Therese Mukarwego is a friendly, jolly woman who enjoys a good laugh. But life hasn’t been kind. Her husband and three children were killed during the genocide. Therese’ neighbour Andrea Uwimana lives a few metres away. He killed one of her children.
But Therese has learnt to overcome her bitterness about it and more than that, she has also chosen to become his best friend.
“What makes me so happy is that, although often I don’t have any water, I need not go elsewhere. Even small things in the house, if I don’t have them I can just walk here and get them. In short, I lack for nothing. Before, I would never have dared to come to his house; I didn’t even want to see his children. But now I wish them peace,” Therese says.
Andrea agrees that their friendship is working. “We live like family now, if she needs something and if I can help, then I pitch in”, he says.
Some of their family, friends and neighbours find this situation hard to believe. When the killing began, Therese’s husband was working in their farm. She ran to alert him. But by the time they got back, their home was surrounded by militia. Andrea was watching, from his own house nearby.
“Therese had children; they fled together with her husband”, he recalls.
Therese’ husband and his brothers were killed in Gatare, a nearby town. Therese at first found refuge with her relatives, but fearing repercussions, they soon chased her away. With no other option, she hid her three children in a coffee plantation near her home, then found a hiding place for herself, farther away.
Like many other villagers, Therese’ neighbour Andrea joined in the looting which followed. It was while doing this that he and other neighbours stumbled upon Therese’ hidden children. The youngsters fled but the militia saw them and caught them. They immediately suspected Andrea of having tried to protect them. When the militia threatened him, Andrea returned to his own house.
“I could hear the children screaming as they were killed. Afterwards, I saw the attackers leave,” Andrea narrates.
Therese survived the genocide by moving from place to place fleeing the militia who would have killed her. After the militia left Therese’s house, Andrea and his neighbours went to see what had happened.
“We found two children dead in the house. The third was not yet dead, he touched my leg, and I could see he was still alive. I picked him up. I asked my colleagues “What should we do?” They asked me what I intended. I replied: “I want to take him home”. They said: “If you do that, the attackers will kill you and your children,” he says.
Andrea will never forget what he did next. “Well! When I realized heard things were beyond my control, I smashed the child on the ground. I thought the child was dead. There was a pit latrine at that house, so I threw the child in there and I left,” he recalls.
As it turned out, the child was not yet dead. Therese learned this from neighbours after the genocide. They also told her that Andrea had dumped the bodies of her other children in the latrine.
“When I came back, a neighbour told me that Andrea had put the child alive into the pit and that perhaps the others too were not quite dead at the time,” says Therese.
“I was told the child lived for two weeks and could be heard crying. My neighbour had tried to rescue the child but it had fallen deeper into the pit. He was afraid to try again in case the militia found him and threw him in too. After two weeks they couldn’t hear the cries any more, and then they also had to flee,” she adds.
When Therese finally returned home, Andrea was still in a refugee camp in Burundi She says when he came back, she was afraid.
“I used to wonder how I would farm my land; surely he would find me there and kill me? But because everyone knew what he had done, they called the Councillor and he was arrested and imprisoned. When they came to arrest him he asked me: “You used to be so pious, have you completely refused to forgive me?” I told him: “Let them arrest you, when the time comes I will forgive you,” Therese says.
Andrea too remembers that day. “I didn’t even spend one night at home. They arrested me the day I arrived back. They took me to Rilima prison where they started telling us to plead guilty. I rejected that idea. I figured my fate was already sealed. Confessing required telling the whole truth and also pointing out collaborators. I figured that they were going to kill us anyway so why put my colleagues in trouble? So I said, let me die alone. I rejected confession”, Andrea explains.
Therese says that despite her original promise to forgive Andrea, she had absolutely no intention of doing so. “I was very unhappy, I kept feeling that they should all die, they had no right to live, each person I saw I just kept thinking: “That one is a murderer”. I was very disturbed,” she recalls.
Therese began spending more and more time at a local Catholic Church. Gradually, through the intervention of the Justice and Peace Commission she realised that forgiving Andrea might also bring her peace of mind. But it was a struggle to forgive looters, never mind the man who killed her child.
“I told friends about it but they started asking, “How you will manage? If your fellow survivors hear about it they will not understand, they will surely kill you?” I said “That’s their problem” she concluded.
Therese says that once she decided to forgive Andrea her attitude changed. She began to visit him in prison, where they began to talk. She kept visiting and her persistence eventually convinced Andrea to confess.
