How reconciliation villages have fostered cohesion
By Jean Mugabo & Eugene Kwibuka
One hardly forgives a violent felony but, as Nelson Mandela put it, it always seems impossible until it is done.
In Rwanda, after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, which left a million innocent people dead, genocide was perpetrated against neighbours by neighbours and it would not be cynicism for one to think that this 'neighbourliness' would not reemerge for generations to come.
However, twenty-one years later, survivors and perpetrators have made significant steps towards reconciliation.
Besides the harmonious union in villages where the survivors currently live with no fear, next to the perpetrators, they work together, eat together, but most of all, they have embraced reconciliation through intermarriages.
For one to fully comprehend and appreciate this, they need to spend time with residents of one of the Reconciliation Villages that have been set up in different parts of the country.
Last Friday, this reporter visited the reconciliation village named Igiti Cy’Umuvumu (sycamore tree) in Mayange sector, Bugesera district, to get the feel of the achievements that have been registered, ahead of the 21 Commemoration of the Genocide, which begins today.
Thacien Nkundiye, a 60-year Genocide perpetrator, says the eight years he spent in prison, are not commensurate with the atrocious crimes he committed against his neighbours with whom they had peacefully coexisted for years.
“We were poisoned with the venomous propaganda of the genocidal regime, which convinced us that our Tutsi neighbours were actually our number one enemy and that they did not deserve a place in this world,” said a visibly remorseful Nkundiye, who lives in the reconciliation village.
According to Nkundiye, the thought of having to go back to his village, after serving his sentence, to live side by side with people whose loved ones he had killed was almost unbearable; in fact, he says, he even contemplated requesting to remain stay in prison for the rest of his life.
He said that during his time in prison, a faith-based organisation, Prison Fellowship Rwanda (PFR), approached him and his co-perpetrators and introduced to them the notion of confessing and seeking forgiveness for their crimes.
“At the same time, the organisation was preparing the Genocide survivors to be receptive to our confessions, and find a place to forgive. I confessed all that I did during the Genocide, apologised and I was pardoned, which came as a relief,” said Nkundiye.
Yet initially, the father of 10 says, he did not believe that he was really pardoned and thought that the families whose loved ones he killed wanted him closer for them to exact their revenge.
However, as he later realised that this was an authentic gesture, something that was later cemented by a marriage union.
“The marriage of my son, Venuste Nkurunziza, to a daughter of the family from which I had killed shocked us most as an astounding sign of our reconciliation. They live in harmony and my family does the same with the in-laws,” he said.
Another perpetrator, Frederic Kazigwemo, who says he was convicted of killing seven people, lives in a house next to Innocent Nyandwi, a survivor whose parents and relatives were killed in the Genocide.
Kazigwemo, who is now the leader of the village, said that they have attained reconciliation devoid of any grudges since 2006 when they started living in the estate.
According to Kazigwemo, the reconciliation village community is striving for economic development as a way of ensuring what happened does not happen again.
“We have formed the farming cooperative and women have a basket (agaseke) weaving cooperative. We have come to know that a hungry man is an angry man and can easily be manipulated; therefore, we want to be economically empowered,” he said.
Felix Habimana, whose entire family was killed in the Genocide, said that he drew strength in forgiving those that killed his family, from hope for a brighter future, adding that forgiving the remorseful perpetrators gave him strength he never had.
“Under the initiative of PFR, the Anglican pastors, Deo Gashagaza and Etienne Gahigi preached to us that being able to forgive relieves the one from the boiling anger which is in most cases counterproductive; So, we forgave them from the bottom of our hearts and are now united in a shared vision of uniting ourselves and our country,” he said.
Habimana, 50, went on to say that at first, survivors and perpetrators would never share a sit, say during meetings that were organised by Prison Fellowship, and that some people forgave superficially only to please the preachers.
Later on, PFR introduced an idea of bringing them together in the same village, promising to supply materials for houses and argued survivors to collaborate with perpetrators in the construction works.
“We feared each other during the construction of these houses, yet we had to collaborate in building a house of a survivor, and then one of a perpetrator until we completed the village. We perceived the murderers of our families as animals and we never attached any meaning to their confessions, we were simply suspicious of one another,” said Habimana, a father of five.
“We would use hoes and pangas during the works and I feared that a perpetrator may cut me and call it an accident. They also feared that we could exercise revenge, but nothing happened until we completed these houses in which we are living.”
