Frontline Stories

Rwanda 20 Years Later: Healing People’s Hearts


7 April 2014 marks the 20th commemoration of the Rwanda Genocide. Ahead of this anniversary, the United Nations launched “Kwibuka 20”, a series of events around the theme of “remember, unite, renew”, and urged the international community to implement the lessons learned from the genocide.

The Rwandan genocide is still impossible to fathom: how over 100 days beginning in April 1994, some 800,000 people perished, most hacked to death by machete. It was a time when neighbours turned on neighbours, family turned on family, churches became scenes of slaughter, and love turned to hate.

Families at War

“I would have become a doctor,” says Andrew Birasa. Poverty had other plans for Andrew. Instead of going on to college, he built himself a house near his parents in 1985. Two years later he married Madrine, and they started their family. “I had many relatives around me and many friends and neighbours who were like a big family. Things were very good,” he says.

Until that month in April 1994 when those neighbours turned on Andrew’s family. His wife, Madrine, was a Tutsi. But it wasn’t just neighbours who killed Madrine’s entire family. Part of the mob was Andrew’s friend Callixte, whom he had loved since childhood.

Tensions had long simmered between Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Europeans—first the Germans, then the Belgians who colonised Rwanda in 1916—set the stage for hate. The Belgians introduced identity cards in the mid-1930s, dividing people into tribes—Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa, a hunter-gatherer group.

Although the Hutu were the majority, the Belgians favoured the Tutsi. Tutsi kings governed Rwanda through 1959 when King Mutara III died. During that year, the peasant farmers began what would be called the “Hutu revolution,” which culminated in abolishing the monarchy. The ensuing civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis cost 150,000 lives in 1963. Many Tutsis fled to Burundi and neighbouring countries. By the mid-1960s, half the Tutsi population lived outside of Rwanda.

Hutu leaders took power and the government began to spread a message of hate against the Tutsis. On the night of April 6, 1994, the plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down near the airport in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. No one knows who shot the plane down. But it triggered a mass hysteria such as the world has rarely seen. In the next 100 days, nearly 20 percent of Rwanda’s population would die.

“Before the genocide we lived in peace and harmony. We did intermarriages between the Hutus and Tutsis. We were like brothers. But things changed all of a sudden and people started killing each other,” said Andrew. Madrine survived the genocide but lost her father, mother, and five siblings.

The fighting eventually stopped in Andrew’s village and all over Rwanda in July, 1994. Villagers stepped forward to implicate those who they had seen participating in the killings, and it was Andrew who implicated Callixte. “I hated him,” says Andrew of his former friend. “My wife didn’t have anyone left in her family.”

Healing Hearts

When the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized Kigali 100 days after the fighting began, World Vision moved in to assist the victims of the fighting. In Andrew’s village, Onesphore began working with World Vision, taking care of the many orphans of the genocide by feeding, clothing, and bathing the children. World Vision borrowed classroom at Onesphore’s church to house the children. “They were very scared. Some were crying. Others were worried, very worried about their parents.”

In 1996, when genocide survivors who had taken refuge in Congo began to return to their homes, World Vision started a reconciliation and peace-building department. Staff reached out to Marcella, Callixte’s wife. Callixte had gone to prison in 1995, leaving Marcella with two young children. World Vision had built her a house, provided school fees and books for the boys, and opportunities for her to work. “Knowing that World Vision was supporting my children, I stood up,” she says. “I wanted to support other children in my village.”

Healing through Helping

Both Madrine and Marcella were picked as community volunteers. The two women began working together, looking after the children and continually working together on projects, learning about peace and forgiveness. “Sometimes we would dig together on other people’s farms,” remembers Marcella. “She didn’t blame me. But the hatred between our husbands kept us apart.” The hatred kept their children apart as well. Many of the children were of the same age and wanted to be friends. But hate severed any chance of relationships.

Working on projects, focusing on children, and training together melted both women’s hearts. “At first I hated her because of what her husband did,” says Madrine of Marcella. “After training and listening in church, I came back to my senses.”

For Andrew and Callixte, the road to recovery had been an arduous journey. Callixte began to heal in prison, says his wife Marcella. “My husband changed a lot in prison,” she says. “He is an artist. The songs he sang and performed affected him. He went through reconciliation workshops. At the end he felt, what happened happened. I need to live a new life.”

When Callixte was released from prison in 2007, he came back to the village. The two families began to attend church together. “We went to church and heard the pastor preach,” says Marcella. “One day, we were all at the same service. It was as if the pastor was talking to us. He looked right into our hearts. After church we said, ‘We have got to talk.’ In 2010, we got back together. Since then we have been close.”

“Our children saw us change,” says Madrine. They watched their parents’ hatred turn into friendship. Today, their sons Jean Bosco and Manuel, both 19, are like brothers.

The cow and coffee projects that World Vision began in the village where Andrew and Callixte live also helped cement the relationship between them. They have been working together on the projects and are now looking forward to their first harvest of coffee in May 2014. The two men also go to prisons, visiting genocide perpetrators who are still incarcerated and talking with them about reconciliation.

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