Rwandan reconciliation village offers place to heal after genocide

BUGESERA, Rwanda — Anastasie Nyirabashyitsi and Jeanette Mukabyagaju think of each other as dear friends.

The women’s friendship was cemented one day in 2007, when Mukabyagaju, going somewhere, left a child behind for Nyirabashyitsi to look after.

This expression of trust stunned Nyirabashyitsi because Mukabyagaju, a Tutsi survivor who lost most of her family in the Rwandan genocide, was leaving a child in the hands of a Hutu woman for the first time since they had known each other.

“If she can ask me to keep her child, it’s because she trusts me,” Nyirabashyitsi said recently, describing her feelings at the time. “A woman, when it comes to her children, when someone trusts you with (her) children, it’s because she really does.”

It wasn’t always like that.

‘We had no hope of living’

Nyirabashyitsi and Mukabyagaju are both witnesses to terrible crimes. But, in the government-approved reconciliation village where they have lived for 19 years, they have reached a peaceful coexistence from opposite experiences.

Nyirabashyitsi, 54, recalled the helpless Tutsis she saw at roadblocks not far from the present reconciliation village, people she knew faced imminent death when the Hutu soldiers and militiamen started systematically killing their Tutsi neighbors on the night of April 6, 1994.

The killings were ignited when a plane carrying then-President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down over Kigali. The Tutsi were blamed for downing the plane and killing the president. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed by extremist Hutus in massacres that lasted over 100 days in 1994. Some moderate Hutus who tried to protect members of the Tutsi minority were also targeted.

One victim was a woman who had been a godmother to her child, and later she saw the woman’s body dumped in a ditch, Nyirabashyitsi remembers. “It was so horrible, and it was even shameful to be able [to] see that,” she said. “For sure, we had no hope of living. We thought that we would also be killed. How could you see that and then think you will be alive at some point?”

As for Mukabyagaju, she was a 16-year-old temporarily staying in the southern province of Muhanga while her parents lived in Kigali. When she couldn’t shelter at the nearest Catholic parish, she hid in a latrine for two months, without anything to eat and drinking from trenches, until she was rescued by Tutsi rebels who stopped the genocide.

“I hated Hutu so much to the point that I could not agree to meet them,” she said, adding that it took a long time “to be able even think that I can interact with a Hutu.”

The women are neighbors in a community of genocide perpetrators and survivors 40 kilometers outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali. At least 382 people live in Mbyo Reconciliation Village, which some Rwandans cite as an example of how people can peacefully coexist 30 years after the genocide.

More than half the residents of this reconciliation village are women, and their projects — which include a basket-weaving cooperative as well as a money saving program — have united so many of them that it can seem offensive to inquire into who is Hutu and who is Tutsi.

An official with Prison Fellowship Rwanda, a Kigali-based civic group that’s in charge of the village, said the women foster a climate of tolerance because of the hands-on activities in which they engage regularly.

“There’s a model we have here which we call practical reconciliation,” said Christian Bizimana, a program coordinator with Prison Fellowship Rwanda. “Whenever they are weaving baskets, they can engage more, talk more, go into the details. We believe that by doing that … forgiveness is deepened, unity is deepened.”

‘It pleases my heart’

In Rwanda, a small East African country of 14 million people, women leaders have long been seen as a pillar of reconciliation, and Rwandans can now “see the benefits” of empowering women to fight the ideology behind genocide, said Yolande Mukagasana, a prominent writer and genocide survivor.

Two of three members of Mbyo Reconciliation Village’s dispute-resolution committee are women, and they have been helpful in resolving conflicts ranging from domestic disputes to communal disagreements, residents say.

The women’s activities set an example for children and “promote the visibility of what really this village is like in terms of practical unity and reconciliation,” said Frederick Kazigwemo, a leader in the village who was jailed nine years on charges of genocide-related crimes.

He said of the friendship between Nyirabashyitsi and Mukabyagaju: “It pleases my heart. It’s something that I could have never imagined. … It gives me hope (for) what will happen in future.”

Eighteen women are actively involved in basket weaving, meeting as a group at least once a week. Nyirabashyitsi and Mukabyagaju sat next to each other one recent morning as they made new baskets. A collection of their work was displayed on a mat nearby.

“When we came here the environment was clouded by suspicion. It wasn’t easy to trust one another,” Nyirabashyitsi said. “For example, it wasn’t easy for me to go to Jeanette’s house, because I had no idea what she was thinking about me. But after time, the more we lived together, that harmony and that closeness came.”

Nyirabashyitsi and Mukabyagaju were among the first people to arrive in the village when it was launched in 2005 as part of wider reconciliation efforts by Prison Fellowship Rwanda. The organization, which is affiliated with the Washington-based Prison Fellowship International, wanted to create opportunities for genocide survivors to heal in conditions where they can regularly talk to perpetrators. There are at least eight other reconciliation villages across Rwanda.

President Paul Kagame’s rebel group, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, stopped the genocide after 100 days, seized power and has since ruled Rwanda unchallenged.

Rwandan authorities have heavily promoted national unity among the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi and Twa, with a separate government ministry dedicated to reconciliation efforts. The government has imposed a tough penal code to prosecute those it suspects of denying the genocide or promoting the “genocide ideology.” Some observers say the law has been used to silence critics who question the government.

Rwandan ID cards no longer identify a person by ethnicity. Lessons about the genocide are part of the curriculum in schools.

your ad here

leave a reply: