- Before the Rwandan genocide, Mutiribambi Aziri and Jaqueline Mukamana were neighbours in the town of Nyamata, south of the capital Kigali. When the 100-day slaughter began in April 1994, Mukamana, a teenage Tutsi student, and Aziri, a Hutu farmer, found themselves on opposite sides as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe, and ordinary Rwandans.
Mukamana went to fetch water from the community well and returned to find her entire family hacked to death by neighbours. She hid in the fields and then fled on foot to neighbouring Burundi.
Aziri was one of those whipped up into a killing spree by Rwanda’s hard-line Hutu administration. He did not murder Mukamana’s family but he admits to killing some of her neighbours with a machete.
Thirteen years later, they are neighbours again, chatting on the dusty roads and attending church services together.
“We help each other,” Aziri told IRIN. “When a member of one family is sick, we drop by.” Most importantly, he says, “our kids are friends”.
The 40 families living in Imidugudo, which translates as “reconciliation village”, in Nyamata, 30km south of the capital, Kigali, are part of an experiment whereby genocide survivors and confessed perpetrators live in the same community, in small tin-roofed houses they built themselves.
The village is the brainchild of Pastor Steven Gahigi, an Anglican clergyman who survived the genocide by fleeing to Burundi with his wife and two children. His mother, father and siblings all died and Gahigi thought he had lost his ability to forgive.
“I prayed until one night I saw an image of Jesus Christ on the cross,” Gahigi says. “I thought of how he forgave and I knew that I and others could also do it.”
Inspired by the vision, Gahigi began preaching forgiveness not only in Nyamata parish, but in the cramped prisons where hundreds of thousands of perpetrators were awaiting trial.
In 2003, faced with crowded prisons and a shortage of qualified judges, the Rwandan government began offering a provisional release to low-level perpetrators, including the sick, elderly and those who were children at the time of the genocide.
People tried by Rwanda’s traditional “gacaca” courts, in which members of the community act as judges, had their sentences halved if they confessed their involvement in the genocide.
Today, Gahigi provides spiritual council to both perpetrators and victims, most of whom work as small farmers, just as they did before the genocide.
The path to forgiveness was not easy, residents say.
“I did not think I could forgive,” Mukamana says, “until I heard the pastor’s message.” Now, she is fond of elderly Aziri, who often stops by her house to chat.
Residents say their ability to forgive is rooted in Christian beliefs.
“These people killed my parents,” Janet Mukabyagaju told IRIN. “It is not easy for me to forgive them. But God forgave. I must do the same.”
With funding from non-profit Christian organisation Prison Fellowship International, survivors and perpetrators agreed to live together harmoniously. The founding members of the community voted on who could live at Imidugudo - a practice that continues today.
Gahigi said they generally choose families who are most vulnerable due to poverty or illness.
While Rwanda’s current administration has renounced the use of ethnic terminology and instead promotes reconciliation, many Rwandans say there is still a raging undercurrent of mistrust among those who survived the genocide and those who committed it.
Residents in Imidugudo say although the terms Hutu and Tutsi should no longer be a part of Rwandan society, they do not believe in painting over the past. They speak to their children about their roles in the genocide.
“Genocide has enormous consequences for those who did it and for those who survived,” Xavier Namay, an admitted perpetrator, told IRIN. “My children must know what I did so they can rebuild this country positively.”
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