A few years ago, deep in the villages of Butare, a famous town in Southern Rwanda, there happened to be a heated tension between genocide widows and wives of genocide perpetrators.
Every time the wives of genocide perpetrators packed food and other stuffs to go visit their husbands in prison, they would be stopped on the way, cursed, stones thrown at them, and verbally harassed by genocide widows; mocking them for their husband’s heinous crimes.
The wives of the perpetrators would also turn around and ridicule the genocide widows; that they were lonely, worthless and wished they had been killed too.
Neighbours 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 in the eye like a lion and a hyena.
They would spit on ground in utter disgust as they murmur abusive words. This tension was certainly colossal.
One Sunday, after the mass, a 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.
After the nun’s successful mediation, these women came to terms and mended fences. Weeks later, they formed an association and named it Ubutwari Bwokubaho, loosely translated as ‘Heroic Will to Live”.
The Nun’s seeds had bore healthy fruits, eventually.
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 has worked.
Years later, not only had they genuinely reconciled, but became examples of inspiration, beacon of hope and reconciliation, fellow women in the villages envied their projects.
They are breeding animals for commercial purpose. They have invested in piggery and poultry. They also grow cash crops and help each other solve daily challenges they face.
In their regular discussions, they talk about love, unity and reconciliation. They don’t mock each other anymore; instead, they advise and support each other to transform their lives. Eventually, other women have 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
Pelagie Umurerwa, 40, lives in Kabeza, a Kigali City suburb. 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, her sisters and brothers. She was also attacked and brutally raped several times and infected with HIV. She lost consciousness and militias decided to kill her. But she narrowly survived death after multiple machete cuts.
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 and not for raping her.
Today, Umurerwa, together with other genocide victims, are running a successful association of more than 500 members they formed in 2000. 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,” she says.
“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, farming and other small size commercial activities like selling merchandise. They all share ideas and skills.
The association receives support from NGOs and government programs that support such or similar reconciliation initiatives. Members then apply for soft loans from the funds the association receives.
From reconciliation business thrives
MatrideI libagiza is a member of the association. In 2011, after acquiring skills in tailoring, she applied for a Rwf150, 000 (about 250USD) loan. She added her savings and invested in a small poultry farm.
From 10 chicks, 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,” Mwiliriza says.
The Executive Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), Dr. Jean Baptiste Habyarimana says these associations are primary partners. “We work closely with them,”says Dr. Habyarimana.
He added that the commission does 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 hire them to mobilise the community about reconciliation.”
These women have started realizing hope for the future.
According to Umurerwa, “Genocide destroyed everything. But we have to pick up pieces and move forward.”
Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2014, some details could have changed.
Additional Reporting: Dan Ngabonziza