Gacaca Nkirisitu: Cementing reconciliation through church

APPOLINAIRE NKURUNZIZA, 55, spent close to 12 years in jail for his role in the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. But even when he was released and sent to complete his sentence through the works for general interests programme, commonly known as TIG, the guilt never left him.
Ten Genocide convicts (kneeling) reconciled with relatives (standing) of those they killed after attending a reconciliation programme. Saturday Times/JP Bucyensenge
Ten Genocide convicts (kneeling) reconciled with relatives (standing) of those they killed after attending a reconciliation programme. Saturday Times/JP Bucyensenge

APPOLINAIRE NKURUNZIZA, 55, spent close to 12 years in jail for his role in the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.

But even when he was released and sent to complete his sentence through the works for general interests programme, commonly known as TIG, the guilt never left him.

“I always felt ashamed for what I did and never felt I would at one point fit in my community,” Nkurunziza says, pensively.

The resident of Rebero cell, Nzahaha Sector of Rusizi District, says the guilt and shame that he always carried pushed him to plead guilty when the semi-traditional Gacaca courts were introduced.

And, owning up to his crimes entitled him to a lenient sentence and community works as an alternative sentence after serving part of his jail term.

However, all that did not end the sense of remorse he always felt. He knew something was really missing.

“Whenever I met with the woman (whose husband he killed) I couldn’t get to look her straight in the eyes,” he recalls saying he was haunted for years.

Eventually, the feeling pushed Nkurunziza to flee his native village shortly after the Genocide becoming a ‘self convicted internal fugitive’ in his own country.

But the collaboration of security officials, local leaders and residents led to his arrest in the early 2000s, and subsequently his trial.

“I was so sad that he had evaded justice even after what he had done to us and when I learnt of where he was hiding I tipped off the authorities who arrested him,” Theresie Ayinkamiye, the widow of the man Nkurunziza killed during the Genocide, confesses in front of the now-changed Genocide convict.

“I was angry and furious against him; to me, this man was a monster. I always thought of revenge. Had I got an opportunity I would have avenged the death of my husband and other relatives on him.”

After his arrest, Nkurunziza knew it was time to correct his wrongs.

“I immediately pleaded guilty and asked for forgiveness for my inhumane acts,” he says, regrettably.

But even after that he always knew something important was missing: reconciling with relatives of his victims.

Mid-last year, Nkurunziza made a step that changed his life: he approached the wife of the man he had killed in 1994 and asked to be forgiven for his misdeeds.

“When I visited her home for the first time, her surviving children were angry that we met,” Nkurunziza remembers. “Obviously they looked at me as the killer of their father but also blamed their mother for not telling them who killed their father.”

Indeed after serving his sentence, the man was living just near her victim’s house-as it was before the 1994 Genocide when the families were still ‘friends’.

After several months, he finally got what he wanted.


“When I was granted forgiveness, I stood up and embraced the woman. It is as if she had unloaded a heavy weight from my back”, Nkurunziza says.

“I forgave him because I felt the benefits of forgiveness for both of us. Indeed forgiveness is what the government has been encouraging and is what the Holy Bible teaches all of us,” Ayinkamiye interrupts.

After the mutually agreed self-organised reconciliation meeting between the two, they decided to enrol for a local initiative that seeks to cement reconciliation and unity between area residents.

Opening new chapter

Started by Father Ubald Rugirangoga of Mushaka Catholic Parish, Cyangugu Diocese, and dubbed Gacaca Nkirisitu, the programme involves Genocide perpetrators and survivors who, jointly, undergo a six-month meditation programme during which they concentrate on understanding the holy writings.

It encourages Genocide convicts to seek forgiveness from those whose relatives they killed during the Genocide and survivors to forgive those who offended them.

After all the parties feel it is the right time to act, a reconciliation ceremony is held before the church congregation.

And this is what Nkurunziza and Ayinkamiye did before thousands of the church faithful who had gathered on Sunday August 4 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their parish.

With other nine individuals who had ‘graduated’ from the evangelisation and reconciliation sessions, the men kneeled before the church and their ‘forgivers’ as they prayed for them to never make the mistakes they committed about two decades ago.

And as the prayers ended the group emerged smiling and embraced and hugged relatives of those they killed.

“This opens yet another chapter in my life. I am so happy and very grateful to this woman for having accepted to forgive me for my wrongdoing,” Nkurunziza says.

For Ayinkamiye, the journey to reconciliation they undertook together has helped them live normal lives once again, something they thought would never happen.

“We have re-established our relationship as neighbours and friends. We have moved past what happened and we look forward to forging a better future, together,” the 60-years-old woman fondly says.

“My heart is full of happiness and excitement because I have regained trust in this man. We are more than friends; we share everything.”

‘Unique’ approach

Since 2009 when Gacaca Nkirisitu campaign was introduced, about 150 individuals have reconciled after attending the sessions, according to the Parish.

According to Father Rugirangoga, the programme came as a result of his experience. Having fled the country in the early 1970s with his parents who were being persecuted for being Tutsi, the man of God returned about a decade later and was ordained priest in 1984.

“I realised that the society was really divided and started preaching unity,” he says.

But the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, which also claimed some of his relatives, deceived him much more.

 “I was really tormented. I could not believe people were killing their neighbours, friends and relatives. I felt I have just spent my time preaching to people who did not understand,” Father Rugirangoga narrates.

“But [after the Genocide] I resolved to start once again an evangelisation crusade with the aim of teaching love amongst people.”

At first, Rugirangoga gathered each group (survivors and genocide convicts) separately to discuss how unity and reconciliation can be strengthened. Later the groups started attending the sessions together, leading to the ‘magical’ Gacaca Nkirisitu initiative.

“People spent sleepless nights because of what they did or what they experienced during the Genocide. But they had the key to end that: forgiveness was the way to liberate both of them,” father Rugirangoga says.

While attending the parish’s golden jubilee celebrations, the First Lady Jeannette Kagame hailed what she called a ‘unique and creative approach’ towards strengthening unity and reconciliation in the Rwandan society.

Mrs Kagame also called for other parishes and church denominations to emulate the Mushaka initiative. For Father Rugirangoga, there is hope that the programme will find its place elsewhere in the Rwandan community, because it is definitely needed.

“Nothing can stop this movement. It is inescapable,” the man of God resolutely says.

 “People want to heal from the wounds of Genocide and this has proved to be an effective tool,” he adds, citing people’s testimonies.

Dr. Jean Baptiste Habyarimana, the Executive Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) says of the initiative:  “Every reconciliation process should help cure both parties (the victims and perpetrators). And this programme is contributing towards that end.”

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