Habimana said that later, they decided that enough was enough and needed to leave a legacy of unity and peaceful coexistence to their children.
Laurence Mukaremera, another Genocide survivor in the village reaffirmed the true reconciliation which seemed impossible at the beginning of the PFR campaign.
“I was very angry with the genocide perpetrators and could not imagine myself interacting with them, but after a series of teachings, my mind changed and got the power to forgive. We have now forgiven them. We live together, we attend same ceremonies, work in cooperatives together, and there have been intermarriages,” she said.
According to the Coordinator of PFR in Bugesera District, Pastor Etienne Gahigi, after their success in both of the reconciliation villages in Mayange and Rweru sectors in Bugesera, they decided to replicate the inspiring story of the Umuvumu residents in other neighbourhoods across the country, through forming reconciliation clubs in every village and using the people from Umuvumu to share their experience.
Bishop John Rucyahana, the President of National Unit and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) and the Chairperson of PFR, told The New Times that the initiative is rooted in the Holy Bible and intends to restore the victim and offender’s relationship.
“We preached to the prisoners to confess and seek pardon from the victim families. We also prepared the survivors to forgive, even before the offender apologised. We mediated the confession procedures and so far, I would say we succeeded,” said Rucyahana, a retired Anglican bishop.
He said they started a programme dubbed ‘Heal me and I heal you’ which aimed at mending broken hearts of the victim and relieving frustrated heart of the culprit.
Bishop Rucyahana stressed that unless Bible lessons are put into practice, teaching becomes useless.
He said that Rwandans should understand well the necessity of reconciliation because the Genocide took place, crushing lives of many and properties, but whatever happened, people have to still live in this country together because it is for everyone.
Operating under Prison Fellowship International that is present in over 100 countries worldwide, Prison Fellowship Rwanda has built six reconciliation villages around the country, bringing together ex-genocide prisoners and genocide survivors.
New homes for elderly survivors have given hope to 'Incike'
Stelia Mukarurangwa says she is a hundred years old. She remembers the hard times when she lived with her nephew’s family and she would often be left alone at home and she couldn’t do anything by herself.
That difficult time has ended because she now lives in a seniors’ home in Kayenzi Sector of Southern Province’s Kamonyi District where she and seven other childless elderly women enjoy the services of caregivers.
They also share experiences about their troubled past; the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi which killed their children and friends along with a million other Rwandans.
The seniors’ home in Kayenzi, about fifteen kilometres off Kigali-Huye highway, is called Impinga Nzima, the Kinyarwanda words that loosely mean a place to rest.
Mukarurangwa and her seven housemates wake up at around 9 a.m. and have breakfast, which is mainly porridge. They sit outside under the shade of their house and some of them may decide to go and work in a garden near their house where they have now planted beans. At around noon, they gather again for lunch.
Thereafter, they go back to bed to have a nap and then wake up at around 3 p.m. From that time until dinner time, they watch T.V. and chat while sitting in brand new sofas in their living room.
After dinner they all go to bed.
The elderly women are under the care of two caregivers. One of the caregivers is a 50-year old widow who also survived the Genocide. She is in charge of everyone at the household and she often gives them medicine when they are sick or takes them to a health centre when it’s something she can’t treat.
She is also in charge of shopping everything they need, including foodstuff. The other caregiver is in charge of cooking the food.
Both caregivers are paid by Avega-Agahozo, the association of Genocide widows.
“We are happy to be here. It was long overdue because we were at a point where we couldn’t support ourselves anymore,” Mukarurangwa said softly.
Mukarurangwa and her seven housemates share about three things in common which constitute the main reason why they have been sheltered under one roof: They all survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, they lost all of their children and grand children during the Genocide, and they are all too old to support themselves.
In Kinyarwanda, an elderly person without any single person of their own blood left are called “Incike”, a word that literally means someone is endangered.
There are some 859 Rwandans who fall in the category of Incike according to recent statistics from Avega-Agahozo.
Officials from the association are worried about their Incike members as they grow older and find themselves in a situation where they are lonely, sickly, and unable to support themselves.
The officials say that the seniors’ home in Kayenzi, which is a pilot project for collective residence for Incike that is operational since last year, will need to be replicated in other parts of the country so that the lonely and elderly Genocide survivors live together in homes managed by loving caregivers.
