“The future is bright”: How reconciliation is helping rebuild Rwanda

“Genocide made me a widow,” says Marie Uwiragiye, a resident of the village of Muti in the Rubavu district of Rwanda’s Western Province, who lost her husband and six siblings during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. She recalls living in fear of her neighbours in the years afterwards. “I was always scared of them,” she says. “It was impossible to sleep. I was always getting headaches and constant palpitations. In brief, I had no peace.”

Jean Baptiste Ndisetse lives in the neighbouring village of Nyakabanda. He served 23 years in prison for his role in the atrocities, including involvement in the killing of Marie’s family members. “I was imprisoned because of my role in the genocide against Tutsi,” he says. “After my release, I was ashamed and not free in my own mind. I could not join others in the community and instead used to hide.”

Marie Uwiragiye at her home in Rubavu. Photo: Simon Hilditch/International Alert.

7 April 2024 marked 30 years since the beginning of the events that redefined Rwanda. Over the course of just 100 days, an estimated one million Tutsis were killed. To this day, communities across the country continue to grapple with the implications of the genocide, just like Marie and Jean Baptiste in Rubavu.

Rwandan society had been left shattered by the effects of the genocide. The killings had left tens of thousands of orphans and widows, many of whom had been victims of rape and sexual abuse, the majority of whom were affected by serious trauma. Infrastructure had been destroyed, looting was commonplace, and the economy was in ruins. Two thirds of the population had been left displaced.

The physical and social reconstruction of Rwanda since then has been a long journey, which still has a long way to go. A devastated and divided country has placed unity, healing, reconciliation and reintegration among its defining principles. Communities, local authorities, NGOs and civil society groups have worked tirelessly to rebuild trust and process trauma, at individual and national levels.

International Alert’s USAID-funded Dufatanye Urumuri project is one such initiative. Run in partnership with the national association of trauma counsellors ARCT-Ruhuka, Urumuri, which means ‘the light’ in Kinyarwanda, seeks to promote resilience and social cohesion through the healing of historical wounds and the facilitation of open and inclusive dialogue.

Through group therapy, healing and reconciliation sessions, the Urumuri project develops the capacity of local leaders and organisations to discuss the legacy of genocide and address conflict drivers affecting communities today. Working closely with the Ministry of National Unity and Civic Engagement (MINUBUMWE), Alert and ARCT-Ruhuka support the reintegration of former genocidaires to help mitigate the tension and instability that their release might cause.

Marie Uwiragiye: “I was living in loneliness until the community facilitator invited me to join the therapy group.” Photo: Jean Baptiste Micomyiza/International Alert.

Jean Baptiste remembers the unease he felt at the prospect of reintegrating into the community after committing such heinous crimes and serving such a long sentence. After his release, he carried the weight of shame and fear of retribution, while Marie saw him only as her family’s assailant. He had tried to seek forgiveness during his incarceration, but true reconciliation had proved elusive – until, that is, they eventually joined the same therapy group.

“My journey of forgiveness started thanks to God’s miracle that Dufatanye Urumuri project came to my sector,” remembers Marie. “I was living in loneliness until the community facilitator invited me to join the therapy group. Before the intervention of this project, a man who killed my family members asked for forgiveness while still in jail. I said that I forgave him but our interaction in the therapy group was a game changer.”

“When he was still in prison, I thought he could kill me once he is released. Then during community dialogue sessions, I took the decision to look for him and invited him to join our therapy group. I told him: ‘Come with me to a good place where both of us can get healed from our wounds.’ He accepted my invitation and attended community dialogue and therapy, which allowed him to heal psychological wounds. Then, during one community dialogue session, he asked forgiveness, and I forgave him.”

In a traditional sign of good neighbourliness in Rwandan culture, Jean Baptiste began bringing firewood for Marie to help her cook. “This therapy group greatly changed our life,” she says.

The reconciliation between Marie and Jean Baptiste faced another challenge when her son, Ndagijimana Jean Damascene, and his daughter, Uwimana Marie Irene, began dating and eventually became engaged to be married.

Jean Baptiste Ndisetse: “Marie and I now live in harmony.” Photo: Simon Hilditch/International Alert.

Marie recalls the conversation with her son, who was a baby during the genocide: “I told him ‘You are bringing into our family the daughter of Ndisetse who killed my uncle and knew your father’s killers, can’t you reconsider your marriage to her?’ He replied to me ‘I fell in love with her. I will marry her.’”

“Of course, on my side, there were still some wounds when I questioned their marriage,” she continues, “but at some point of time it went away and I asked myself, given that our two children are in love, why should I stop their marriage? Given that I forgave her father, she should come, and I will be a parent to her. Since her arrival, there is not any single problem between us. His daughter is now my daughter-in law and we are living peacefully.”

Jean Baptiste believes that the coming-together of their two families can provide an example of community reconciliation and point towards Rwanda can build a more peaceful and prosperous future. “This marriage united us. Marie and I now live in harmony,” he says. “The message I wish to convey to the perpetrators of genocide is that they should reflect on what happened, regret what they did to the country, repent to their victims and ask for forgiveness. If they can clear out suspicion, then they can be where we are.”

“The future of Rwanda is bright,” reflects Marie, on the hopes of the country as the thirty-year commemorations approach. “My wish is that people will emulate what Ndisetse and I, as well as our children, have managed to do.”

Marie, Jean Damascene, Marie Irene and Jean Baptiste. Photo: Simon Hilditch/International Alert.

The story of Marie and Jean Baptiste reflects Rwanda’s journey from the depths of extreme violence to the heights of reconciliation and unity. Their narrative, emblematic of many across the country, underscores the remarkable determination of people committed to healing and overcoming a traumatic past. Thirty years post-genocide, Rwanda continues to forge a future defined by resilience, proving that even in the wake of profound tragedy, humanity’s capacity for renewal remains possible.


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