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Dealing with the Past in Rwanda: The Path to Forgiveness

Jacques Nkinzingabo

Powerful: Jaqueline survived the genocide in Rwanda.

The day the murderers came to kill Jaqueline's family with a few blows of the machete was sunny. It had rained the day before and turned the reddish earth into a muddy swamp, but when the girl went to get milk from the cows, the sky was almost cloudless. With an effort she balanced the jug full of the white treasure along the narrow path. The corn was high that month, and she was only to find out later that the broad leaves of the plants offered some of her friends protection from the attackers. The corn couldn't help her family. When she came back with the jug full of milk, Jaqueline found the lifeless bodies. They didn't stand a chance.

The genocide in Rwanda is one of the cruellest in recent African history. In the small country in the middle of the continent, which is only slightly larger than Belgium, radical Hutu murdered between 800,000 and a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu. The origin of the conflict goes back to the colonial history of Rwanda. The originally social groups of Hutu and Tutsi were reinterpreted as races by the colonial rulers. After independence, the government exploited this distinction and incited the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority. State propaganda exacerbated the situation via the radio station "Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines". On April 6, 1994, the plane of then President Juvénal Habyarimana, himself a Hutu, was shot down. Radical Hutu used this as an excuse to begin the apparently planned genocide - just half an hour after the plane crash, militias were murdering in the capital.

24 years later, Jaqueline is sitting on a sofa in her small house where she lives with her husband and three children. Three rooms for sleeping, living and cooking, a corrugated iron roof over your head, a stone floor under your feet. Here in the Burgesera region, an hour away from the capital Kigali, she used to live with her family.

They ran for four days, hiding behind bushes

"I was sure that I would have to die now too," said Jaqueline about this morning in April 1994. In her panic, she ran to the Catholic Church, where other Tutsi were huddled together in their fear. There she met her uncle. He was lucky too. Together they made their way to Burundi, ran for four days, hid behind bushes, drank the water from the puddles and ate grains that they picked up on the way. “When we arrived in Burundi, we weren't human anymore,” she says. On the table in front of her there is brightly colored raffia, concentrated, she braids the straw-colored strings into a multicolored coaster, which she sells to visitors outside in the small assembly square in the village.

Jacques Nkinzingabo

The villagers - victims and perpetrators - come together in weekly roundtables.

The idea of ​​a revolutionary young priest

Mbyo is the name of the village, known far beyond the borders of Rwanda, which owes its fame to a peculiarity that was unbelievable during its creation: a village in which Hutu and Tutsi, perpetrators and families of the victims like Jaqueline, live next to each other. The village is the revolutionary idea of ​​a young priest, himself a surviving Tutsi. “How are we ever going to be happy again in this country?” He asked himself and knew: Without forgiveness it wouldn't work. He went to a prison and stood with trembling knees in front of the men who had also killed members of his family. Hutu, who in the meantime had been condemned for their actions by the new government. When he remembers the situation, he tells of the shouts of the prisoners that echoed at him:
"Why is he still alive?" They shouted.
“He's a Tutsi! We should kill him. "
“I'm not coming to accuse you,” the priest shouted.
"Let him talk," they said then.
"After that we can still kill him."

This man is Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza, he calls himself: Bishop Deo. He wanted to change these men. Every two weeks he went to prison and talked to the men about their deeds, about God, his faith and read the Bible with them. “I saw them as people, not as animals,” he says. "You have learned to trust me." What happens to the perpetrators when they get out of prison? The clergyman asked himself at the time. Is the hatred flaring up again in them?

Jacques Nkinzingabo

Memorabilia: A villager has decorated a wall in his house with photos and drawings.

He wanted to create a place where Hutu and Tutsi shake hands. A place of reconciliation. 54 families now live in Mbyo, Tutsi and Hutu. There is a school, children play, in the evenings they sit together and sing Rwandan folk songs. Corn and wheat are growing again in the fields of the village. Everything seems calm. Maybe it's too quiet, eerily quiet. If you ask the residents whether they are Tutsi or Hutu, it comes quickly, almost mechanically: “We are Rwandans”, whether Tutsi or Hutu no longer plays a role.

