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25 Years ago, on 6 April 1994, the President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, was assassinated when his plane was shot down. It was an event that would spark one of the most horrifying and brutal times in living memory.
Within 100 days, an estimated 1 million people were killed – mostly those belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group as well as Hutus who refused to take part in the killings.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsis, we visited a group of survivors and perpetrators who now take part in a Unity and Reconciliation programme, run by one of Trocaire’s partners in Rwanda, the Commission for Justice and Peace.
What we heard was an incredible story of survival, and how in the depths of despair and grief, people have been able to forgive and forge the unlikeliest of friendships with those who hurt them most. What is important to them now, is that the world hears and learns from their story.
The day it all began, 29 year old, Immaculée Uwizeyimana, was with her husband and her two youngest children, aged 6 and 1, in their home in a small village in southern Rwanda. Her eldest son, aged 9, was with his grandparents a short distance away.
When the President’s plane was shot down, everyone was told to stay indoors. For days, Immaculée and her family didn’t leave the house, unable to reach their oldest son.
“On 12 April we saw some houses being burnt around us and that is when we also decided to leave our home and go somewhere,” she said.
Her neighbours were fleeing to a place called Murambi, a school site on the hilltop, where they were told they would be safe.
Along with her husband, and two of her children, Immaculée followed them there, joined over the coming days by thousands of others. Sadly, this was just a ruse and for almost a week they waited, surrounded by policemen. “We were told they were there to protect us,” said Immaculée. But they weren’t.
“We started seeing people from everywhere coming with clubs, with sticks, with machetes and we started getting worried. That is when these policemen started shooting and my husband and the children were killed.”
The killings went on all night long. Somehow however, out of tens of thousands of people at that site, Immacculée survived. “I don’t know, maybe God just wanted me to be telling this story now. I don’t know how I survived.
“I was hit on my head. I fell down and those people who were killed, their bodies were lying on me but I still could breathe. In the morning, I could feel I was still alive.”
Immaculée escaped and hid in the bushes. “There are some who are still good people,” she said. “I remember when hiding in the bushes someone came there and he told me, since you are still alive please stay here, I will come late and I will help you.”
This man did just that and hid Immaculée in his house. Once the new government took power, he was then able to take her to safety. Here she was reunited with some of her neighbours but none of her family members survived.
“It was very hard. I was left with no relatives at all and to tell the truth I nearly committed suicide. I started asking myself why I had to survive the genocide.”
However, it was not knowing what happened to her nine year old son that tormented Immaculée most of all. Now, aged 54, Immaculée still finds this difficult to talk about.
When the killings started, her oldest son and his grandparents sought sanctuary at a neighbour’s house – people they had been friends with for years. As Hutus, they thought he would be protected there but sadly this was not the case.
“I didn’t know what happened to him,” she said.
Vianney Nunigantama, who was 35 at the time of the genocide against the Tutsis, was the son of this family friend. He had grown up with Immaculée and they knew each other well. After the genocide, she was devastated to find out that not only had he taken part in the killings, he had also murdered some of her family members. And for years she was convinced he had also killed her nine year old son.
“I would say I nearly went mad because looking at the relationship we had always had with Vianney, this was something that was really hard for me to understand.”
Vianney was put in prison but released in 2008. “I couldn’t understand why he would be released. I went mad – and whenever I would see Vianney, I would take stones and throw them at him. I was traumatised.”
Immaculée began to abuse drugs to try and block out the pain of what had happened. “I lost hope in life for long time,” she said.
This was her life for many years – understandably consumed with grief and hatred of those who had killed her family – especially Vianney.
At this point, there was no way she could see herself talking with him, let alone becoming close friends. But today as they as they sit together, chatting and smiling, that is exactly what they are. Their journey of reconciliation wasn’t easy but it is truly remarkable.