Constance Mpinganzima, who is in charge of social services at Avega-Agahozo, said that elderly Genocide survivors who are Incike live in acute loneliness in their own homes and there are dangers that they may die very soon if efforts to take care of them are not deployed.
“At the seniors’ home in Kayenzi, two elderly survivors share a room so that they can talk to each other. As they share experiences about what happened to them, they feel stronger and they don’t feel lonely anymore,” Mpinganzima said.
She says that of the 859 people who fall in the category of Incike, 391 urgently need the services of a personal caregiver but they can’t all access them since they live in their own homes and there are no seniors’ homes where they can go.
That’s why Avega-Agahozo has partnered with Unity Club, an association of current and former senior government officials and their spouses, and the Government Assistance Fund for Genocide Survivors (FARF), to build five more homes for Incike.
The seniors’ homes under construction are in Rulindo (Northern Province), Kayonza and Fumbwe (Eastern Province), Butare (Southern Province), and Rusizi(Western Province).
Once completed, the centres could receive 50 people each, Mpinganzima said.
The Executive Secretary of FARG, Théophile Ruberangeyo, said that smaller seniors’ homes will be built in every sector in the country so that lonely Incike can live together.
While it’s possible to build the homes, Ruberangeyo said, it remains hard to find qualified caregivers who can look after the elderly survivors.
“The biggest challenge is that not everyone is able to look after elderly people because it’s not an easy task. Looking after elderly people when they are not your own parents is not something everyone can do,” he said.
So far, Avega-Agahozo is the only organisation which has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with FARG to take care of elderly Genocide survivors who are lonely.
FARG, which normally pays Rwf30,000 to every vulnerable elderly Genocide survivor every month, switches to pay the money to Avega-Agahozo when the latter takes care of the survivors in a seniors’ home such as in Kayenzi.
Chatting with the elderly women at Impinga Nzima Seniors’ Home in Kayenzi, one discovers that they are clearly happy with their new home.
One of Mukarurangwa’s roommates, 73-year-old Veronika Musabire, said that she happily bid farewell to her former neighbours in Karama Sector, Kamonyi District when it was time to come to her new home at the Seniors’ Home in Kayenzi and she still likes it here.
“I am not afraid any more but in the past I used to wonder what would happen if I died since I was living alone. But If I died now, I am sure I would get a decent burial here at this new home,” Musabire said.
As for Mukarurangwa, her old age hasn’t taken away her smile, which she freely displays as her roommates jokingly call her the last-born of the house because she has difficulty walking.
Ex-Habyarimana soldier risked his life to smuggle Tutsi to safety
At the height of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, one of the most deadly acts one would do was hiding or abetting in helping a Tutsi flee or escape death.
Although Silas Ntamfura, a former Corporal in the Rwandan military (ex-FAR) would have looked the other side as the Tutsi were being killed, he did not. He says he felt his life was worthless without saving a single soul.
He knew very well that his decision could cost him his own life, but it was a risk he was willing to take. He believed that if he was able to save a single life, it was his duty to do so.
Ntamfura went on to smuggle Tutsis out of Rwanda into Burundi by leading them through a thick forest stretching twenty kilometers, using the little military supply he had.
His commander discovered what he was doing and ordered his fellow soldiers to shoot him on sight for being a “traitor.” Fortunately, he escaped death.
In an interview with The New Times' Edwin Musoni, Ntamfura narrates his life’s journey from 1990 when he joined the military to the time when he sneaked out several Tutsi to Burundi and his close encounter with death. Below is his narration as told to our reporter.
“I joined the (Juvenal) Habyarimana army in April 1990 and underwent military training. Right after the training, I was deployed on the frontline, I had many unanswered questions, I had not signed up for what I was doing at that moment. The fact that not anyone could join the military, that meant that those who would be enrolled had special privileges.
As a young man who couldn’t continue pursuing further education, I resorted to joining the military partly because it was a well paying job that came with privileges and also serve my country.
At the battlefield, I leant that a lot was wrong with the force I was serving; we were being manipulated into hating Tutsi. Later on, in 1992, I was redeployed to Gako Military Camp in Bugesera. At the time, Bugesera was a hotspot; people were being killed every day and in big numbers even before the full-scale Genocide.
I remember once, I was with my fellow soldiers and met this woman who was a primary school teacher in former Ngenda Commune. We were coming from patrol in Ruhuha and on our way back to camp, near Murago Bridge at the customs office; some men began attacking that woman and wanted to kill her because she was a Tutsi.