‘We both asked each other for forgiveness, he told me: “Yes. I did those things. But later I wondered why I killed that child and put him in the pit latrine. Forgive me!” I told him: “Forgive me too, because you have suffered. Plus, if you had died in prison I would have felt bad”. He said: “It’s OK. All the beatings and suffering cannot be equal to the crime I committed,” she says.
Andrea was released, provisionally at the beginning of 2003. Therese says this had an unexpected effect on her. “When he came I was very happy, I felt all my bitterness was over,” she recalls.
Andrea doesn’t take Therese’s forgiveness lightly. “It was not easy for her. We’ve talked about it, but I know it was not easy for her,” he acknowledges.
But here in Rwanda, it is not just survivors like Therese who have made the first effort in repairing the trust shattered by genocide.
Thacien Kalinda was 17 years old when the genocide began. He lived very close to Severin Nyiragira, whose husband was murdered in the days that followed. Severin’s three boys were taken from her by local attackers.
“They said that the order was that all Tutsi men and boys must die. They must not survive. After they killed them, others came and joined in the killings. Within three days there were no men or boys in the hills. Then they started on the women, girls and children,” she remembers.
Kalinda recalls no bad relations between his and Severin’s family, prior to the genocide. He says militia attacked the house where Severin was hiding and took away her three boys. Then they ordered him and five other young men to come to a ruined house, to finish the job.
“When we arrived, the adults were shirking from the act of killing. They said: “Let these young men take care of this. None of us can handle it; let the young ones kill them”. We were six young people about my age, and we started killing them…,” he remembers.
Kalinda says the death of the child he killed, stayed on his conscience. “After killing them I felt I had just lost my peace, I felt so bad. I was sick to the bone….I felt so sick, I came and slept on the bed, but I just kept seeing blood everywhere, I felt everything was accusing me,” he says.
Meanwhile, Severin spent the rest of the genocide fleeing from slaughter. She says even those who offered protection eventually turned against her. When she came home after the genocide, there was little information about what had happened to her children.
Kalinda had told no one what he had done, and Severin did not learn about his involvement until much later.
“What made it especially difficult to live with the past was that they buried my children in one shallow grave. Their bodies had been eaten by dogs. I could not find peace, knowing that,” she remembers painfully.
When Severin heard that genocide suspects would be arrested, she felt vindicated.
“I was among the first people to speak out; it was like an answer to a prayer. I kept thinking: “Should I kill those who did this?” I had never had conflict with them, I never did anything wrong to them, we used to live happily together visiting each other. I would ask ‘What are you doing God, why don’t you let them die, avenge the things they did to me?” she asked.
Severin wanted revenge and pointed out those she suspected of being killers. She made sure they were arrested and made life difficult for their relatives. She went to the home of anyone she suspected of having looted her property or livestock and demanded compensation. Sometimes, she used force. Then, something changed.
“I think God helped me to understand, in time. I began to see faults in my vengefulness. I was becoming sick. From the moment I returned home I was constantly quarrelling and fighting with neighbours who had not been arrested. If I found them talking I would stop them and tell them: “Shut up, you murderers.” I gave them no peace. I was like a mad woman,” she recalls.
When Severin saw she had made more enemies than friends, she became afraid. “I had no peace. I kept feeling they would come back and kill me, because it was not just those in prison,” she says. One day she even walked to nearby Lake Muhazi and tried to drown herself.
Severin still didn’t know that her neighbour Thacien Kalinda had killed her child. Meantime, Kalinda had been arrested for a different murder, which he had not committed. He was tried, acquitted and released in 1999. But still, he was not at peace.
“I was like a sick person, everything I tried to do I would see the murder scene. I would wake up in the morning and just feel like dying. When I tried to eat, the scene would replay in my head. When I tried to sleep, the same thing. Anything I tried to do, the scene would replay in my mind,” Kalinda remembers.
Kalinda realised he needed to get the matter off his chest. Severin too was in a dilemma. By 1998 her bitterness had become too much to bear.
“That is when I understood my own shortcomings and began my journey towards forgiveness. I started talking to those I’d sent to prison, and to those from whom I had demanded compensation. I would visit them, talk to them, share with them. I began forgiving them for what they had done and returning to them whatever property I had taken by force,” Severin says.
Severin told the legal authorities that she was willing to forgive those who had committed crimes against her. Thacien Kalinda, alone, decided to seek her pardon. Even though he had been born a Muslim, he turned to Christianity for comfort.
