Genocide memory through the eyes of ex-combatants

Walking into Kanombe, in Kigali’s Kicukiro District, one sees an individual being pushed up a dirt road in a wheelchair. The person pushing him is missing some fingers, extending his scarred stump as he introduces himself.
One of the residents of Nyarugunga Village. Sunday Times/Kim Harrisberg
One of the residents of Nyarugunga Village. Sunday Times/Kim Harrisberg

Walking into Kanombe, in Kigali’s Kicukiro District, one sees an individual being pushed up a dirt road in a wheelchair. The person pushing him is missing some fingers, extending his scarred stump as he introduces himself.

Further down the road sits three friends in a circle, all in wheelchairs and all so engrossed in their conversation they do not notice the light raindrops that have begun to fall on them.

Under the canopy of a nearby patio sits an elderly man, also wheelchair-bound, his one leg propped up as he studies the pages of the bible in his hand with a steady and devoted gaze. His friend leans against the wall, weighing heavily on a crutch for support.

This is the makeshift family of the Nyarugunga settlement site, where members make up some of the over 4000 disabled ex-combatants currently supported by the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC). Twenty years after the Genocide, two neighbours of this village can include an ex-RPF soldier and an ex-FAR soldier; previous enemies who now live side-by-side.

Twenty years on  

This week, the Kwibuka Flame was lit, beginning a three-month tour of remembrance through the 30 districts of Rwanda before the country begins the national mourning period on April 7, which will be happening for the 20th time since the 1994 Genocide against Tutsis.

One of those districts will be Kicukiro, notorious for the mass murders that followed the UN abandonment of thousands of desperate Tutsis.

Today, the district carries a different meaning for the Nyarugunga community members. The three Nyarugunga Settlement sites set up by the RDRC have become a home to those who fought in previous Rwandan wars.

What will the Kwibuka Flame mean to those who were once enemies?

“People cannot believe it when we tell them that all ex-combatants now see one another as friends,” says Jean Sayinzoga, the chairman of RDRC. 

“There is no special treatment for RPF soldiers; everyone is seen as equal and will receive the same benefits”.

The benefits include medical care, skills training, and financial assistance and job recommendations.

One might expect a village filled with ex-combatants to be a place of trauma, aggression and bad memories. But instead, united in both suffering and tenacity, these men and women have become “brothers” and “sisters” to one another.

“Free for the first time”

“We are all in the same boat,” says Adolphe Sakindi who is wheelchair-bound, and has been for the past twenty years.

“It was my wish to fight for my country in 1994, and so I joined the RPF. I was shot in the back and lost my ability to walk since,” he said.

For the past five years Sakindi has been a part of the Nyarugunga community.

And before that?

“I have been in hospital,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Severely affected by his injury, Sakindi has been bed ridden and plagued with bed sores and pains. Trapped by his disability, he missed out on the years of his life when he could have started a family.

“I have no wife and no children, only an older sister who stays with me in the village,” he said.

When asked about the fact that his fellow community members may, in principle, be those that shot at him twenty years ago, Sakindi is resolute.

“This is not a problem to us. We do not think about it. The only reason we are thinking about it now is because you brought it up,” he said.

Although caged by his body, Sakindi says that since moving to the village he feels “free” for the first time in a long time. Rolling himself outside to speak to his friends has given him the movement for which he has longed.

“To defend my nation”

A fifteen-minute walk away lives an individual embodying the reconciliation Sakindi attempts to explain. Gripping the pen in both hands, he scribbles his name down on the page: Kayitare Gaetan. A fractured spine left him wheelchair-bound and with minimal use of his hands.

A member of FAR, Kayitare’s military vehicle was shot down in 1992. He was captured by RPF soldiers who kept him alive as a prisoner until after 1994.

“When I was 28 years-old, I just wanted to defend my nation,” he said.

His reason is blunt and honest. He does not elaborate but answers all questions as openly as he can.

Sakindi’s reasoning was almost identical. In their twenties, these men were among the catalysts that caused either to grip a gun in their hands, and the possible trigger that lead to them saying goodbye to a life of family, grandchildren, painlessness and mobility.

And yet, every Saturday they gather together.

“We eat, drink, pray and exchange ideas about future projects,” Kayitare said.

The projects include the maintenance of the Production Hall where they sell groceries, run a sick bay and rent out the venue for functions. This hall has provided a steady income to the ex-combatants, allowing them the autonomy to run their own financial lives.

There are, however, some setbacks that remain a constant, such as Kayitare’s perpetual pain.

“The pain cannot quit. But I do not feel it as much when I meet with my friends,” he said.

Alongside his financial and social obligations, Kayitare is one of the twelve ex-combatants chosen by the community to be a part of the local judiciary. When there are inner-conflicts, he is one to resolve the dispute with as much amicability as possible.

“As if we are shining”

Twenty years on, the Kwibuka Flame has become both a symbol of painful remembrance, but also, as seen in the Nyarugunga settlement, a symbol of true reconciliation.

“The country was in a state of quagmire,” says Sakindi, when asked about his thoughts on the Kwibuka symbolism. “I witnessed atrocities, but the country has since developed. Still, there are those that live with the trauma.”

For Kayitare, the twentieth commemoration of the Genocide is something he looks at with almost stunned admiration.

“It is a surprise. We came from such darkness. I would not have believed we could be like this. Now it is as if we are shining,” he said.

According to Sayinzoga, the trust established in these villages is an example for the greater Rwandan society.

“That is what Kwibuka is about: mutual reconciliation. Twenty years is not enough, but we are getting there. And you can see it with the ex-combatants,” he said.

Perhaps it is something one may only really believe when seeing it for one’s self. But the Kwibuka20’s slogan of ‘Remember – Unite – Renew’ seems to be an ideal these ex-combatants have been living out for more than just the last week.

Twitter: @KimHarrisberg

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