I rescued the woman and the killers attempted to riot, I shot in the air and they all dispersed. My superiors were not amused by my action, but luckily I didn’t get punished for that.
After that, everything seemed to return to order and killings slowed down. There were, however, three civilians who were jailed inside the barracks, I leant about them when I led the night patrol.
The men had been brutally beaten and had gone for three days without food. They had been framed of blowing up a minibus that belonged to a senior officer, but honestly, these men had no ability of planting a landmine.
That same night, one of the officers at the camp came demanding for them. He made it clear that he wanted them dead. I wasn’t going to let innocent people be killed for no reason.
I assisted the men escape and from then onwards I was referred to as a traitor. For my security I decided to stay outside the camp.
On the night of April 11, 1994, a gang of Interahamwe militia, accompanied by soldiers, attacked Bugesera. That time, I saw people I regarded as friends turning into monsters; soldiers abandoned their cardinal obligation and were killing civilians and I could not bear what I was seeing.
I wondered what I could do to help people who were in danger, but it was not easy at all. There were some fellow soldiers who had attempted before me but, unfortunately, landed into bigger trouble. I remember a soldier who was disarmed by the commanders and handed over to Interahamwe who hacked him within seconds.
He was suspected to have tried to save people.
From then on, I realised it was just a matter of time for them to know that I was not taking part in the killings and I could be subjected to the same punishment. I said to myself that I should not die a coward; at least I should save a few lives before I died.
And that’s when I hatched a plan to sneak people into Burundi.
The plan was to take as many people to Burundi as possible and I mapped my route through Gako Forest. I shared my plan with my fellow soldier I trusted called Karemangingo who agreed to the plan. We managed to get some people and hid them in his house.
We kept them in that house until around 8:00 pm when we took them and started the flight. We took a path leading to the forest. We walked through the entire forest and we had to avoid military encampments and barriers that were throughout the forest. We had to go through the bush and meadows in order to avoid common paths and roads until we arrived in Burundi.
For the very first time, I managed to sneak out 18 people successfully and they entered Burundi. Since then, I made it my mission to find as many Tutsis as possible and take them to Burundi.
Though I had saved some people, it was not really enough. I felt I had to save more. It was the time when I met this old woman who had a child, I hid them as I planned how to sneak them out of the country. Later on, I brought more people, they were about six or seven.
But problems were just around the corner.
Some people discovered that there were soldiers taking people to Burundi. Word reached our military camp. New strategies were set up to check whether it was true or not. It became a strict order to count all the soldiers at any moment and to investigate where each and every soldier spends his nights.
Each errand and movement of every soldier had to be thoroughly inspected. The troops who were on patrol at different barriers noticed some traces confirming that some people had crossed over to Burundi.
It was no longer an easy matter to enter and to get out of the camp. When I arrived back at the camp, I met a fellow soldier, Corporal Pascal Munyanziza. He knew there was a problem.
They had come to check on me in my bed if I was present and I was absent.
I met Munyanziza at the gate. When he saw me he said: “Ntamfura, how dare you come back here when you should have better stayed in Burundi?” I was not aware of anything going on in the camp.
I tried to keep calm and entered the camp. I met another soldier inside the camp.
He was the escort of Colonel Pheneas Munyarugarama who was the head of Gako military camp. The escort was seated before the administration hall. He came and told me:” Save your life, you are dead. It was decreed that you must be killed.”
I immediately understood that everything was over for me. I remembered the soldier who died in the same circumstances. I felt death inside me. I do not remember how I immediately got to my bedroom.
I just saw myself inside the room. I changed my clothes and put on my new military fatigue. I took my gun and charged it with three magazines and said to myself; ‘I will put up a fight before they kill me’… I fled and crossed over to Burundi.
After the war, I returned and joined the army and served until I was officially demobilised. Today I am a father of six and happy that my country is safe and the people I saved are alive and living much safer and happier than before”.
Perpetue Mudede (rescued by Ntamfura)
Ntamfura is such a great man; I don’t know how I can express my appreciation for him. He found me lost and just waiting for death to take me. I was carrying a child on my back we are the only survivors in my entire family.
When he found us, he hid us and a few days later he brought some other people and led us through a very long, tiresome journey to Burundi. Hadn’t it been for his sacrifices, none of us would have survived.
When we reached to the camp in Burundi, we found many others who spoke so highly of him. Up to today, we have not found the best way to thank him.