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Tutsis and Hutus from Rwanda: Living with the Enemy

By Fatima Najm

17 Aug 2008


Mathias Sendegeya, a Hutu from Rwanda, admits to butchering innocent Tutsis because Hutu Power politicians nurtured hatred in his heart. And now Jeanette Mukuryagayu must forgive him for the massacre of her family. Both survivor and killer are trying to deal with the residual trauma of Rwanda's 1994 genocide through truth and reconciliation-style sessions in an experimental village called Umudugudu Mbyo.


Survivors and criminals occupy neighbouring homes in Mbyo, a reconciliation village in Nyamata district. During supervised sessions, the killers confess to crimes during the genocide, explaining how they were drunk on banana beer and hatred. Survivors listen to the litany of horrors that pours from the dark recesses of their memory.


Many of the killers blame radio broadcasters and politicians who swore to them that they were poor because the Tutsis were hoarding power, privilege and wealth. Mathias is one of many Hutu civilians who say that politicians brainwashed them to kill their own neighbours.


Just before the genocide began in April 1994, national radio broadcast pumped listeners with vitriol, claiming the Tutsis were denying economic prosperity to the majority Hutus, and urging Hutus to show no mercy to them when the time came to "wipe out the Tutsi cockroaches who will take the food from Hutu children's mouths". Kassim Ndayambaje, 28, cannot forget the horror of that April when his countrymen traded the blood in their veins for venom. "My father begged his killers to use bullets," he recollects. "He had a little cash put away so that he and his family could die a quick and dignified death." His killers considered his request for a few minutes while he grovelled at their feet. They then took the money and proceeded to hack him to pieces with a machete in front of his children.


The killers had lists, says Kassim. "Teachers would register pupils by ethnicity. Catholic priests would hand over lists of the Tutsis who came to their church to the Hutu Power leadership. The people that you turned to for protection were the one who turned you over to be killed. The radio called for all Hutus to rise and kill the Tutsis," he says. "The politicians went on the radio and told Hutus to take power back from the Tutsis."


J S Bandukwala has watched exactly the same kind of politics being played in Gujarat in 2002. "I saw my neighbours coming to attack my house in March 2002," says the academic who was teaching physics at a university in Baroda at the time. "The whole house was destroyed but my daughter and I narrowly escaped. She was engaged to a Hindu boy at the time so the tragedy was two-fold for her."


Bandukwala says he has repeatedly urged the government of Gujarat to initiate a reconciliation plan based on Gandhian principles. "But that means the aggressor must express remorse for what happened, then the victim must forgive, after which the victim and aggressor must join hearts and hands and become one," he says. "When the political and religious leadership refused to express sorrow, I thought we Muslims should declare forgiveness. But still there is no response. We need to talk about what happened here. I see the same people who came to attack my house all the time; we greet each other."


Bandukwala expected the politicians to refuse to work with him, given that Narendra Modi had ridden the Hindutva wave into political office. "But even the religious leaders have not bothered to express remorse," he says. "I brought up how the rioters had invoked the name of Hindu gods as they killed and assaulted women's private parts with trishuls, and asked the Hindu community leaders to condemn this as blasphemous, because Hinduism, like Islam, is a peaceful religion. They refused to condemn it."


But for Rwandans, forgiveness is synonymous with allowing their fractured society to heal. Jeanette, 32, had never imagined that she could forgive the Hutus who went from house to house dragging out Tutsi men, women, children and hacking them to pieces in April 1994. Today, she lives beside Mathias, who admits to killing her family. "It may not make sense that I can live as a victim with an offender who has killed almost my whole family, but when you co-habit, you heal emotionally. As a survivor, the solution is not to live in loneliness."


Jeanette says she lived in the grip of hatred until she met pastor Deo Gashagaza, the director of Prison Fellowship International, in Rwanda. He explained that the organisation was trying out a "restorative justice" project called the Umuvumu Tree, through which he hoped to help heal the hearts of genocide survivors.


Here, children scurry barefoot between 45 little concrete houses with tin roofs, as women walk by carrying massive loads on their turbanned heads. The fresh smell of foliage follows residents around the village. Nothing looks out of the ordinary until the survivors talk about how difficult it is to explain why Hutu children have massive families while Tutsi children are lucky to have one aunt or elder sister between 20 cousins. "The children ask questions but they go to school with the children of killers and play with them. We do tell them about genocide so they don't go into that circle of ethnicity and hatred."


Many Rwandans say they had to overcome their anger for the sake of a peaceful future for their children. Forgive, but never forget the horror, they say.


Gabo Wilson, coordinator of the Survivors Fund in Rwanda, sees all of Rwanda as a gigantic, unsupervised experiment in reconciliation. "The hardest thing is to live next to the killers you have watched doing the deed, and knowing that there is nothing you can do. It is frustrating," he admits.


Rwandan society continues to writhe in pain, settling sometimes into forgiveness, after extensive South Africa-style truth and reconciliation sessions. But there are too many participants in this process who can still use the events of the genocide to inspire hate, fuel mob violence and play politics with the people's pain. It is difficult to forgive and forget the massacre of your people. Almost a million Tutsis were slaughtered in 90 days in 1994. It would be easy for a Tutsi politician to ride the hate wave into power, but president Paul Kagame has taken the reconciliation route. Perhaps there is a lesson here for Gujarat.


Source: Times of India, New Delhi