Rwanda: Living with the Enemy – The Sunday Times

Mupagasi is Helen’s neighbour. He is also the man who butchered her husband and son during the Rwandan genocide. How have they learnt to live together?

Helen Mukandori has no choice but to remember every damned thing. She remembers how, in the early hours of April 7, 1994 – the morning after the plane carrying the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down; the first day of the swiftest and most brutal genocide in history – two neighbours came to her house. She remembers their names: Mupagasi and Rwabagabo. And, of course, she remembers what happened next.

Helen, then 40, was at home with her businessman husband and five children in a tin-roofed bungalow in the village of Gishari, an hour’s drive east of Kigali, the capital. Her cattle – a mark of both her family’s wealth and their Tutsi heritage – chewed grass from troughs in the back yard, in the shade of the banana trees. When Mupagasi and Rwabagabo arrived, her husband and her eldest child, a 14-year-old boy, went out to meet them. And why not? Although Helen’s husband was Tutsi and his visitors Hutu, the men were “good friends”, some of the family’s best. But on that day, old relationships carried no weight. Mupagasi murdered her husband and son with a machete, and left them in the front yard “in pieces”, while Rwabagabo looted the house.

Helen, with one child on her back and three at her feet, escaped out the back door. Understanding that her family had been targeted because they were Tutsi, she hid with her children in their pit latrine; then among the banana plantations; then at the house of her oldest Hutu friend; and then, betrayed by that same friend, back in the bush, where the Interahamwe, the foot soldiers of the genocide, found them. By that time, Helen’s family were the last surviving Tutsis in the village, and the death squad decided to have some fun with them.

The Interahamwe took Helen back to her house and stole all her remaining money. They then gave her family small, non-fatal quantities of poison to drink; instructed Helen to dig her children’s graves in the garden; and beat her with clubs and fists. They left her with her children, broken-ribbed, semiconscious and puking in the mud.

The only reason they did not kill Helen “completely” (she is not the only survivor to describe her escape in these liminal terms), was because they had decided to hold a feast with the many cows they had stolen. And, while her assailants stopped for a bite, Helen escaped, dragging her family into the bush one final time. There, they lived off bananas for a week before being rescued by the advancing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army, led by Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda.

Helen is now 54. Although her forehead is cragged by time, she retains girlish freckles above her high, fine cheekbones. You can see she was once beautiful. But, as she sits on a mat in the cool front room of her new house in her old village, her face contorts, and her eyes sting. She says she cries because she remembers everything like it happened this morning. And, when the rain beats a drum roll on her tin roof, she imagines the killers at her door again.

The demons are not just in her imagination. Helen passes old members of the Interahamwe every day in the village. Indeed, Mupagasi and Rwabagabo have now returned from prison and live just doors away.

Can you imagine it? Imagine Jamie Bulger’s mother sharing a garden fence with her son’s killers. Imagine Peter Sutcliffe bumping into a victim’s brother or sister in Sainsbury’s. Imagine Ian Huntley now worked in Soham. Imagine the newspaper headlines. Imagine the outrage. To even entertain these scenarios is an affront to our sense of natural justice. But in Rwanda, needs must.

Helen lives alongside her family’s murderers because her story is, if not quotidian, then not unusual. She is one of roughly 360,000 survivors of the genocide – mostly women and children – still living in the country.

In 1994, to recap, the Hutu leadership of Rwanda, a tiny, lush, undulating central African state with a population of around 8m, orchestrated an organised slaughter of the minority Tutsi group. No gas chambers were used. Instead, ordinary Rwandans were encouraged to turn on their neighbours with knives and clubs. They undertook their duties with gusto. Almost 1m people were murdered in 100 days. Western nations, and the UN high command, watched.

Hutus killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They did so because the country was in the grip of a genocidal fever whose symptoms had been apparent since 1959, two years before the Hutu leadership inherited the country’s government from the Belgians. Over the next 35 years, this government encouraged periodic pogroms against the Tutsi minority during which tens of thousands died. In this period, between 600,000 and 800,000 Tutsis fled Rwanda for its neighbours – Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC), Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, where, in a mirror of events in Rwanda, Tutsis led pogroms against Hutus. It was against the backdrop of attacks on the Hutu regime by Kagame’s Ugandan-based RPF army that this ideology reached fever pitch in 1994. Tutsis were accused of being enemy “accomplices”, whether they were or not. A final solution was organised by the French-backed Hutu leadership, with Habyarimana’s plane crash the stage-managed trigger. Two weeks ago, three of those leaders, including the so-called “colonel of the apocalypse”, Theoneste Bagosora, were convicted of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, and imprisoned for life.

