A few years ago, deep in the villages of Butare, a famous town in Southern Rwanda, there happened to heated tension between genocide widows and wives of genocide perpetrators.
Every time the wives of genocide perpetrators packed food and other items to go visit their husbands in prison at the time for their role in the genocide, the women would be stopped on the way, cursed, stones thrown at them. They were constantly verbally harassed by genocide widows; mocking them for their husband’s heinous crimes.
The wives of the genocide perpetrators would also turn around and ridicule the genocide widows; that they were lonely, worthless and wished they had been killed.
Neighbors watched in disbelief as the women tore each apart.
Most of them are Catholic Christians. On Sundays, they would meet at church. Every one of them looked humble, friendly and loving, but the moment they walked out of the church, they would look at each other with hostility. They would spit on ground in utter disgust as they murmur abusive words. This tension was certainly colossal.
One Sunday, after the mass, a catholic nun who had heard and also witnessed the tension between the women, approached them and invited them for conversation.
They agreed. She planned the meeting and they finally met. She did not say much. She simply preached to them about love, forgiveness, unity and reconciliation. Her seeds bore healthy fruits.
Women form association
Weeks later, they formed an association and named itUbutwariBwokubaho, loosely translated as ‘Heroic Will to Live”.
The purpose of the association would be to bring them together and closer and make them become good neighbors, chat about their past, speak about forgiveness, unity and discuss projects that would development them. It worked.
Years later, not only had they genuinely reconciled, but became examples of inspiration, beacon of hope and reconciliation forfellow women in the villages envied their projects.
They are breeding animals for commercial purpose, such as piggery, poultry. They grow cash crops and helpeach other solve daily challenges they faced.
They talk about love, unity and reconciliation. They don’t mock each other anymore; instead, they advise and support each other to move on after the 1994 tragedy that befell their country, twenty years ago.Eventually, other women applied to join the association.
Today, the association has close to 2000 members. Although their story is compelling, this extraordinary experience is shared across the country.
More associations emerge
PelagieUmurerwa, 40, lives in Kabeza, a suburban of Kigali City, Rwanda’s capital. She is the only survivor of her family. But even her survival isn’t a story many can endure listening to.
She watched militias slaughter her parents and then her sisters and brothers. She was also attacked and brutally raped several times and infected with HIV. She lost consciousness and militias decided to slice in order to finish her. They did and left, she but narrowly survived.
She does not know the man who raped her, but has heard he is in prison serving a life sentence for his role in the genocide.
Today, Umurerwa together with other genocide victims, are running a successful association of more than 500 members, which they formed fourteen years ago. They named it Tubahumulize, meaning “Let’s comfort them.” Members of the association include wives of genocide perpetrators.
“At first, it was not easy to work with wives of those who killed my husband and relatives,” Umurerwa narrates. “But we are not killers, and these fellow women [wives to perpetrators] are not killers either.” “There is nothing we can do but to work with them,” Umurerwa adds.
Members are preoccupied with several projects such as basket weaving, toiling, culinary, and farming and other small size commercial activities like selling merchandise. They all share ideas and skills with each other.
The association receives support from NGOs and government programs that support such or similar reconciliationinitiatives. Members then apply for loans from the funds the association receives.
From reconciliation business thrives
MatrideIlibagiza is a member. In 2011, after acquiring skills in tailoring, she and received Rwf150, 000 (about 250USD). She added her savings and invested in a small poultry farm.
From 10 chicks, in less than 12 months, she is now selling eggs and chicken. She earns more than Rwf100, 000 (150USD) every month. “Life is promising,” she says. “I am now able to pay school fees for my two sons.”
Jeanne Mwiliriza is the founder of the association. She is a mother of three and knows the killers of her family.“I know some of them,” she says.
“I know some of these women are widows too [lost their husbands on the battled field], but I am not a killer and I will never revenge, it is never a solution,” she says.
The Executive Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), Dr. Jean Baptiste Habyarimana is aware of these initiatives.
“All these associations are our primary partners. We work closely with them,” he says. The commissiondoes advocacy for them and facilitates them to acquire funds to run these associations.
Another support is providing them with hands-on-skills that help them set business projects.
One of the mandates of the commission is to unite and reconcile both survivors and perpetrators. According to Dr. Habyarimana, the stories of these women in associations are inspiring. He notes that, “We actually their example to mobilise the community about reconciliation.”
For Umurerwa, the woman in Kigali city who had to forgive despite the pain she endured: “Genocide destroyed everything.”
“But we have to pick up pieces and move forward,” she sums up.
Additional Reporting: Magnus Mazimpaka