It’s Saturday afternoon as we drive down the dusty road on the outskirts of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, into a church and school compound. We begin to wonder if we’ve been brought to the wrong place. And yet there it is in big bold letters above a gate, ‘Nyamata Genocide Memorial.’
Awaiting us is Leo, a youngish man in a dark suit and open-necked shirt who is welcoming us in and introducing himself. It’s only half an hour into the visit that I ask Leo of his own memories of the genocide. Like any other child who was present in 1994, he recalls only too well. ‘I remember the bodies piled up on the streets.’ A few minutes later I ask if he’d lost any of his family. It’s a naive question I now realise. ‘46 members,’ he tells me. I ask about his immediate family and out of seven brothers and sisters only two survive. Both parents were killed too.
The horror of the genocide – which began in 1959, continued through 1992 to its eventual nadir in 1994 – casts the longest shadow. Outside the church in Nyamata a mass burial site now contains the remains of 45,000 Tutsis. A stair leads down to an underground crypt which shows the skeletons of the murdered. In another display room the cracked skulls of others bear testimony to the brutality of what happened in those dark days.
We pay our respects and are driven on to be welcomed by Claudette standing in the doorway of a small house typical of those built by the government to compensate survivors of the massacre. She smiles as if she has no cares as we assemble in her small living room. As well as our small delegation of observers we are joined by two men. It turns out they are Hutus who carried out killings and Claudette is a survivor from the church we have just visited.
As she tells her story of miraculous escape, then recapture, assault upon assault, betrayal and degradation beyond belief (she was trapped in a latrine for days, only able to escape by clambering on dead bodies piling high enough for her to climb out), we are all in tears.
Then we are all focusing on the two men who have said nothing. Claudette draws our attention to the taller one called, Claude. He, she tells us, attacked me with a machete slicing my shoulder where I had already been wounded. Thinking her dead, he resumed his rounds of killing. The atmosphere in the room became tense as our eyes all turn to the man listening with bowed head. It is his turn to speak.
Claude confirms what she has told us. He tells of the hatred of the Tutsis he had been taught growing up. He explains how little he knew and how killing men, women and children during the 100 days of genocide became second nature. When the new government finally wrestled control he fled over the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He tells us it was a few years before he heard there was what Rwandans called Gacaca trials – the truth and reconciliation programme designed to allow the country to move on, accepting the facts about what had happened.
Signing up to return, he committed himself to re-education and rehabilitation. On realising that a survivor lived nearby he presented himself at Claudette’s house on several occasions. Each time Claudette would scream and cry out to neighbours for help. Still he returned. Finally, one day he brought his wife and stood in her garden determined to apologise and repent for the evil he committed. Claudette accepted him in.
In the most remarkable story of mediation any of us can recall, the two became friends. She, having no surviving family of her own, regards Claude as family. It is similar for Claude. ‘She even attended my mother’s funeral with me,’ he tells us. There is silence in the room as we all take in the true cost of beautiful forgiveness. Percy, SCIAF’s programme managers for Rwanda sums it up perfectly later in the garden outside the house: ‘It’s Saul becoming Paul’. Claude’s own precis is perhaps even more eloquent: ‘She gave me a human heart,’ he tells us.
I hope this story helps to explain the horror that has been visited upon the women in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and in particular North and South Kivu featured in my earlier blogs. Those Hutu killing gangs who fled from justice in Rwanda went on to commit a reign of terror in the DR Congo along with the many other rogue militias intent on exploiting the country’s rich mineral wealth for their own good.
These armed gangs have continued to terrorise rural communities, raping women, killing men and children, destroying communities and spreading HIV. Atrocities that defy description have been visited upon the civilian population. My wife and I bore witness to how Scottish charity SCIAF has carried out a methodical programme of medical care including surgery, trauma counselling, financial support and free legal aid for thousands of women and girls who have been affected by violence. It is the focus of their WEE BOX Lenten appeal this year. But much more help is needed.
I’ve shared the above story of peace, hope and reconciliation in Rwanda as for me, it acts as inspiration as I reflect on the ongoing crimes against women in DR Congo, that peace, security and dignity are possible. At the moment, it is a vague dream, which one day must become a reality.
Please help women affected by sexual violence in the DR Congo and other vulnerable people around the world by giving to SCIAF’s WEE BOX BIG CHANGE appeal today. All public donations given before 20thMay will be doubled by the UK government.