Why should Hutus and Tutsis hate each other so much? For centuries, they co-existed in Rwanda, alongside the minority Twa people. The Hutus were largely cultivators, the Tutsis cattle-owners. And, although there were some physical and physiognomical differences between Hutus and Tutsis, the boundaries between the groups were porous. Rwandans spoke one language; they intermarried; they even moved from one group to another. The problems began in earnest in 1924, when Belgium formally took control of what was then Ruanda-Urundi, a part of German East Africa until the first world war. Believers in the fairy-tale anthropological thesis that the Tutsis, who were lighter-skinned and taller (and, by extension, more European), were superior to the more “African”- looking Hutus, the Belgians divided to rule. They measured noses with callipers. They observed skin colour. They issued identity cards. Then, with independence around the corner, the Belgians suddenly switched sides and backed the majority Hutus. In doing so, they emphasised the Hutus’ “Rwandan-ness”, and cast the Tutsis as haughty foreigners – stereotypes that stuck. In short, they started the genocidal ball rolling.

When Kagame’s RPF troops took control of the country in June 1994, as many as 2m Hutus, tens of thousands of whom were genocidaires, fled into the DRC. Many are still there – an issue at the heart of the ensuing, hellish confrontation in the eastern Congo that has extinguished more than 5m lives and continues to this day.

But many genocidaires remained in Rwanda, or returned in the years to come. Meanwhile, as expatriate Tutsis streamed back into the broken country to discover its roads and ditches clogged with bodies, the question was asked: how can there be justice for Rwanda? In a country with a million dead, and more displaced – where a significant percentage of the population is implicated in murder, where few judges remain to try cases, with no infrastructure, with the prisons overflowing – how is it possible?

By 2000, around 120,000 people were imprisoned in Rwanda accused of acts of genocide (a fraction of the number considered to have committed such acts, but enough to burst the banks of the prison system). However, between 1996 and 2006, traditional criminal courts in Rwanda had only managed to try around 10,000 suspects. At that rate, as Rwandans are fond of saying, it would take over 100 years to try everyone.

The country needed a different solution. The new, largely Tutsi, government could have been vengeful. They could have followed the Taliban’s approach that “in revenge there is life”, and butchered their former assailants in a second genocide. Or, as they considered seriously, the government could have followed South Africa’s post-apartheid model of “truth and reconciliation”, and allowed the interested parties to talk out their differences in a nonjudgmental setting.

Neither solution was satisfactory for Rwanda. The crimes committed within its boundaries demanded more than fine words. What the government eventually hit upon was a precolonial system of restorative justice called gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha, and meaning, literally, a court held “on the grass”). While the organisers of the genocide would still be tried at tortoise speed in Arusha – Bagosora’s trial alone took five years to complete – the vast majority of common-or-garden murderers would be tried at home in Rwanda, in these local courts. If genocide perpetrators asked for forgiveness at gacaca, they could receive dramatically reduced sentences, or return to their communities to work.

In precolonial Rwanda, gacaca had been used to settle property disputes and petty thefts. Now, it was prepared to try the most serious crimes imaginable. Unsurprisingly, when the trials started in 2001 (they would only be implemented nationwide by 2006), many western observers took issue with gacaca. They are still concerned about its role now.

In a report delivered in July last year, Human Rights Watch decries gacaca’s failure to provide such staples of western jurisprudence as defence counsel for the accused, properly trained judges, and adequate protection for witnesses. Furthermore, they argue, gacaca is necessarily political. It only recognises a certain type of crime. Atrocities committed by Kagame’s army during the incursions into Rwanda between 1990 and 1994 are, for instance, ignored.

Kagame’s government, having noted the West’s tragic failure to intervene in the genocide, has little time for these quibbles. It is no coincidence that the current Rwandan government chose a process gleaned from its precolonial history. The message is clear: let us sort out our own mess. Indeed, many Rwandans seem to accept the system’s shortcomings. Their compliance stems partly from a lack of viable alternatives, but also, some admit privately, because to disagree openly with gacaca is to lay oneself open to the charge of “divisionism” – now, rather spookily, a crime under Rwanda’s increasingly authoritarian laws.

