NYAMATA, Rwanda — Beathe Mukangarambe didn’t think she’d ever speak to a Hutu again.
It was a Hutu, after all, who’d killed her family. Fueled by alcohol, armed with machetes, and spurred on by an ethnic hatred decades in the making, in 1994 one ethnic group in Rwanda turned on the other.
One by one, for 100 days, neighbor killed neighbor, and stranger killed stranger. By the time the genocide ended, more than 800,000 minority Tutsi and some politically moderate Hutu had been slaughtered.
Among them were Mukangarambe’s five children.
“Whenever I see someone sending their kids to the market, I feel sad and jealous,” she says. “I swore I would not be friends with any Hutu, because now it is as if I never had any kids.” As she tells about the deaths of her children, who were killed in Rwanda's genocide 15 years ago, the man sitting next to her looks away. He is Emmanuel Bamporiki, and he is the one who murdered her children.
“I went looking for her family,” he says. “I was not supposed to help her because there was a directive to kill all the Tutsi. She didn’t survive because I let her, she survived because of God’s mercy. It wasn’t in my control. I was doing what I was told.”
Today, the two are friendly, linked as members of a grassroots cooperative of 700 people called Ukuri Kuganza, or “Let out the truth.” Its members dot the dusty hillsides surrounding Nyamata, a town about 40 minutes from the capital city of Kigali. In a country where most social action is taken at the highest levels, Ukuri stands out as a group started by and for Rwandans nervous about how perpetrators of genocide, who had traded confessions for freedom, could live again with the people whose families they killed.
“Before this association, it was hard for Hutus to sit and talk with Tutsi,” says Samuel Nyibizi. “When others see members of the association talking freely, they approach and ask, ‘How did you get to that point?’ Hutu would ask [each other], ‘How can you talk to them?’ Even Tutsi were asked by other Tutsi.”
Nyibizi and other members of Ukuri say the association opened the space for dialogue that victims and perpetrators needed, especially after a 2003 amnesty let those who pled guilty to genocide charges return to their homes. The news of their freedom left survivors like Mukangarambe uneasy.
“I didn’t want to live with any Hutu,” she says. “But they tell us that those who died, died. They can’t be brought back. Those who remain should find a way to live in harmony.”
She admits, though, that’s not why she joined. Ukuri is more than a dialogue group; members build homes for other members, receive counseling as they need it and share their stories of forgiveness with other villages to promote reconciliation. It uses some of its financing — it’s now backed by World Vision, an international Christian organization — to buy goats for its members, who give kids to other members.
Mukangarambe joined because her house was crumbling and she needed help. She didn’t think she was interested in all this talk of forgiveness, until Bamporiki approached her. He confessed to her that he was the man who had killed her children, and he asked her to forgive him. She accepted.
“I realized that if I hate them all,” she says of the Hutu, “it won’t help.”
Bamporiki joined the association specifically to meet her and confess. He didn’t feel comfortable knowing she was alive and didn’t know who was responsible for her pain, but he didn’t want to tell her until they’d built a relationship.
“The association helps you first to live with her before you tell. I got used to her. With time I got the courage to tell her,” he says. “Standing up and saying what I did and asking for forgiveness is hard — almost heroic. But I did not want to live with someone I hurt when I knew and she didn’t.”
The two recount their story surrounded by 15 other Ukuri members, seated along the edges of a gazebo topped with an old tarp from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. They’ve gathered to meet an international delegation, and some, like Mukangarambe, are dressed in formal African garb for the occasion. Others wear the brightly colored plastic sandals that signify extreme poverty. They understand how incredible these stories of forgiveness sound, but they insist what happens here is sincere. They enumerate the benefits of the association — seven have new homes that the group has built together, and five are raising goats — but they speak most fervently about the less tangible benefits of reconciliation.
“Forgiveness takes away the fear and shame. If you meet a person you hurt along the road, you have nothing to be worried about,” says Epimaque Nzigiye.
Mediatrice Mukamurego, who lost family in the genocide, agrees. “Before you forgive, you have a burden in your heart. Hating all the Hutus is very hard on you. If you forgive one, you find that it’s easier to forgive the rest. Your heart is lighter because you have no problems with others.”
Bamporiki calls asking for forgiveness “overwhelming.” It’s the same word Mukangarambe uses when she describes listening to Bamporiki talk about killing her children. If they are divided by history, they share the pain of learning to live with its legacy. It is, they insist, working.
“Today, you might think he’s my son. If he sees me walking, he stops to give me a ride on his bicycle,” she says of Bamporiki, smiling. “And I got a house. So now I can live in peace.”
See Part 1 of this series: Survivors start to confront trauma.
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