Giving second chance to Genocide convicts

It’s months before it clocks two decades since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The purge was gory and devoid of humanity. Armed with guns, machetes, clubs and all sorts of weapons they could lay their hands on, Hutu militia stalked the country door-to-door, butchering those they had for years before the dark night of April 7, called neighbours, brothers and sisters.

It’s months before it clocks two decades since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The purge was gory and devoid of humanity. Armed with guns, machetes, clubs and all sorts of weapons they could lay their hands on, Hutu militia stalked the country door-to-door, butchering those they had for years before the dark night of April 7, called neighbours, brothers and sisters.

Children were not spared in the pogrom, either, as the killers smashed the heads of toddlers against walls and concrete objects, and dumped some head-fast into pit-latrines alive. These were children for whom they stood as godparents during christening.

After the liberation of the country, tens of thousands of perpetrators were apprehended and incarcerated and, courtesy of the improvised Gacaca courts, a semi-traditional judicial system, many pleaded guilty, asked for forgiveness and had their sentences lessened. Thousands of others have since served their time.

The uphill task that remained was the reintegration of these former convicts in their respective communities.

Prison Fellowship Rwanda, an NGO that has helped those released from prison to fit in their communities through spreading the gospel to both the ex-convicts and the survivors of the Genocide, has been at the helm of the re-integration drive by touching on aspects that can impact reconciliation.

This has led to the emergence of five “reconciliation villages” set up in Musanze, Kayonza and Bugesera districts.

In these villages, perpetrators and victims who came face-to-face during the brutal events of the Genocide have chosen to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and commit to living out the future together in peace.

They have, in essence, gone beyond forgiveness. They have made a choice not only to move forward, but also to move forward together as neighbours and friends. 

In Byiro Cell, Mayange Sector in Bugesera, more than 53 families with about 400 survivors and perpetrators are living together in a ‘reconciliation village’.

They now live in harmony in this modern village that has been connected to amenities such as electricity and water, in a neighbourhood where families are strategically placed in survivor-perpetrator patterns.

Ex-convicts speak

In an interview with The New Times, some of the former inmates, who were released after serving their punishments, confessed that it was repentance that drove their reconciliation with survivors.

They urged their colleagues who are still in prison to emulate the olive leave style for the benefit of the country, and for their own conscience.

Mathias Sendegeya, 56, blames the former regime what he said fueled the killing of innocent people confessing that though he murdered his neighbours, it was now the right time to reconcile with survivors.

“I killed six people and destroyed their property. I was imprisoned for more than nine years and later released. Ironically, the survivor whose family I killed is Pastor Etienne Gahigi, the same man who preached to me the reconciliation gospel and we now live in harmony,” said Sendegeya.

Sendegeya, who is married with seven children, said he was initially hesitant to return home because he feared that he would be killed by survivors. However, he says the gospel he started receiving while in prison, spread by Prison Fellowship, helped to revive his spirit.

“We are now living together with the survivors. If I don’t have cooking oil, my neighbour, a survivor will provide, if I am going somewhere, she will look after my younger children. But I still feel ashamed of my past,” he said, while seated alongside several survivors.

 Jacqueline Mukamana, a 34-year-old survivor and a mother of four, did not believe that one day she could meet and live with the man who murdered her family.

Mukamana said during the Genocide, she lost 12 of her family members in a single day.

She had gone to collect milk from a dairy farm and on her way back, an old man told her that her family had been wiped out.

“I had never thought of forgiving those who massacred my family and it has always been hard for me but we are now together,” she said.

“I forgave them from the bottom of my heart, no body forced me to, it just occurred to me that if I was to avenge, it would not yield any positive results. They (the perpetrators) came to me seeking forgiveness and gradually I learnt to forgive them.”

The majority of the former inmates were serving their detention at Ririma Prison in Bugesera District.

Rev. Deo Gashagaza, the executive director of Prison Fellowship Rwanda, said he was upbeat with the positive impact the reconciliation project was having, saying that besides facilitating the healing process of survivors and perpetrators, it was a major catalyst for national development.

He said promoting reconciliation is critical and needs collective efforts from all the partners to ensure that those who are reintegrated in society are at par with their fellow countrymen in terms of economic development.   

 “You can’t talk about economic development in the country when people cannot leave in harmony and with their neighbours still suffering the wounds of Genocide. With these people released and sent back to their communities, a lot needed to be done to psychologically prepare both them and those whose families they killed.”

Rev. Gashagaza said it would be prudent for local leaders to prioritise reconciliation in their performance contracts (Imihigo) as it it is the case with other aspects that have a direct impact on development.

Collective effort

The president of National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC),   Bishop John Rucyahana, said despite the existing problems, reconciliation is achievable, with concerted efforts.

 “Everybody in the country has the responsibility to help these people to heal their wounds. Based on our experience, we have realised that it’s possible but we need everyone on board to ensure this is achieved in the shortest period,” said Bishop Rucyahana.

A report released by NURC, last year, indicated that reconciliation in the country had reached 80 per cent, the highest level of national harmony since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The report, “Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer,” targeted people aged 18 and above with the majority of interviewees (90.8 per cent) being rural dwellers.

The research, which aimed at assessing reconciliation efforts in the country, was based on various variables, including social cohesion, political culture, human security and transitional justice.

The report further showed that, today, 98 per cent of Rwandans are proud of being citizens of the country, underlining that they prefer being identified as Rwandans rather than Hutu, Tutsi or Twa.

The researchers also pointed out that 98 per cent of nationals blame the way the country’s history was taught, believing it inflamed divisions that led to the Genocide, while 94.7 per cent consider that the way it is being taught now encourages reconciliation.

Beyond reconciliation

The residents in the Mayange reconciliation model village have gone beyond reconciliation to start what they call ‘Abunzubumwe Cooperative’ that has helped enhanced their economic status.

Through the cooperative, they practice commercial farming and many members said besides fostering reconciliation, which was consolidated by the fact that they work side-by-side for a common good, the cooperative has also changed their fortunes.

Jeannette Mukarwagaju, a Genocide survivor and member of the cooperative, said they need more than six acres of land to expand their farming activities.

“We now have two acres on which we grow cassava but we need more land to increase our production,” she said, adding that after the harvest they have adequate market for their produce, especially among the nearby schools and communities.

They also have the maize and banana plantations, besides beans and other crops for subsistence consumption.

She said all members own bank accounts in different financial institutions and that they no longer lack funds to send their children to school or pay for utilities like electricity and water.

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