We always had fear of being killed by the genocide perpetrators who were still out there, or members of their families. There was too much hatred and there was no end in sight to this,” she narrates.

The situation didn’t change until much later; when the said NGO came into their community.

“The first day they invited us to a first dialogue was not a good experience to most of us. When we arrived there, we met genocide convicts and the whole thing was shocking for us. They then asked us to write on a piece of paper what we thought about the genocide and reconciliation,” she said.

Their common concern was the gap which existed between the genocide perpetrators and survivors, and even where one had the willingness to forgive, there was no one asking for it on the side of perpetrators.

Eric Ndayisaba, vice coordinator of Association Modeste et Innocents said the problem of divided communities was the same countrywide.

“The mission was to help perpetrators overcome their crimes and ask for forgiveness, while helping prepare survivors to be able to forgive.

Strangely, he said, they found it easier to ask Genocide survivors to forgive the perpetrators than convincing the perpetrators to show remorse and reach out to their victims.

For one, he said, they feared revenge, but also because they had reparations to pay to the survivors, which most did not have.

It has been a long journey of Unity and Reconciliation after the worst history of genocide against Tutsis, but now the fruits are delicious, he said.

“The groups comprise genocide perpetrators and survivors. Apart from socializing, they help genocide perpetrators who are not able to pay back what they destroyed by menial works like farming, and construction among others,” he said.

For now, people are united and are struggling to achieve development, collectively especially through informal saving groups that they have since started.

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