NYAMATA, Rwanda – She lost her baby daughter and her right hand to a manic killing spree. He wielded the machete that took both.
Yet today, despite coming from opposite sides of an unspeakable shared past, Alice Mukarurinda and Emmanuel Ndayisaba are friends. She is the treasurer and he the vice-president of a group that builds simple brick houses for genocide survivors. They live near each other and shop at the same market.
Their story of ethnic violence, extreme guilt and, to some degree, reconciliation is the story of Rwanda today, 20 years after its Hutu majority killed more than 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Rwandan government is still accused by human rights groups of holding an iron grip on power, stifling dissent and killing political opponents. But even critics give President Paul Kagame credit for leading the country toward a peace that seemed all but impossible two decades ago.
“Whenever I look at my arm I remember what happened,” said Alice, a mother of five with a deep scar on her left temple where Emanuel sliced her with a machete. As she speaks, Emmanuel — the man who killed her baby — sits close enough that his left hand and her right stump sometimes touch.
On Monday, Rwanda marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of 100 days of bloody mayhem. But the genocide was really in the making for decades, fueled by hate speech, discrimination, propaganda and the training of death squads. Hutus had come to resent Tutsis for their greater wealth and what they saw as oppressive rule.
Rwanda is the most densely populated country in mainland Africa, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland but with a population of more than 12 million. The countryside is lush green, filled with uncountable numbers of banana trees.
The Hutu-Tutsi divide may be the country’s most notorious characteristic but also its most confounding. The two groups are so closely related that it’s nearly impossible for an outsider to tell which the average Rwandan belongs to. Even Rwandans have trouble knowing who is who, especially after two decades of a government push to create a single Rwandan identity.
For Alice, a Tutsi, the genocide began in 1992, when her family took refuge in a church for a week. Hutu community leaders began importing machetes. Houses were burned, cars taken.
Hutu leaders created lists of prominent or educated Tutsis targeted for killing. They also held meetings where they told those in attendance how evil the Tutsis were. Like many of his Hutu neighbours, Emmanuel soaked in the message.
The situation caught fire on April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down. Hutus started killing Tutsis, who ran for their lives and flooded Alice’s village.
Three days later, local Hutu leaders told Emmanuel, then 23, that they had a job for him.
They took him to a Tutsi home and ordered him to use his machete. A Christian who sang in his church choir, Emmanuel had never killed before. But inside this house he murdered 14 people. The next day, April 12, Emmanuel found a Tutsi doctor in hiding and killed him, too. The day after, he killed two women and a child.
“The very first family I killed, I felt bad, but then I got used to it,” he says. “Given how we were told that the Tutsis were evil, after the first family I just felt like I was killing our enemies.”
In the meantime, Alice’s family took refuge in a church, just as they had done before, crammed in with hundreds of others. But this time, Hutu attackers threw a bomb inside and set the church on fire. Those who fled the fire inside died by machetes outside. Alice lost some 26 family members, among the estimated 5,000 victims at the church.
Alice, then 25, escaped with her 9-month-old daughter and a 9-year-old niece into Rwanda’s green countryside, moving, hiding, moving. She hid in a forested swamp.
“There were so many bodies all over the place,” she says. “Hutus would wake up in the morning and go hunting for Tutsis to kill.”
By late April rebel Tutsi fighters led by Kagame had reached the capital and chased Hutus out. Hutu troops began to flee to neighbouring countries, and the violence spread, with killings carried out by both sides.
On April 29, Emmanuel joined Hutu soldiers searching the countryside for Tutsis. The attackers blew a whistle whenever they found a Tutsi hiding.
The murders began at 10 a.m. and lasted until 3 p.m. Alice had been hiding in a swamp for days, keeping out only the top of her face so she could breathe. That was where the Hutus found her.
They surrounded the swamp. Then they attacked.
First they killed the girls. When that was done, they came after Alice. She was sure she would die, but instinctively put up her arm to defend herself.
Emmanuel, Alice’s school mate, recognized the woman but couldn’t recall her name. Perhaps that made it easier to rain down machete blows on Alice’s right arm, severing it just above the wrist. He sliced her face. His colleague pierced a spear through her left shoulder.
They left her for dead.
She was bloodied, scarred, and missing a hand, yes, but not dead. Alice fell unconscious, she says, and was found three days later by other survivors. It was only then that she realized she no longer had a right hand.
In the months after the genocide, guilt gnawed away at Emmanuel. He saw his victims during nightmares. In 1996, he turned himself in and confessed.
His prison term lasted from 1997 until 2003, when Kagame pardoned Hutus who admitted their guilt. After he was freed, he began asking family members of his victims for forgiveness. He joined a group of genocide killers and survivors called Ukurrkuganze, who still meet weekly.
It was there that he saw Alice, the woman he thought he had killed.
At first he avoided her. Eventually he kneeled before her and asked for forgiveness. After two weeks of thought and long discussions with her husband, she said yes.
“We had attended workshops and trainings and our hearts were kind of free, and I found it easy to forgive,” she says. “The Bible says you should forgive and you will also be forgiven.”
Josephine Munyeli is the director of peace and reconciliation programs in Rwanda for World Vision, a U.S.-based aid group. A survivor of the genocide herself, Munyeli says more killers and victims would like to reconcile but many don’t know who they attacked or were attacked by.
“Forgiveness is possible. It’s common here,” she says. “Guilt is heavy. When one realizes how heavy it is the first thing they do to recuperate themselves is apologize.”
Although Rwanda has made significant progress since the genocide, ethnic tensions remain. Alice worries that some genocide planners were never caught, and that messages denying the genocide still filter into the country from Hutus living abroad. She believes remembrance is important to ensure that another genocide never happens.
For Emmanuel, the anniversary periods bring back the nightmares. He looks like a man serving penance, who does not want to talk but feels he must.
“I’ve been asking myself why I acted like a fool, listening to such words, that this person is bad and that person is bad,” Emmanuel says. “The same people that encouraged the genocide are the ones saying there was no genocide.”
He, too, worries that the embers of the genocide still smoulder.
“The problem is still there,” Emmanuel says. “There are Hutus who hate me for telling the truth. There are those up until now who participated in the genocide who deny they took part.”