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Rwanda reconciliation takes a village, 21 years on

Vincent Kadimera, a righteous Hutu who saved five people in Simbi village during the Genocide
Vincent Kadimera, a righteous Hutu who saved five people in Simbi village during the Genocide Laura Angela Bagnetto

Two groups are sitting in circles in the grass in Simbi village, outside of Butare, Rwanda's second city. The men and women are counting money and talking, and they obviously know each other very well   it’s a friendly atmosphere. But 21 years ago, the scene wasn’t so idyllic.


Dominique Ndaimana was in Manda, the village next to Simbi, when the genocide broke out.

He tells RFI how he participated in the genocide.

“Personally I didn’t kill anyone, but I was among the killers who made a cordon around the church," he said. "I formally agree that I was part of the group of killers.”

In Simbi, Tutsis went and hid in the church when the 1994 Rwandan genocide kicked off in April. On 18 April, their luck ran out   Hutus from Simbi surrounded the church so no Tutsi could escape. Then the Hutu killers ran into the church and killed everyone.

A Human Rights Watch report by the late Alison Des Forges says that between 3,000 and 5,000 people died that day after the carnage began at 9 am.

Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried for generations, so tribal divisions were not so pronounced.

“To make sure they could tell the difference, the genocidaires wore belts of banana leaves around their waist so that they would be recognised as Hutus and not be killed by others. I was part of the group,” says Innocent Nyndwe.

After the genocide, sentences were also handed down to people who were complicit   those who did not physically kill their neighbours, but impeded them in some way from fleeing the carnage.

Hutus participated in the killings, rapes and looting during the genocide, either voluntarily or under the force of neighbours. Those who refused were usually killed.

“During the attack, three Hutu priests were killed because they were opposed to the looting of the village health centre nearby,” according to the HRW report, Leave No One to Tell the Story.

Dominique went around with the looters, who stole food and goods to feed those who were carrying out the slaughter. “In Manda, I participated with the people who stole cows and killed the Tutsi cows. I ate a Tutsi cow. I was also part of the crew who demolished Tutsi houses.”

And while a large part of the Hutu population committed crimes, some stood up against the majority.

Evaste Mukangyandwi chose not to hide in the church with the others. She took her four children and hid in an old woman’s house. Her neighbours knew she was a Tutsi, however.

“When the killers came back from Simbi village, they came to the old woman where I was hiding my children”, she said.

She was so badly beaten that to this day she cannot carry anything on her head. She later left the old woman’s house and hid, before going to her mother’s house in Gikongoro.

“My clothes were ripped and I looked like a crazy person or an animal,” she says.

During the genocide one of her children was killed. Her story could be worse, if it wasn’t for the bravery of one man: Vincent Kadimera.

Kadimera was her children’s godfather; but he was also a Hutu.

"It was very hard for me," he told RFI. "I suffered a lot because the people were dying. And I told the killers, what you’re doing is not good at all   it will all come back on you. I tried to save people but it was very difficult. I was able to save five people.”

At first, the Hutus didn’t know he was hiding Mukangyandwi’s three children and two other people.

Dossier: Rwanda remembers genocide 20 years later

“But I knew how to speak to these people and I was able to calm them down. I also gave them stuff. I gave them stuff because those people were the pillagers," he said. "The first thing they did was steal, and the next thing they did was kill. And I gave them things so they would not come to my house. But when they found out I was hiding people, then my life became very, very hard."

He says he gave them everything   kilos of coffee, food. When he had nothing else to give, they forced him to go out with them. He protested, saying he was lame and could not walk. When they tried to drag him out of his house, he fell, so they left him alone. But he knew the killers would come back for him.

Kadimera had his wife take one child a day to Gikongoro, a town about 20km away, pretending that they were her sister’s children. The ruse worked. The children were reunited with their mother and were able to hide out until the end of the genocide on 3 July.

So how does reconciliation begin? It’s been 21 years since 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered during the Rwandan genocide. Progress has been made, says Dieudonné Muyankiko, the project officer in Butare for Modeste et Innocente, a reconciliation group.

Modeste et Innocente, or AMI, was founded in 2000 to bridge the gap after the genocide for conflict resolution. Many people returned home in the months and years after the killings, only to find themselves face-to-face with neighbours who stole their belongings or killed their family members. One aspect of their work is restitution.

“These people are poor, but on one side they have to pay. On the other side it is their right to be paid, but how do you do so without destroying their relationship?” says Muyankiko.

“Rwanda is a poor country, but departing from our culture we are depending on each other. So one is needing another one for surviving. This is what we are trying to do. We are trying to save their relationship, because genocide has already destroyed it,” he adds.

Back in Simbi, Dominique Ndaimana says he spent eight years in prison. He’s now the president of the local AMI association.

He says he has no problem because he asked for forgiveness from the people. The AMI system buys cows for those who had their cows stolen. And in this group, 28 people have a cow.

Even the most basic household items were stolen during the genocide, Ndaimana says: “During the war there was also pillage. And some people stole mattresses. So 31 people bought 31 mattresses for those who had them stolen. We organised this within the group.”

Innocent, the Hutu banana-leaf wearer, was given a nine-year sentence. Before his release, the prison organised sensitivity training for him. In his AMI group, he helped to buy a number of household groups.

“The group you see in front of you here is the one that works directly in microfinance in Duterimbere. They organise themselves and put aside their money to have the power to ask for credit,” says Innocent.

Muyankiko says that the process of reconciliation is not easy, nor does it have a specific timeframe. AMI bases reconciliation on a four-step process. The first step is breaking the silence.

“Genocide survivors, what we discovered is that they thought they had done everything for facilitating reconciliation. They didn’t take revenge, they didn’t kill them. They suffered, they accepted, but those killers, they don’t trust them,” says Muyankiko.

“When you go to the other side, it is the same. We have shown our goodwill to change, but they don’ trust us. They continually treat us as the killers. So for them it is like we are dead. So, they were complaining about it,” he adds.

Then, the two sides agree on some points that are considered true. They meet face-to-face to discuss these mutually agreed upon facts. Third, the groups renegotiate, which is considered the longest and hardest part to accomplish. And the fourth step is about creating trust.

These steps are based on the essence of Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term for the essential human virtues of compassion and humanity. Religious leaders in Rwanda played a role in carrying out the genocide, so AMI works through this pan-African concept that embraces everyone, regardless of religion.

“Ubuntu is what lacks for genocide to happen. If we want to build this country, if we want to reconcile people in this country, of course we have to come back to our Ubuntu,” says Muyankiko.

In Rwanda, people “forgot who they are. And of course when we forget who we are, we become I don’t know what. This is what happened in this country,” he says.

Mukangyandwi, whose three children were saved by Kadimera, still has problems physically due to the beatings she received. Those who threatened her and her family have asked for forgiveness and she has accepted. But she has also seen a general change for the better, right here in Simbi.

“Regarding reconciliation and unity, it is a pleasure for me because now the people are starting to speak, and before, people never spoke here,” she said.

The difference now is that the issues are out in the open. Although problems remain, Simbi villagers are now closer than they had been since the genocide.

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