In 2001, at the start of the first trials, Kagame spoke for his country. “There is no system that we could put in place that is without flaws,” he admitted. “It is like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” What mattered most to the president was that Rwanda provided its own solutions. “From the beginning, and I am sure until the end,” he said, “the contribution of the rest of the world has been minimal.”

It was at a gacaca trial in Gishari, in 2006, that Helen saw Mupagasi and Rwabagabo for the first time in 12 years. Watched by her fellow villagers, and standing before five locally elected judges, or inyangamugayo – the word means “a person of integrity”, and is equivalent in status to a magistrate – she gave testimony against the two men.

Mupagasi and Rwabagabo had already spent eight years in prison, and when one tried to mitigate his involvement in the murder by implicating the other, Helen set them right. No, she said: Mupagasi murdered, Rwabagabo looted. The judges agreed, and sent Mupagasi back to jail for seven months for giving false testimony. Rwabagabo, meanwhile, asked for forgiveness from Rwanda, and from Helen, and was released to serve a community sentence. In May 2007, Mupagasi emerged from his final sentence and asked for forgiveness in the same way. Now, like his old friend, he lives back in Gishari.

This is the way gacaca works. There are more than 11,000 jurisdictions in Rwanda, meaning that the number of people in each is small. The hearings have the feel of village meetings, where everyone knows everyone. They are more often than not held outside, although I attended one intense court session in a meat market. People stand to give testimony, others stand to give counter-testimony. The accused, meanwhile, who is clothed in the pink uniform that prisoners are required to wear in Rwanda, is at once the focus of the court and a sideshow.

In the two trials I attended – both for murder and both adjourned due to lack of evidence – not one witness would have lasted a minute in front of a British (or, indeed, a traditionally trained Rwandan) judge. Evidence was shaky, contradictory, sometimes nakedly vindictive and often irrelevant to the case at hand. One man, Elias Nijonzima, a 41-year-old mechanic, came before a gacaca hearing in Kigali, having spent a year in jail. The basis for his incarceration was another prisoner’s recent recollection that Elias had been involved in the murder of an old man called Joseph in the first days of the genocide. Elias cheerily told me he was innocent of the charge and was confident the truth would out. He was sure he had been accused because the witness, a neighbour, “is jealous of my success”. Several times the court offered Elias an opportunity to “ask for forgiveness”, which seemed like the tactics of the detective rather than the judge, but gacaca is muddled in that way. The court is designed both to heal and to punish, and, like a halting piano student, struggles to play two hands at once.

When Elias’s trial adjourned because the court wished to investigate further (the judges also oversee the gathering of evidence), he simply smiled, shook my hand, and prepared to return to prison. Before he did so, many people from his old neighbourhood came to sit with him, give him food and wish him well. I had no idea from listening to the court whether he was guilty or innocent – there seemed to be no real case for the defence or the prosecution – but Elias professed no ill feelings. “They are good judges,” he said. “They will find out what happened.”

In its winding way, gacaca does allow certain truths to emerge. But the problem that prompted its establishment – the swelling of the prisons – has not been solved. Gacaca courts are just as likely to send convicted genocidaires back to jail as to release them into the community. As a result, the number of prisoners has dropped – but not enough. The more important role for gacaca, it seems, is to allow Rwandans a voice for their recollections of the genocide. Indeed, the hearings sustain (and sometimes, problematically, enhance) those memories. So much new evidence has emerged in the past two years that the trials, which were due to finish no later than last month, are now set to plough well into this year.

The protection of witnesses, too, is no small matter. When Helen Mukandori gave her evidence at gacaca, she knew there was a strong chance she would suffer reprisals. Despite government assurances to the contrary, witnesses are often targets of violence. Ibuka, the umbrella organisation for survivors in Rwanda, estimated that from January to August last year, 17 survivors had been murdered in Rwanda, and dozens more threatened. The reports of attacks on witnesses are chilling. In 2006, for instance, a man had his tongue cut out after giving testimony.

