Standing rather crestfallen before hundreds of residents in Nyamata Sector in Bugesera District, Celestin Bakomeza lowers his voice and apologises for his role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Among the crowd is Erenestine Mukakarangwa, a Genocide survivor. She is quiet and listening toeach word being spoken by Bakomeza.
In fact, her survival was not at the will of Bakomeza, a former neighbour and family acquaintance. It is rather the opposite.
Nearly a week into Genocide, Bakomeza who was a member of Interahamwe militia, descended upon members of his community in the then Rilima Sector, killing them mercilessly.
More specifically, on March 12, Bakomeza says he was part of a militia that targeted Tutsi, and this is when he descended on Mukakarangwa’s home, hacking everyone.
Everyone in the household was killed and Mukakarangwa was also left for dead.
“I killed many people in the Genocide including Mukakarangwa’s family. After killing her family, I tied her up with ropes, struck her on the head with a hammer before I threw her in the river. I believed she had died and was, therefore, surprised when I saw her alive much later,” he said.
For such barbaric acts, Bakomeza is serving a life sentence at Rilima prison in Bugesera District.
He knows the confession and forgiveness by the families is not likely to have an impact on his sentence but he says he asked for the opportunity to offer his unreserved remorse towards the families he hurt so that he can be at peace.
Bakomeza is among 30 inmates – 10 of them serving life sentence – who benefited from Prison Fellowship International (PFI) programme that preaches unity and reconciliation in prisons.
“I am here to apologize,” he said.
“I apologize to Mukakarangwa that I killed her sister, I apologize as I also killed one person in an attack that targeted four people, the fact that Mukakarangwa is alive is that she survived by mistake, it was not my will to let her live,” he said in a low voice.
“I apologise to those I intended to kill but survived not because I wished them to, just like Mukakarangwa, and genocide survivors in general, I apologize to my wife whom I married after the Genocide but to whom I always maintained my innocence. I am deeply sorry,” said Bakomeza.
“Today I am here to tell the whole truth that I am a criminal only worth forgiveness,” he said.
Shortly, other inmates came to apologise and gave their respective stories of contrition.
The story of unity and reconciliation in prisons is an initiative of PFI, the National Unity and Reconciliation and Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS).
It all started after it was realised that the story of Genocide was not well told as convicts would tell their relatives they were being innocently jailed, which did not help relations between survivors and the convicts’ families back in communities.
For survivors, the Genocide was the worst and tragic thing to happen in their lives, naturally and while they can never get back the loved ones killed, it does help when convicts acknowledge their role and apologise.
This is the exact predicament ofMukakaragwa, who was now sitting attentively as Bakomeza recounted his deeds of over 23 years ago.
When Mukakarangwa got up to speak, she started by quoting a bible verse, in the book of Mathew.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” she said.
“After the Genocide, I became like an animal. I was desperate mainly because the suffering was new to me, having been a last born in my family. We were not very rich but we were comfortable before the Genocide,” she recollected.
However she says she started transforming thanks to government programme and attending church.
In 2015, Mukakarangwa received an apology letter from Bakomeza but she was yet to come to terms, so she ignored his letter.
It was only recently when she received the second letter that she resolved to meet him and talk.
“You see, I knew Bakomeza and he was part of the attack on my family. They first gathered us in one place, tortured us, pulled our noses and threatened to kill us in a barbaric manner, they killed some of us and he came to me, hit me with a hammer and tied me up with ropes before throwing me in the river.”
“I believe in God and forgiveness; the Tutsi were killed before the Genocide itself started and particularly Bugesera was the most victimised. I have forgiven Bakomeza from deep down my heart, and I am ready to forgive anyone who will seek forgiveness,” she added.
The two families still live in the same community and Mukakarwangwa says that since she met with Bakomeza she started reaching out to his family and currently, hers and his children live harmoniously.
Juvenal Mbanzumutima, one of the survivors from Nyamata sector, Bugesera district who lost over forty family members in the Genocide also extended forgiveness to the convicts that are responsible for their demise, including a one Ajib Ngayaberura.
“I lost about forty family members and he had a hand in most of their deaths, however, I forgave him after he apologized I also pray that God forgives him as well,” he said
About 3,000 Genocide convicts have written to survivors they wronged seeking forgiveness and both parties got reconciled and this has helped in unity and reconciliation efforts.
This is according to Bishop John Rucyahana, the chairperson of Prison Fellowship International, who also doubles as the president of National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.