Rwanda genocide survivors back reconciliation

In Reconciliation Villages, survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide live side-by-side.

Frederic Kazigwemo served time in jail for killing several people in 1994 [Benjamin Duerr/Al Jazeera]

Frederic Kazigwemo was one of thousands of men who helped perpetrate the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Twenty years later, local residents elected him as Mbyo village’s spokesperson.

Mbyo is a Reconciliation Village, located one hour’s drive from the capital of Kigali. It’s a microcosm of victims and perpetrators, Hutus and Tutsis, murderers and survivors, are neighbors. It’s an attempt to rebuild the country.

Twenty years ago, a mass murder destroyed the Rwandan society. The genocide was sparked by the death of the then Rwandan Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down on April 6 1994. In the hundred days that followed, some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by the Hutu majority. 

Neighbors murdered their neighbors. Frederic Kazigwemo has, for example, killed several people. He said he was jailed for more than nine years. After his release he got a small piece of land and a house in Mbyo.

The genocide did not only take human lives, it destroyed the livelihoods of many families. Victims couldn’t return to their villages. Perpetrators who have been in prison didn’t have a place to go, so officials created six Reconciliation Villages.

Genocide survivors and perpetrators are given the chance to start a new life, Frederic Kazigwemo says. Currently there are 60 families living in Mbyo. The nonprofit organisation “Prison Fellowship Rwanda” supports the villagers. “We started with 15 houses to see if we can live together,” Kazigwemo explains. “It worked.”

‘A long process’

Jacqueline Mukamana stays with her four children in the village. In 1994, a group of men destroyed her village and killed all of her 12 family members. She survived only because she had been working on the fields outside the village when the men came.

In the Reconciliation Village, Mukamana works with other women to create small pieces of art which they sell at the market. There is a dancing chorus of survivors and offenders, and a cooperative. “We save the returns from selling vegetables on a common bank account,” Mbyo’s mayor Frederic Kazigwemo says. “If a family is in difficulties we can give support with money of the community.”

Reconciliation is a long process, you have to keep working on it.

by - Samuel Hatangimana, community member

For the villagers it can be tough to live so close to each other. There haven’t been problems though, Frederic Kazigwemo says. “I can go and leave my kids with a Tutsi family,” he adds. “I don’t have to be afraid that they take revenge – that’s impossible here.”

Twenty years after the violence, the country is stable and the economy grows steadily. Rwanda has been hailed as an African success story.

However, critics say that stability and reconciliation have been created artificially and are still superficial. In everyday life Hutus and Tutsis coexist, but avoid each other, the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld found in his book Strategy of Antelopes.

Reconciliation would have come from outside, from NGOs and returning Tutsis that form the current government, he writes. Others argue that stability exists because the ruling party of President Paul Kagame has transformed the country into a nearly one-party state with a tight grip on politics, economics and even on reconciliation policy. 

On the last Saturday of the month, every Rwandan is supposed to participate in unpaid communal work aimed at rebuilding the country and the society, as part of the government’s reconciliation drive.

Talking about Hutus and Tutsis has become politically incorrect. “The process of reconciliation is about all Rwandans,” Richard Kananga from the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in Kigali explains. For the government, reconciliation today also means to bring young and old, rich and poor together.

Kananga denies that reconciliation is enforced. “The government had to take the initiative,” he told Al Jazeera. “But at the end of the day you’ll find that it’s in the interest of the people.”

Anger and hatred have not yet disappeared. The stability is fragile. In many Rwanda people meet for debating clubs. Different generations, victims and perpetrators talk about their experiences, their feelings and emotions.

One afternoon, the villagers of Kinyinya near Kigali come together in a community centre. Samuel Hatangimana is the local school’s head teacher and a volunteer who is heading the meetings. Talking helps to build trust and to tackle the psychological impacts of the genocide, many said.

Scientists found in 2012 that up to 80 percent of the people in certain areas still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Nobody in those regions has ever spoken to a psychotherapist.

The villagers support each other when professional help isn’t available. Talking helps to heal and to prevent new violence. “An escalation is not impossible,” Samuel Hatangimana says. The country seems stable, he explains. Beyond the surface, however, the communities are still in a state of ferment. “Reconciliation is a long process, you have to keep working on it.”

A few years ago children of genocide victims didn’t want to sit in the same classroom with perpetrators’ children, principal Hatangimana says. Supported by the NGO “International Alert” he not only heads the community group in Kinyinya but has also founded a dialogue club in his school. “Now children of the former enemies sit next to each other.”

Follow Benjamin Dürr on Twitter: @benjaminduerr

Source: Al Jazeera