AT A TIME when the shadow of death was hovering over the country during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Jean Nzabanterura was among the many individuals who took up traditional weapons and scoured their communities hunting and murdering fellow citizens on a simplistic reason that they were just Tutsi.
Nzabanterura, who was then aged 39, was persuaded that by joining the hunt and killing of Tutsis, he was rendering a great service to his nation as Tutsis had been branded enemy of the state and extremist leaders were encouraging people to ‘work’–a euphemism used by the then leaders to mean “killing Tutsi.”
But it was not until he had crossed the Rubicon that Nzabanterura realised he was totally wrong.
When the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) took control of the eastern district of Kayonza around April 17, 1994, Nzabanterura escaped. Ironically, he fled to Byumba (part of which make the current Gicumbi District), an area that was also under the control of the RPA.
“I was running from what I had done. I had realised I had committed evil,” Nzabanterura says.
Nzabanterura spent a few days in Byumba and then headed to the capital Kigali.
“I didn’t know where to go. It was just going for that sake of moving... away from my evil deeds. I was just fleeing what I had done and moving aimlessly, without any destination. I thought I would continue to travel until I die,” he says.
“I thought I wouldn’t be forgiven for the crimes I had committed; I couldn’t imagine that happening.”
After the Genocide was stopped, Nzabanterura was arrested and detained for his acts. He spent the next 10 years in prison–a period he says has been crucial in his transformation.
Correctional in every sense
While in prison, Nzabanterura says his evil acts continued to haunt him, prompting him to plead guilty and seek forgiveness from the people he had offended.
“The prison offered me a chance to think about myself and what I had done. After thorough reflection, I realised I will continue to be tormented unless I repented and sought forgiveness,” he says.
“I later realised that truth is a powerful tool that heals, both on the part of the offender and for those we hurt.”
With the help of prison officials, Nzabanterura approached relatives of the people he had killed to seek forgiveness.
“That episode marked an important watershed in my life; it opened up a new chapter. I felt relieved from the heavy load that was weighing me down,” Nzabanterura says.
“It opened up my eyes to realise that I had the key to healing; that what it takes is the courage to open up and tell the truth.”
Nzabanterura was sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in the Genocide. He has completed his sentence.
“Truth is important if we want to build a stronger and united nation,” the former Genocide convict says.
Bitter but vital
It is estimated that more than a million people were murdered in just a hundred days of the Genocide in 1994.
Survivors of the massacres were left with deep wounds–physical and psychological–that forgiving their offenders proved, in many cases, a very tough task for them.
However, after years of campaigns on unity and reconciliation, and after some Genocide perpetrators took the courage to seek mercy, the survivors opened up their hands and hearts to those who murdered their relatives, forgiving them unconditionally.
Joseph Gahurura, a 63-year-old survivor who lost more than 30 members of his close and extended family, says forgiveness was not an easy decision to make.
“Forgiving was hard after the many relatives we had lost and the dark days we had been subjected to,” Gahurura says. “But time comes when you realise that it is important that you forgive [your offenders] so you are able to move on with life.”
“You can’t correct the evil with another evil act. You can’t be as bad as they were. You need to take the bad with the good; you need to use the good to win over evil,” he argues.
Gahurura says what survivors want is to be told the truth about how their relatives were killed and where their bodies were dumped.
“We have forgiven them [the killers] and we are ready to forgive whoever comes out and repents. What we only need is the truth about what really happened,” Gahurura says.
For Genocide convict Nzabanterura, some perpetrators are still gripped by shame for their acts, thus remaining under the shadow of fear to open up, repent and seek forgiveness.
“Truth is a bitter but necessary road to reconciliation and healing. I believe it [truth] was the force behind our newfound unity and reconciliation, which has led to the transformation we have seen.”