Wild horses could not keep Beatrice Bunderi from testifying. She lost 41 members of her family in the genocide. Now 58, she lives in the village of Nyarusange, in eastern Rwanda. A tall woman with a regal bearing, she delivers her account with a legalistic attention to detail. This cousin was killed on this day, in this place, and so on. Beatrice considers her testimony significant – a rejoinder to the genocidal ideology that continues to bubble beneath the surface of village life. The government’s official ruling is that the terms Hutu and Tutsi are taboo (the official line is “We are all Rwandans now”), but, of course, everyone knows who belongs to whom. News from the continuing conflict in Congo between Tutsis and Hutus, meanwhile, is a daily reminder to Rwandans of the old battle lines – positions from which some are still unwilling to retreat.

“You hear the neighbours talk about us Tutsis,” Beatrice says. “They say, ‘I thought we had killed them off, but look how they breed!'”

Beatrice betrays her emotions only once in our interview, when she describes how, in late April 1994, her sister Mukabaresa died after refusing the sexual advances of the Interahamwe. Her attackers wished to discover whether “Tutsis sweat the same as Hutus,” but Mukabaresa would not yield. She was killed when the men drove a stick so violently “into her sex” that it came out of her mouth.

“No one can reconcile me with Hutus now,” she says. “I am immune from them. I have seen enough that I don’t feel anything. But I must give evidence at gacaca all the same. I don’t think, however, that gacaca is a just system. All the killers have to do is stand up and say they are sorry that they killed. Then they are released, and life goes on. It is not enough.”

In the same resigned way, Beatrice tells me how she testified twice at gacaca against a local man named Mutabazi – once to tell of his crimes during the genocide and once to say that he had broken his community work order. In early November 2008, Beatrice came to the front door to see him waiting behind her hedge with a machete. She locked the door and screamed until her neighbours came. He has since been sent back to prison.

Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that some survivors refuse to speak up? Godrose Mukashaka, a shy, giggly woman of 36, now works as a cleaner in a hospital near the tree-lined banks of Lake Muhazi, a Rwandan holiday spot. She attended gacaca only once in her life, said nothing, and was so traumatised she never returned. “It was the people, the stories, everything,” she explains.

Her silence hides an horrific history. In the first days of the genocide, when reports of mass murders spread to Muhazi, Godrose, then 21 and studying to become a nun, hid with her family in the chapel at Rukara. Rwanda was, and remains, a devout country. During the genocide, many Tutsis instinctively gathered in churches for sanctuary. In most cases, however, their assembly only served to save the Interahamwe the trouble of rounding them up and they were massacred anyway.

At Rukara, the Interahamwe murdered 500, including seven of Godrose’s siblings and her parents. Godrose only escaped because she hid for a week, underneath the bodies in the church, until the RPF came. She was taken to hospital, where she discovered she had been infected with HIV, lived in a camp for the displaced, and returned to the village. Some months later, several genocidaires who had been hiding in the bush, attacked her. Godrose was raped again, and this time, impregnated. She gave birth to a daughter, Diana, in August 1995.

Under gacaca laws, rape cases are held out of public view, but that has not been enough of an inducement for Godrose to testify. She cannot relive her trauma in front of her daughter, let alone a court. Indeed, Diana, a smiling, gawky teenager, told me she believed her father was a “famous RPF soldier”. Will Godrose ever tell her daughter the truth? “No,” she says. “How could I?”

There is a grenade-shattered Catholic church at Ntarama, in the south, which acts as a memorial to Rwanda’s dead. When I entered, I thought of Godrose, hiding among the bodies of her family in the church at Rukara – considered how her faith had been abused there, and of the strength required to return to that church now, as she does. I thought of Diana at her side, understanding nothing.

More than 5,000 Tutsis were killed at Ntarama, and, for years after the attack, their bones lay where they fell among the pews. Now, they have been stacked at the west end of the chapel, on long metal shelves, like goods awaiting shipment. On the bottom row lie femurs, shins and hips. On the middle two shelves are skulls, many shattered where the machetes bore down on them. One has a shard of metal still lodged in its structure, just above the eye socket; others are no bigger than a fist. The arm bones rest in ordered piles on the top shelf.

