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Published: Wednesday April 9, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 9, 2014 MYT 4:02:35 PM

Breaking the chain of hate in Rwanda

Dancila Nyirabazungu, a survivor and one of curators of the genocide memorial at Queen of the Apostles Church of Ntarama, in front of hundreds of skulls on display where some 5,000 people were killed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. - EPA

Dancila Nyirabazungu, a survivor and one of curators of the genocide memorial at Queen of the Apostles Church of Ntarama, in front of hundreds of skulls on display where some 5,000 people were killed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. - EPA

Survivors of the genocide in Rwanda have mixed feelings about the murderers. 

IN those early months after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, as the stunned survivors confronted an existence saturated in pain and despair, a saying took hold in Rwanda: condemned to live.

It was heard from parents who saw their children butchered, from Tutsis who eluded the Hutu machetes only to discover almost everyone they loved was dead. After the last genocide of the 20th century, they returned to their villages to be told they were the lucky ones. But many said they would have preferred to die than face a future haunted by what they knew.

“Surviving is not what we wanted,” said Madalena Mukariemeria, a few years after escaping a massacre of more than 11,000 Tutsis at a church in Kibuye, where her father was killed. “To have survived is not something to be happy about. We don’t hear among the survivors that it was good to survive.”

The suffering was made more acute for some Tutsis by seeing the murderers of their families walking freely on the streets or even living next door.

Rwanda still evokes passions far beyond its borders, not only over the genocide itself but about where the country is headed today under its authoritarian leader, President Paul Kagame, who is regarded by some as its saviour and others as an autocrat. But, little noticed outside the country, hundreds of thousands of the genocide’s survivors have gone on to reconstruct their lives in the two decades since that 100 days of frenzied killing.

In the early years, some mothers looked to their surviving children as the reason to go on. Others, who lost everyone, took in orphans in an attempt to rebuild a family. Mukariemeria did both. She cared for her own three children and seven orphans, among the few survivors of her and her husband’s extended family. Still, the legacy of genocide continued to intrude.

“We had a girl we adopted who was raped during the genocide and got AIDS and died. Another one met the killer of her father. She went and threw herself in the lake and drowned because of the pain of seeing him,” she said.

Others sought peace in forgiveness. Louis Rutaganira survived the slaughter in the same church as Mukariemeria by hiding under the dead. His wife and three of his children did not. Shortly afterwards, Rutaganira was struggling to imagine the future living in a town where much of the Hutu population showed no great regret for the genocide.

Rwandans gather under a banner, with writing in Kinyarwanda reading 'Remember 20', at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali on April 7, 2014, during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide. – AFP

A decade after the genocide, the country faced a daunting problem: its jails were stuffed with more than 150,000 Hutus accused of killings. It would take decades to try all accused so the government revived a traditional system known as gagaca, or grass courts, using rapidly trained local judges drawn from the decimated communities.

Gacaca melded justice with a form of truth and reconciliation that required the guilty to admit and apologise for their crimes, identify their accomplices and to say where the bodies were buried. In return, the survivors were expected to offer forgiveness and the courts to impose lesser sentences, often resulting in immediate release.

Gacaca was a means of clearing out the jails and meeting the clamour for justice. But it was also intended to break the chain of hate and violence by preventing those with blood on their hands from denying their crimes.

Rutaganira described the gacaca trial of the men who stripped his wife, Marie Claire, and cut off her limbs as “very hard”. “It was shocking to hear the one who killed my wife saying he was the one who killed her. The ones who killed my children also confessed,” he said last year.

“I accepted their apologies. It is painful but necessary. The killers are our neighbours now.”

Mukariemeria, who runs a small shop close to the centre of town, has not forgiven the murderers. She served as a witness at the international tribunal trying the leaders of the genocide, including Clement Kayishema, the regional governor who ordered the church massacre. He is serving life. “I wish they could kill him over and over for each life he took,” she said.

Mukariemeria’s anger is infused with fear that history could repeat itself. She has faith in Kagame as a strong leader who can keep Hutu extremists at bay but she is not persuaded the killers’ apologies are sincere and she wonders what will happen after he leaves power.

Kagame’s plan for preventing another genocide has been to raise a new generation of Rwandans who think differently from their parents.

Florence Bugemimana, a member of a youth group at the church where Rutaganira and Mukariemeria survived, does not think the ideology of genocide is dead in Rwanda but she believes the crucial difference from 20 years ago is it is no longer promoted by those in positions of authority.

“It was a big lesson for all of us. The whole country. Everyone suffered. No one wants that again.” — Guardian News & Media

Related story:

Rwandan genocide: Born of rape

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, People, rwanda

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