By Sophia Lucente/Kent State NewsLab
Albert Rutikanga’s family was killed next to him in a their village church during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda.
Decades later, he returned to his home village of Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara to forgive the people who killed his family and convince his neighbors to follow in his footsteps.
On April 7, 1994, the government of Rwanda and militia of the Hutu Power began a genocide against the Tutsi people, killing an estimated one million people in about 100 days. While some families were completely wiped out, other people became orphaned.
Today, more than 29 years after the genocide, perpetrators and victims live together in harmony in six communities throughout Rwanda called “Reconciliation Villages.” The purpose of the Reconciliation Villages is to create a better life and to work toward healing for both victims and perpetrators of the genocide.
Rutikanga, the founder of the Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara Reconciliation Village, was a young man when the genocide took place.
“I remember when the genocide first started. I was listening to the radio; I heard the president was shot down,” he said. “I went immediately to tell my parents, and my parents said, ‘we are going to be killed.’”
“In a few minutes, we saw our neighborhood, the houses of Tutsis, burnt.”
Rutikanga said Tutsis in his village fled to the Roman Catholic church, because they believed it was a safe area of God, and no one would kill them there. His family followed, fleeing to the church on April 7. His father was a schoolteacher, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom.
Over the next few days, the killings continued, houses burning as Interahamwe, or Hutu militia, threw grenades into the church. Rutikanga said after the first grenade was thrown on April 8, 100 people died immediately.
“They came in shouting, shouting, shouting, and they threw the grenade on the roof, and people died in a big number. The killing continued in the evening into the morning,” he said.
Over the next few days, the killings intensified.
“On the 14th, it was a terrible day for Tutsis who were here. More terrible than the days before,” Rutikanga said.
“My father was sitting, reading the Bible, and he was shot and died. And my mom’s legs were cut off from a grenade, and after she died. I was injured from a grenade fragment,” he said. “They kept throwing grenades, people died, people died.”
On April 16, the RPF, a military group made of Rwandan refugees fighting against the Hutu Power, reached his village. As the Interahamwe fled, the liberating soldiers took injured people to nearby hospitals.
Rutikanga said for many years after the genocide, he was angry, until he came to a realization.
“I keep searching why people kill others, and I’ve come to an understanding: human beings, to commit atrocities to the extent of dehumanizing others, it’s because they died first. Actually, they deserve forgiveness,” Albert said.
After coming to this realization, he came back to Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara and approached his neighbors, one by one. It took a long time to convince both perpetrators and victims to work together, he said. But the village also focused on getting people shelter and food, since basic needs are essential for peace.
“You cannot have peace when people are hungry,” Rutikanga said. “We provide basic needs to our community, which is essential to changing lives.”
Margarite Murekatete, a 61-year-old woman, lives in the Reconciliation Village with Albert and perpetrators who killed her family.
She said she remembered before the genocide the Tutsis were dehumanized for years by propaganda and discrimination in schools. Once the president was killed, the genocide began.
“We were killed by our neighbors, we were killed by machetes, we were killed by guns, every weapon was used to massacre us,” Murekatete said.
“One night, I tried to make it from my home to the church, but I was met with a group of attackers, and I immediately deviated,” she said. “I tried to find a safe place, and I experienced the death of my aunt. She was killed twice; she was killed after being killed by the dogs.”
She said even decades after the genocide there was mistrust between perpetrators and victims, and it was a long process to reach reconciliation.
“In the end, I was able to start the journey of forgiveness,” she said. “Now, we are one people.”
Murekatete gestured to one of the perpetrators listening to her story, and he came up and stood beside her. She wrapped his arm around him lovingly, showing how their relationship has grown. “He approached me, supporting me for a long time before I was able to forgive him,” she said.
“I have lost many brothers, but now, I find this man as a brother.”
Murekatete said she feels as if her purpose is to share her story and teach others about forgiveness. “If God saved me from the killers, maybe it’s because there was a reason behind it. I am here to symbolize and participate in peacebuilding,” she said.
Antione Ndagijimana lives in the same community as Murekatete. He was a part of the Interhamwe at Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara, killing the Tutsis in his community.
“I participated in killing my neighbor, and the next day, I saw other killers going, and I joined them,” he said.
He admitted to using traditional weapons to kill people in the village church. “We killed many people, to be honest, about 300 in one day.”
When the liberation forces came, Ndagijimana said he fled to Tanzania, a country bordering Rwanda’s Eastern Province, staying in refugee camps. Eventually, the Rwandan government forced these refugees back into the country.
“I was wondering, ‘how am I going to face the families who have survived?’,” he said. “In the first days, I was arrested and transferred into a prison. When I was in prison, I did not think anyone would forgive me. I was waiting for death, for the death penalty.”
Ndagijimana said he was able to meet one of his fellow perpetrators of genocide in the prison, who convinced him to join the process of reconciliation and admit to his faults. He said it took time for him to agree, but eventually he did.
“I started writing a letter of apology, and after a few months, I received good news. The prison accepted my confession, and I was told I would be released soon,” he said. “When I was released, I was able to do public works and meet again with my neighbors.”
“So, I have been able to come back to the community again. I continue to recognize what I did, and even now, I continue to apologize to people,” Ndagijimana said.
Another perpetrator, Nason Karenzi, lives in this reconciliation village alongside Murekatete and Ndagijimana. He said he joined the militia in Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara when the genocide started, attacking the village church.
“I was among one of the strongest attackers at the church,” he said.
He said while some threw grenades, others attacked with guns and machetes. “Some entered the church; others surrounded the church,” he said. “The one day, I remember, we killed many people.”
Karenzi has since apologized, asking for forgiveness from his community with the help of Albert. He is now the mediator of the reconciliation village and a community leader trusted by his neighbors.
Martine Niwemukiza, another victim who experienced violence during the genocide, lives alongside Ndagijimana and Karenzi. During the genocide, she was living near the border of the Congo.
“I went to the Congo border to work, but I had a dream to join a catholic sister’s congregation,” she said.
Niwemukiza said she was working in a bar during this time, and the owner continually tried to have sex with her, but she refused. “When the genocide began, he always told me, ‘if you refuse me, I will call militia to kill you,’” she said.
“Even later, when the militia came, they raped me many times, but I became pregnant from that man,” she said. “During that period of genocide, I was raped by many people, and while giving birth the doctors told me I also contracted HIV.”
After the genocide, Niwemukiza said she gave birth to a beautiful daughter. She had family living in Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara, so she traveled there.
She said when she came back, people knew what happened to her because of her daughter, but she told no one. “I was not able to talk about what happened to me. I was completely traumatized,” she said.
“Over 15 years, I was unable to speak out,” Niwemukiza said, “but I was able to speak out once I joined this initiative.”
“Now, I have been able to stand up in public and share my testimony,” she said. “When I speak and I share, it heals me.”
The Lycee Saint Marcel de Rukara Reconciliation Village is a symbol of forgiveness in Rwanda, allowing people to heal through peacebuilding and storytelling from the atrocities of genocide.
“We have been able to find peace within ourselves in these communities,” Niwemukiza said.
This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative newsroom staffed by Kent State students.