At the east end of the church, across the altar, is a legend, written on the purple cloth that signifies mourning in Rwanda. It reads, in the local language Kinyarwanda: “If you knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not kill me.” Odd wording. The bleakest aspect of the Rwandan genocide is that so many of its perpetrators knew their victims intimately, and killed them anyway. These words, however, do speak to a prevailing wisdom, borne on bumper stickers across this newly confident country: “Rwanda is you and me.” In other words, our relationships killed us, and our relationships are what must bring us back together.

The legend could also speak for gacaca. If Rwanda is to thrive, then this process – whereby the “you and me” of Rwanda are obliged to face one another, and address thoughts of murder, rape, forgiveness and accountability – has to work. And if gacaca is to work, then Helen Mukandori’s story needs a satisfactory ending. But, back in Gishari, Helen has some trouble. Two days after my first visit – because I visited, Helen suspects – Rwabagabo, the man who looted her belongings 14 years ago, came to her house in the night with dark intentions. Fortunately, the family had been warned of the impending attack by another neighbour, and Helen’s son, hiding on the roof, called the police from his mobile phone as Rwabagabo approached.

She knows, however, the danger has not passed. “He has promised to kill me before he dies,” she says. And Mupagasi? Helen takes my hand and leads me to his house. Along mud tracks and past the incredulous glances of the other villagers – muzungus, white people, are rare here – we find his small, scruffy home. Chickens and children run about in the front yard. Mupagasi, in the last months of his community sentence, has just finished work. He washes out of a bucket at the back of the house before shaking our hands.

A large, lean man of 42, his torn yellow T-shirt reveals the shoulders of a sculler. Terror is written on his face. Nevertheless, he invites us into his dark front room, and offers Helen his best high-backed chair. She drags it to the door and swivels it so that she will face away from him. He sits on a low bench, with a pile of peeled potatoes at his feet. Above his head are three posters: two of Jesus; one of Ronaldinho, the Brazilian footballer.

Helen has had no trouble from Mupagasi since his release. When they pass each other in the street, he says hello. But she has never visited him, and the room is sour with tension. Helen, normally garrulous, speaks rarely in our interview, and only then to correct points of fact. Her eyes narrow as I ask Mupagasi what went through his mind on the day he killed Helen’s husband and son.

“It was no different from any other day,” he says. “It was not one day’s work.” “Work” means murder – the literal meaning of Interahamwe is “those who work together”. Mupagasi explains that in the months before the genocide he had been conditioned by propagandist radio to hate Tutsis. He had also attended boot camps with other militia. It was not just one day’s work.

Mupagasi also confirms Helen’s account that he and her family were good friends before the genocide, and that they would “often socialise together”. How, then, could he attack them?

“We had an order from the government not to spare anyone, not even a child,” he says. “We could not ignore an order from the government.”

What are his emotions now, when he sees Helen? Here, he starts to shake. His eyes scan the ground. “I asked forgiveness from her,” he says. “And she gave it to me. The best thing I can do for Helen now is to leave her alone – to give her peace. I am afraid of her.”

“You know,” says Helen, “that we are also afraid of you.” The “we” is dangerous, and Mupagasi senses it. He feels he has been ambushed and, claiming ill health, asks to stop the interview. But his reddening eyes reveal more than sickness. What? Regret, anxiety, fear, certainly. Hatred, too, not because Helen is a Tutsi – he claims, credibly, to have abandoned the old genocidal ideology – but because she is a survivor. She reminds him of his crimes. And, while he can give her peace, she can deliver no such respite to him. He walks past her every day.

We must leave. Before we do, the photographer asks Helen if she might sit with Mupagasi for a joint picture. She refuses. “Does he look like my husband?” she snaps. “Does this look like a wedding?”

No, it doesn’t look like a wedding. But it is no funeral either. After the interview, Helen says she has learnt to accept Mupagasi because “I have no power to do to him what he did to me”. The foundation of her forgiveness – like most reconciliatory gestures in Rwanda, like gacaca – is pragmatic. She values his assurances of safety. Furthermore, she says, better he is back in the village, contributing something, than wasting government money in jail. She says it is for God to judge his actions, not her.

Up the road, however, lives a man who has tried to kill Helen before, and has vowed to do so again. How can she forgive him? What has become of his publicly professed contrition?

It seems his hatred was, like the bodies of so many victims, buried in shallow ground. But, while Helen and Rwabagabo’s story illuminates the manifold problems still facing Rwanda, Helen and Mupagasi’s shows what heart and backbone have achieved already.