"Without knowledge there is no forgiveness"

When the village was built 15 years ago, the residents couldn't even sit together, says Deo. The distrust and fear on both sides were far too great. Many had lost everything during the genocide. Together with psychologists, Deo looked after the families whose relatives had been killed in the genocide - and the perpetrators who returned from prison. Together they rebuilt Mbyo's houses. The work, says Deo, of creating something together was important. The residents also hold active discussion groups at the weekend, there is a football club where children and adults play, and the fields are tilled together. But above all: the silence is broken. “Without knowledge there is no forgiveness,” he says.

How does a life succeed next to and with the perpetrators?

Jaqueline met the man who killed her family ten years later. He's a murderer, she thought when the man stood before her. A Hutu who hates all Tutsi. Would he take the opportunity and kill her? Forgive him, a priest told her, for your sins in heaven will be forgiven you too. The man fell on his knees in front of her, pressing his face into the dust. She was afraid. And then said: “Yes, I forgive you.” “Life has to go on,” she says today. "Reconciliation is a process."

"Life must go on. Reconciliation is a process. "

She speaks fluently now, it's not the first time she's telling her story to strangers. Mbyo is often visited as a showcase project by foreign journalists and scientists who want to observe how the reconciliation and the coexistence of Hutu and Tutsi work. “We understand each other” is her answer when asked how the unimaginable succeeds in everyday life: a life next to and with the perpetrators.

Jacques Nkinzingabo

Frederic is now the mayor of the village of Mbyo. He now speaks for everyone who lives there.

Frederic, one of the many perpetrators, also stood before a local court and asked for forgiveness. He is a short man of compact stature who lives a few houses from Jaqueline. In a monotonous voice, he tells of the day he set off, along with other radical Hutu. How they blocked the streets to stop the fleeing Tutsi. How he killed people. “It was an order,” he says. "If I had refused, they would have killed me too." He spent eight years in prison. But Frederic does not let go of his past. He is often startled, his heart pounding, when he thinks of the days in April 1994. He can’t turn back time, he knows that. But he can live, also for reconciliation. For a new Rwanda.

24 years after the genocide: reconciliation work is still important

Almost a quarter of a century later, Rwanda is one of the continent's flagship countries. President Paul Kagame has advanced the state economically and he is also committed to reconciliation. So much so that some also speak of coercion, a “dictatorship of reconciliation”. Kagame leads the country with a strict hand, Rwanda is far from a democracy. Some families of the victims still do not know how their relatives died or who the perpetrators were. Bishop Deo knows that his work is not over even 24 years after the genocide.

Jacques Nkinzingabo

The children of the village are growing up in a new Rwanda where people say they are Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi.

Jaqueline and Frederic are neighbors today, they trust each other. Now and then Jaqueline's children play with Frederic in the yard. If your cow does not give milk, she can ask him for help. The village elected Frederic as its leader, the mayor of Mbyo. It is he who speaks for everyone today, who settles disputes and seeks a solution to problems. And who ensures that the old wounds do not break open again.

Information about the project

The village of Mbyo is one of eight so-called "villages of reconciliation" in Rwanda, where victims and perpetrators of the genocide live as neighbors - accompanied by the organization Prison Fellowship Rwanda and its founder, Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza. Prison Fellowship Rwanda is one of a series of projects on the subject of truth, justice and remembrance that the Robert Bosch Stiftung supports in Africa and around the world. With the aim of dealing with conflicts and contributing to reconciliation, the foundation supports the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives in setting up a memorial in Uganda. Supported are among others. also the organizations Fondation Hirondelle, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Project Expedite Justice, which are active in Mali, the Central African Republic, in the African Great Lakes region and in Sudan, document war crimes and report on reappraisal processes.