Despite suffering dire consequences of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Boniface Mudenge decided to forgive people who massacred his family members, friends and other relatives.
Mudenge, 53, lost his young sister and 51 members of his extended family.
After he returned home in July 1994 having fled the country during killings that targeted the Tutsi that preceded genocide proper, in 1993, Mudenge thought more about reconciliation between the Tutsi and Genocide perpetrators than about how to rebuild himself as a survivor or revenge.
Despite the hopelessness and bitterness the engulfed many at the time, he kept on dreaming and praying that God would help him not to think of revenge.
He would soon embark on what then looked an elusive mission.
Yet Mudenge’s works to sensitise Genocide survivors to forgive and perpetrators to apologise did not go unnoticed due to its results which brought effective impact on the government’s programmes such as Gacaca, unity and reconciliation designed to promote peace among Rwandans after the Genocide.
Mudenge is a recipient of Umurinzi w’Igihango (protector of friendship pact) award, which he received in 2015.
Last year, he received an international award from Search for Common Ground for his outstanding contribution to peace-building under his Inyenyeri Itazima association, which he used as a tool to promote unity and reconciliation.
In an interview with The New Times, Mudenge narrated how he started Inyenyeri Itazima (loosely translated to mean ‘the star that doesn’t burn out’), to reconcile families of Genocide survivors and perpetrators.
A broken community
Mudenge is a Genocide survivor from Bugeshi Sector, Rubavu District in Western Province. He lives with his wife, Esther Mukasine, and their eight children and says his immediate family survived the Genocide miraculously.
In the years that preceded the Genocide, Mudenge, who previously served as a pastor in both former Mutura Commune (in present-day Rubavu District) and capital Kigali, was suspected by Genocide organisers to be an informant of the RPF-Inkotanyi liberation movement.
This led to sequential torment.
In 1993, things went from bad to worse forcing him to flee the country.
“After the launch of the liberation war in 1990, I was hunted down as I was being linked to Inkotanyi. I dug a hole in my house to hide in but uncertainty continued until I decided to flee,” Mudenge recalled.
Mudenge fled alone leaving his family behind. The rest of the family were ‘punished’ for his departure, with his wife arrested and locked up with a two-month baby because she could not reveal where her husband was.
Mudenge returned home in July 1994 shortly after Rwanda Patriotic Army troops had arrived in the former Mutura commune in the current Rubavu District.
The journey back home was difficult for Mudenge and others as on their way they were welcomed by lots of dead bodies and empty houses.
Some among his colleagues returned with the spirit of revenge but he discouraged them against taking that path, reminding them that killing was a sin.
“My dreams were not to revenge but forgive. After returning home alive I got this feeling that we had survived for a reason and that reason was to unite survivors and their former tormentors,” he said.
“I personally escaped death with the help of some Hutu, I saw this as a sign that we are one people and needed to overcome hatred and bitterness,” he said.
Mudenge explained that few people survived in Mutura commune. Rwanda Patriotic Army asked them to elect a brave man who would work as a mediator.
Mudenge was elected.
“I had mixed emotions about the responsibilities but I was not afraid and didn’t refuse to take responsibility even though I had some concerns of leading people in such difficult times,” he recalled.
A future ‘free of genocide ideology’
But spreading forgiveness and reconciliation was Mudenge’s life mission.
“For the survivors in Mutura to understand what I was telling them, I had to lead by example. I publicly forgave all those who tried to kill me. This inspired other survivors to forgive. Forgiveness is one of the key ingredients for a bright future.”
In 2009, Mudenge founded Inyenyeri Itazima association as a platform to continue advancing this cause. Under the association, he would organise public events to showcase the power of forgiveness and through this many embraced his message. Three years after its estabvlihsment, the association was also rewarded nationally for its role in reconciliation efforts.
“I want to encourage the youth to come together to build the future this country deserves and make it a paradise in the world,” he said.
Besides national awards he received for promoting peace, Mudenge’s continuous efforts to unite Rwandans led him to be selected among the champions of peace promoters at the international level.
On November 30, 2017, Search for Common Ground, a US-based organisation, gave him a trophy for his reconciliation work.
Search for Common Ground awards are presented annually to honour outstanding accomplishments in conflict resolution, negotiation, community building, and peacebuilding.
“I was honoured to receive an international award as a result of my deeds as a Genocide survivor. Even though I faced difficult situations in my life, including having to live with those who killed my family, I thank God who gave me a heart of forgiveness,” he said.
Other winners include Daniel Lubetzky, from Mexico; Fatima Benoughazi, from Morocco; Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Kaleka, from Germany; and Sylvie Mutwambaka Mirindi, from DR Congo.
According to Mudenge, the government has made tremendous progress in reconciling and uniting Rwandans.
“In my association, we keep on educating people about the Genocide. We mainly focus on the young generation who are the future of the country. We tour schools to help sustain what we have achieved,” he said.
He added: “I am seeing a bright future; one free of genocide ideology.”
“I strongly believe that together we can create a peaceful and prosperous future.”
Survivors, perpetrators heed Mudenge’s call
Elias Kagiraneza, a Genocide survivor, had never imagined forgiving Abudallah Bizimana who burnt 25 of the former’s relatives – including his parents, brothers, sisters and step-father’s family – alive inside a thatched house they were hiding in during the Genocide.
Kagiraneza survived along with three of his siblings.
“My family were burnt alive and Bizimana was one of the attackers. Forgiving him had never crossed my mind until 1995 when Mudenge encouraged me and other survivors to forgive,” he says.
At the time, Kagiraneza adds, “the killer of my family was in jail and I didn’t wish to see his face again. However, Mudenge’s regular teachings slowly transformed me until my heart fully embraced forgiveness”.
“I finally forgave Bizimana and he also showed remorse and apologized”.
Bizimana is now out of jail and he and Kagiraneza are now active members of Inyenyeri Itazima association, which has 60 members, including both Genocide survivors and perpetrators.
On his part, Abudallah Bizimimana, 47, said he was relieved when he opened up and sought forgiveness.
“When I was released from prison in 2003, I was ashamed to meet any Genocide survivor but I got surprised to see that survivors were among the people who welcomed me back into the community,” he recalls.
“Thanks to the advice from members of Inyenyeri Itazima association, I finally apologised for the crimes I committed against my neighbours. I immediately joined the association and was embraced by all of its members.”
He says that, thanks in large part to Mudenge’s work and other members of the association, survivors and perpetrators in the area live in harmony and have rekindled their brothel bond.
Kagiraneza says: “We visit each other, celebrate and mourn together, and share everything as a family. Our association and government have played a central role in our healing and reconciliation journey.”