Twenty-three years ago, it would take 20 minutes for Jean Marie Vianney Mudaheranwa to walk to the house of Gracien Rwamirindi, in Kabarondo, Kayonza District.
Now Mudaheranwa’s house, marked PH4-9, and Rwamirindi’s, PH4-8, are just steps away, behind the same rudimentary fence graced with blossoming ivy morning glory, sunflower and corn plants.
Theirs are among 40 housing units inside Kabarondo Reconciliation Village, built by Prison Fellowship Rwanda (PFR), an international charity group, for families of survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, released ex-prisoners convicted of crimes committed in the 100-day carnage, and vulnerable citizens not directly related to the mass killings that resulted in the death of more than 1 million people.
The village is about 80 km east of Kigali, the capital.
Rwamirindi, about four in 1994, lost his father and five of his seven siblings during the Genocide. Mudaheranwa, now 55, spent seven years in prison for his role in the killings, including the death of Rwamirindi’s relatives.
Mudaheranwa did not kill anyone with his own hands, but was jailed and convicted for actively organizing the carnage.
“I was leading the attack groups,” Mudaheranwa said through the interpretation of Salvator Haguma, a PFR coordinator. “We held a meeting to identify people who would be killed.”
In their sector, the third tier of administrative division under the province, a total of 38 people were massacred with clubs and machetes, and the nearest family whose members died was just five houses away from his, Mudaheranwa said.
Now as next-door neighbours, Mudaheranwa and Rwamirindi meet with each other every day, Mudaheranwa as comptroller of the village’s cooperative, and Rwamirindi as a “principal social worker.”
When Rwamirindi and his wife have to work away from the village, they would leave their two-year-old daughter at the home of Mudaheranwa, who lives with his wife and four children.
Most of the residents in the village have no steady jobs. They try to get by with odd jobs, but such temporary employment is very hard to find. Subsistence remains a major challenge.
To help the village members tide over their difficulties, the PFR tries organising the adults into cooperatives to engage in income-generating ventures, including farming in nearby plots of land.
In one pilot project, a chicken coop was built to raise hens, but the attempt appears to be failing. The feed is way too expensive for the cooperative to generate a profit.
In a house next to the coop, 32-year-old Vincent Musafiri, from another reconciliation village nearby, was mixing feed, which includes dried small fish imported from neighboring Tanzania.
In the corner were eggs laid by the hens and a tall container filled with beans harvested by the cooperative.
Each family will be able to get 10 eggs every two months, said Musafiri, who also doubles as a veterinarian taking care of the cows and goats kept by the villagers.
Every family is given one doe, or female goat, for free. The families are required to give the second-born baby goat to the cooperative, but can keep the first-born and subsequent baby goats for themselves. One buck, or male goat, is provided to the village and kept by a cooperative member tasked with tending to livestock.
About a dozen goats can be seen grazing on patches of grass on the slope where the houses are built.
One villager was digging for roots in the ground, where trees were cut down to make room for the construction of the houses for the reconciliation village.
The roots are to be used as firewood for cooking. There is no gas or electricity in the house.
Potable water is provided at the top of the slope from a tap, near house number PF4-1. Villagers would fetch water from the tap to their houses, each including one living room, three bedrooms, one room for livestock, one room for washing and another fitted with a squat toilet.
The water, from public unity mains, is not free; the villagers have to pay a nominal fee of 1 Rwandan Franc (0.0012 U.S. dollars) a liter.
Neither is the land beneath the houses. Each plot costs an equivalent of 300 dollars.
Such practice, which might be out of necessity due to lack of funding, happens to reinforce the idea that free giveaways should be avoided in development aid.
Indeed, villagers are encouraged to take part in the construction of the houses, to cement a sense of belonging, of ownership.
The homes of Mudaheranwa and Rwamirindi’s are part of the fourth phase of the PFR’s rehabilitation village project, hence the PH4 heading for the house numbers.
Families of such reconciliation villages usually come from nearby sites where killing took place, and the members usually knew each other.
By putting the survivors and offenders of the Genocide in one closely knit community and having them interact with each other through daily living and cooperative work, Haguma said, the PFR wants to advance “practical reconciliation.”
The efforts of Haguma, his colleagues and partners have paid off.
Mudaheranwa said he has repented for his crimes and wants to do everything possible to help the victims’ families.
For his part, Rwamirindi believes he has already forgiven Mudaheranwa, thanks to efforts by the government and other parties, although he had thought initially that he should not forgive.
But reconciliation is a running process that requires sustained work that could last generations.
One of Rwamirindi’s responsibilities as a social worker is to help members of the village to tackle various problems, such as minor disputes, that crop up occasionally.
“Social workers” are not outsiders but elected from among members of the village, with their performance reviewed at village meetings periodically, Haguma said.
On one Friday afternoon, Rwamirindi joined a two-day training session with 36-year-old secondary school teacher Dieudonne Munemzi, on how to deal with conflicts and provide psychological counseling, together with three other social workers from the same reconciliation village, through role-playing.
He himself sometimes still gets angry at Mudaheranwa for what he had done to his family, but would apologise later, Rwamirindi said.
Two million Genocide perpetrators like Mudaheranwa were convicted through home-grown grassroots Gacaca court proceedings, and many have been released, but the healing is important for survivors and perpetrators alike, said Fidele Ndayisaba, executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconstruction Commission (NURC).
“Since the (July 1994) liberation, Rwanda has started a journey of recovering its unity and identity... which had been put aside, put down, by colonial rulers and subsequent regimes of the first and second regimes,” said Ndayisaba, who also served as governor of Southern Province and mayor of Kigali, the capital city.
A 2015 NURC report, Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer, put the country’s reconciliation status at 92.5 per cent, up from 82.3 per cent of five years before.
The government has now adopted a policy of single national identity. Citizens are registered simply as Rwandans, with no ethnic or tribal references anymore on their identification papers.
Back in the Kabarondo Reconciliation Village, Mudaheranwa and Rwamirindi, the homeowners of houses PH4-9 and PH4-8, have both managed to pay the 300 dollars land fee, but not Jerome Zibera, a 55-year-old ex-prisoner, whose house is just metres away down the slope.
With no way to earn a steady income, he could barely pay for the water he uses, let alone the land fee.
Zibera, who spent 12 years in jail and sold his original house and land to pay a fine to his victims, now lives with a 10-year-old daughter born to a woman he cohabited during the one year he fled to neighbouring Tanzania. Both he and that woman, who was from another locality, were sent to prison after their return to Rwanda.
Like Mudaheranwa, Zibera did not kill any person himself, but was in a mob chasing after their victims. Around 600 died in his village, Zibera said.
His wife has passed away, and all six children they had together now live elsewhere.
Zibera’s oldest son, who encountered a nasty divorce and had to sell all the belongings to split with his ex-wife, is now in Kenya. He last talked to his father more than four months ago.
Clutching a Tecno handset his son sent him through a driver, Zibera said he has since not been able to talk to the son, and wants to “sell the phone to buy something to eat.”
Back to the topic of genocide, Zibera was adamant: “Genocide is a very bad thing.”
“For me, my best wish is that the Genocide never happened.”