With 25 years now passed since the Rwandan genocide began, we spoke to one man who took part in the killings.
In an honest account, he told us why he got involved and how, with the help of a reconciliation programme, he has repented and is now friends with the relatives of the people he killed.
Aged 60 and a grandfather of four, Vianney Nunigantama, sits in front of me, already with tears in his eyes. He has chosen to share his experience of the genocide against the Tutsis many times before as part of his reconciliation journey but undoubtedly it is still painful.
To his right sits Immaculée, a lady he grew up with as a neighbour and a family friend. But like many others in their position, this relationship completely changed the day the genocide began, all because they were born into different ethnic groups.
The Rwandan genocide saw more than one million people killed within 100 days – mostly those belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group as well as Hutus who refused to take part in the killings. Out of fear and the promise of a better life, ordinary Hutu people were driven to kill their neighbours, friends and even their loved ones.
“In 1994, I killed so many people and most of these people were relatives of the survivors that are part of this reconciliation group,” Vianney said. “These were neighbours. These were friends. But we just did it.”
But how do people go from being friends and neighbours one day, to killing them and their families the next?
“I was a good Christian to tell you the truth but I don’t know how I came to change. What …made the situation worse was what the leaders were telling us.
“They had a plan by then to exterminate Tutsis but we didn’t know this. For us, there was no problem. We had inter-ethnic marriages who would organise events together, who would share everything. ..But leaders started this and we ended up killing our friends.
“At the time, I felt that was doing something good because the leadership had dehumanised the Tutsis and we came to look on them as cockroaches.”
His neighbour, Immaculée, had survived a massacre at Murambi where tens of thousands of people were killed including her husband and two youngest children.
Her oldest son, who was nine, was with his grandparents at the time. As trusted family friends, and thinking that he would be protected in a house belonging to Hutus, they left him with Vianney’s parents.
Sadly he was taken from them and killed, but for many years Immaculée suspected that Vianney had murdered her son. Later he confessed that while he had killed her two cousins, he hadn’t killed her son.
When the new leaders took power, Vianney was jailed for his crimes during the genocide and was released in 2008. “For me, it has been a long journey. At a time, I did consider suicide because I couldn’t bear to look back at what I had done.”
Immaculée took Vianney’s release from prison hard and, in the depths of despair herself, she would chase him and throw stones while trying her best to appeal his release.
Depressed and fearful, he hid himself away to avoid ever seeing her. Sometime later, Immaculée had joined a local Peace and Reconciliation group and Vianney had noticed that she was beginning to change. She had also started attending his church.
Inspired by a bible reading, Christmas day in 2015 is when their reconciliation journey began.
“One of the readings at Mass was about how love should prevail over hatred and I decided I would do something. So I went to Immaculée and asked her if we could talk about the reading we had that day.”
Desperate for forgiveness, he told her what he had done and he begged her to talk to him. Incredibly, Immaculée agreed and invited him to join her reconciliation group.
Run by the Commission for Justice and Peace, one of Trócaire’s partners in Rwanda, the programme is bringing together survivors and perpetrators of the genocide to build lasting reconciliation between them.
For three years, Immaculée and Vianney worked hard at building trust and understanding with the support of the commission and other group members.
“We are now friends,” says Vianney. And as they chat and smile together, it is clear that they are.
Asked about his life now, Vianney admits that he is happier than he should be, and that he has a good life looking after his small farm. But his ambition now is to do what he can to rebuild his country, especially for the next generation.
By sharing his story and teaching children about the consequences of division, he believes he is doing this.
“When people see and hear the example of what Immaculée and I are doing, hopefully they will be doing the same. Rwanda will be better.”