/ 15 September 2017

‘My neighbour murdered nearly all of my family, but now we are friends’

The community of Mbyo
The community of Mbyo

In a leafy, quiet district less than an hour’s drive from Rwanda’s capital, the calmness of the community of Mbyo belies the dark and traumatic past of its inhabitants.

Here, Laurencia Niyogira and her next door neighbour, Tasian Nkundiye, have become firm friends. But 22 years ago, at the height of the Rwandan genocide, Nkundiye murdered nearly all of Niyogira’s family and left her and her siblings for dead.

“I am very grateful to her,” says Nkundiye. “Ever since I wrote to her from prison, confessing to my crimes and asking her for forgiveness, she has never once called me a killer. Now, I often leave my children with her when I have to be away from the village. She has set me free.”

The two villagers form part of a pioneering community of 54 families living in the reconciliation village of Mbyo, one of six set up in Rwanda’s rural regions by a nonprofit Christian organisation to promote healing after the brutality of the 1990s.

The project was launched by a local NGO called  Prison Fellowship Rwanda (PFR) , which identifies people and families in need of housing, regardless of their actions during the genocide.

PFR seeks to bring together survivors and perpetrators who were directly connected by the genocide. In Niyogira’s case, her family moved into the village first, and Nkundiye joined them after he was released from prison.

Now, almost 3 000 victims and perpetrators live in the six reconciliation villages, a success PFR attributes to its emphasis on forgiveness.

Laurencia Niyogira and her nextdoor neighbour, Tasian Nkundiye. Almost 20 years ago, at the height of the Rwandan genocide, Nkundiye murdered nearly all of Niyogira’s family and left her and her siblings for dead. (Amandas Ong, The Guardian)

Aside from attending group discussions on conflict resolution, villagers also look after livestock together, grow maize and cassava in a co-operative, and share a common bank account to pay for their health insurance.

“We are motivated by the fact that we run this whole place ourselves,” says Niyogira. “No soldiers, no governmental presence.”

Over the course of 100 days after the assassination of Rwanda’s then president, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, in 1994, more than 800 000 ethnic Tutsis were systematically murdered, along with Hutus who refused to participate in the killings.

In the years after the genocide, many Rwandans found themselves struggling to cope not just with the immense trauma but also with practical issues, such as where they should live.

“It was a tragedy for everyone, whether you were Hutu or Tutsi,” says Alexandre Guma, communications director at PFR. “If you had killed people and had gone to jail, you often returned to find that your home had been destroyed or taken away. And if you were a survivor of the genocide, your entire family had died and you had nowhere else to go.”

Guma believes that the villages are distinct from any other initiative aimed at national reconstruction because they are ongoing and sustainable.

Rwandan children at the genocide memorial cemetery in Nyanza, north of Kigali. (Jean-Marc Bouju, AP)

Rwanda’s gacaca court system, consisting of citizen-run tribunals first implemented in 2001, helped in part to facilitate communication between alleged perpetrators and survivors as the first step in transitional justice. But Guma thinks that reconciliation is a long, tricky process that requires far more effort.

“To apologise and to forgive are one thing, but people can still go out of their way to avoid each other when they move back to their old neighbourhoods. If Rwanda is to heal, people have to confront their innermost feelings every day so suffering and anger doesn’t come to the surface again.”

The reconciliation villages have also helped to ease some of the strain on Rwanda’s severely over-crowded prisons in the aftermath of the genocide.

In the early 2000s, new laws put in place by President Paul Kagame’s government meant many so-called génocidaires could be released from prison if they contacted surviving victims and expressed repentance. Nkundiye was one of those prisoners, choosing to move to a reconciliation village after his confession.

At Mbyo, residents don’t shy away from acknowledging their status as “perpetrator” or “survivor”.

Silas Uwesegumuremyi, whose father was killed by another resident at Mbyo, says this honesty is vital to the project. “Genocide is something impossible for anyone to mentally accommodate unless they have gone through it themselves. We must remember the specific roles we all played in 1994, but remembering doesn’t bring anger anymore. It strengthens us,” he says.

Last year, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission published a survey showing that up to 92.5% of Rwandans feel reconciliation has been achieved. Rwanda has attained several other impressive milestones, including the highest percentage of female representation in parliament.

Mbyo village. (Amandas Ong, The Guardian)

However, many are convinced more needs to be done. “I think we’re doing well, but there are still residual problems that will get worse if we allow them to fester,” says Reuben Kanyesigye, a social worker. “The children of prisoners are often vulnerable because their parents are under long sentence. They often become resentful, fail to understand their parents’ mistakes and turn to crime. More needs to be done to protect and educate them.”

Florence Batoni, co-ordinator of the peace-building programme at a local NGO, Never Again Rwanda, is inclined to agree that projects targeted at young people are important. “If someone has had his whole family killed by his neighbours, it’s only natural that there are trust issues that are hard to get rid of. Until today, there are still genocide deniers who live amongst us,” she says. “It’s difficult to estimate how many there are, and almost impossible to reach out to them to change their minds if we cannot identify them.”

Batoni thinks seminars and informal debates for young people both in Rwanda and the surrounding countries of Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will help to guard them against a return of genocidal ideology.

Critics of Kagame’s regime have also argued that post-genocidal recovery has been a largely ersatz process due to the government’s strict regulation of reconciliation policy, which has come in the form of participation programmes such as umuganda, a designated public cleaning event that takes place on the last Saturday of each month.

Initiated to bring the entire country together regardless of ethnic divisions, there are those who wonder, however, how these compulsory programmes help to solve more pressing problems among communities, such as the post-traumatic stress disorder faced by survivors.

But Mbyo’s residents argue otherwise. “It was bad governance that sowed the seeds of discord in 1994, but it has also been good governance that turned things around,” says Aloyse Mutiribambe. “At the end of the day, political will helps to make things happen, but it is us – the people – who were most deeply affected by the genocide, so it must also be us who change things for the better.”

Little wonder that the row of benches beneath the trees at Mbyo are a popular spot for mingling, and are an enduring, literal manifestation of the gacaca (which translates to mean “justice among the grass” in Kinyarwanda).

When asked if she still holds occasional anger towards Nkundiye, Niyogira shrugs. 

“I have been through many hard times. I’ve drunk from pools of water by the road while fleeing to Burundi, I’ve lost my family, I’ve lived in fear that the people who did this to me would come back for revenge after being released from jail. I lived in sorrow for a long time, and could not look any Hutu in the eye. But I found that I couldn’t live like that forever.”

This feature was originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project.