“The church taught me how bad my crime was and to accept responsibility and ask forgiveness. I went and looked for her; I don’t know how I did that, it was like a miracle,” he says. “I kept feeling as if it wasn’t me but I said to myself “I will go, if she kills me she kills me, it’s her right. But I have to say it, so I can have peace of heart”. I talked with her and asked her for forgiveness. She forgave me.’
Severin agrees. “He came to ask for forgiveness, I forgave him. I was beginning to feel bad because I had forgiven people who hadn’t bothered to say ‘Sorry’. But at least he had made the effort and asked for my forgiveness. I told him “You’ve come to ask for this face-to-face? I have already forgiven those who haven’t”. Since then, three or four have asked for forgiveness and I have granted it.
Monsignor Nicodemus Nayigeziki is one of those priests who have been helping survivors and perpetrators to live together. Her works with the Justice and Peace Commission in the Catholic Church.
He knows Severin and Thacien personally, since he is their local priest. “He was not a Christian or Catholic, he was a Muslim. He asked for forgiveness after he had already been acquitted. Amazingly he still went and told her: “I was one of those who killed your child”. Yet she didn’t know! She didn’t even suspect him,” Monsignor Nayigeziki points out.
By confessing to a new crime, Kalinda was risking more time back in jail. Monsignor Nayigeziki contrasts this with many prisoners whom – he believes – only ask for forgiveness because they hope it will mean less time in jail.
“What amazes me about Kalinda is that he says clearly: “I am ready to face the full consequences of what I did”. Someone recently asked him: “What if they send you back to prison, what will you do?’ He replied: “Honestly, I would just go back. But I feel now that my heart is at rest”
So what made Kalinda risk a return to prison?
“I said to myself: If they put me back I don’t care, as long as I get this crime off my heart and in the open. I said that even if they killed me, even if they sentenced me to death, I would accept it, because I did do this thing,” he asserts.
“You know, rather than be free but a prisoner inside your heart, it is better to be in that brick prison, and free in your heart,” he reckons.
It’s now just over eleven years since the genocide. Severin’s home has been rebuilt and she farms a small piece of land nearby to provide for four children, three of whom she adopted. Severin says she too feels free now, but senses some people might never understand.
“Most of the survivors were not happy, what I was doing confused them. I was being good to people who had hurt them so much. They even said that I was bewitched by the Interahamwe and that’s why I forgave people. They even said I had gone mad. No, not everyone accepted it, some thought it was a good thing, some felt I had lost it completely, that I had become a stupid old woman,” she explains.
Monsignor Nayigeziki says true forgiveness is never easy.
“Someone who just pretends to forgive cannot live with the consequences Severin has gone through. They gossip about her, they say “Oh maybe it’s because the priests gave her money?” They mock her and say “She visits the priests too often”, and many other nasty things. She just bears with it. I don’t think someone who was not genuine would put up with it,” he argues.
And it’s bearing fruit. “Some people are starting to come round to it. Some even tell me: “We used to think you were mad, but now we see you are setting a good example,” says Severin.
Therese says that this is also the case with her.
“Some are happy; it makes them happy especially when they see how secure I feel. But of course, not everyone sees things the same way. But I think everyone wishes me well,” Therese reckons.
Andrea – who murdered Therese’ child – says he greatly values their difficult experience. His surname Uwimana means ‘man of God’ and he says true repentance and true forgiveness may be the only way to find spiritual peace.
“I think the forgiveness that comes from the victim, overrides everything else. After someone like her has forgiven me, the State can go ahead and do whatever it wants with me. That is its prerogative. I must ask her for forgiveness, as well as the forgiveness of all Rwandans and neighbours. She comes first, the State comes second,” Andrea asserts.
But how many other people could do the same thing? Therese thinks it’s hard, since survivors face immense challenges, every day.
“When you have a lot of things you need to do, and they are beyond your means, you start to resent other people with families or spouses to help them, while you are all alone with no end of challenges. That’s what makes bitterness and loneliness grow, reactions are based on the different challenges each individual must face,” Therese explains.
Monsignor Nayigeziki says if one person can find a way, others can surely follow he notes that it is possible because those like Thacien Kalinda and Severin Nyirangira have already done it.
Like many survivors of genocide all over Rwanda Therese and Severin find themselves living next door to people who caused them much pain. In the same way, like many perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, Kalinda and Andrea now find themselves face-to-face with the tragic day-to-day consequences of the harm they caused.
But instead of anger, bitterness and hopelessness, these four Rwandans have chosen a path of dignity, honesty and forgiveness. It is hoped that one day others will have the courage to do the same.