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Rwanda genocide perpetrator: "I asked for forgiveness"

Emmanuel Nyirimbuga, right, and Juliette Mukabanda, a survivor of the school massacre. Emmanuel works in a World Vision program that encourages genocide survivors and perpetrators to come together in healing and forgiveness.  Photo: ©2013 Jon Warren/World Vision

Emmanuel Nyirimbuga, right, and Juliette Mukabanda, a survivor of the school massacre. Emmanuel works in a World Vision program that encourages genocide survivors and perpetrators to come together in healing and forgiveness.
Photo: ©2013 Jon Warren/World Vision

by Margaret Larson

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and World Vision’s work to help the country find healing from one of the world’s worst modern day tragedies.

Freelance producer Margaret Larson of Seattle’s KING 5 television show “New Day Northwest” shares this extraordinary account from her interview with Emmanuel Nyirimbuga, who works in a World Vision program that encourages genocide survivors and perpetrators to come together in healing and forgiveness.

Emmanuel is a genocide perpetrator.

He witnessed and participated in a frenzied, eight-hour massacre that killed thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had taken shelter at a new school campus.

Emmanuel admitted his crimes at a village court called a gacaca, asked forgiveness, and served his time in prison. Now, the father says he no longer tries to push the memories away.

When asked about the genocide, he looks down, his eyes mist, but he speaks candidly.

Emmanuel: “Sometimes when I’m asleep or when I’m just thinking, I see their images. I remember their faces. And what hurts me is when I think about the relationships that we had with their parents, with their relatives. I remember that we didn’t have any problems. We were neighbors. And when I remember that I killed those innocent children, sometimes it hurts me so much.

“But God has helped me to understand that what happened has happened, and I’ve always remembered to ask for forgiveness to God to continue forgiving me for what I did.

“Remembering helps me to some extent because it keeps on reminding me that what we did was wrong. And I’m sure that can never happen again. All the images that come into my mind make me feel that this can’t ever happen again.”

During his work in World Vision community projects, Emmanuel befriended Juliette Mukabanda, a survivor of the school massacre. They sit together, and she shows him a picture of her daughter, now 20. She is one of the souls who made it through that horrible time. Emmanuel now sees young adults like Juliette’s daughter, Pauline, and he says he is grateful they survived.

Emmanuel: “It makes me happy to see them grow, not only children but also all the survivors. When I look at them, I regret what I did, because I know that I’m one of the people that put them in such a situation. And I’ve always talked to my colleagues whenever they come here to visit me or when we are together. I remind them, I said, ‘You people remember the evils that we did in 1994.’ I’ve always encouraged them to go to church, to get closer to God, and to ask for forgiveness — to achieve that kind of healing, and I think it has helped me.”

Emmanuel says he thanks God for the chance for everyone to live together peacefully. Politically stoked divisions are over for him.

Emmanuel: “What we did in 1994 caused a lot of harm to this country. At first when we’re doing it, we were wrongly thinking that it was profitable to us. First of all, we thought that Tutsis were enemies — like the government used to tell us that they were our enemies. The (duty) we thought we had was eliminating our enemies.

“The second one, we thought that we would take their houses, their land, and everything. But we didn’t achieve that. Instead, we lost a lot of things. We lost people. We lost our friends. We lost neighbors. We lost people who would contribute to the development of the country.

“And even after the genocide, many of us fled the country to Congo and other neighboring countries. We suffered there. We were separated from our wives. And children. And even when we came back to our country, we spent many years in prison.

“So there’s nothing at all that we got out of what we did. Instead, only destruction.”

Emmanuel works in the World Vision community project that brings survivors and perpetrators together to work for the betterment of their shared community.

Emmanuel: “Now I (have) an association of 24 members. Nineteen are genocide survivors, and the rest are genocide perpetrators. We have become friends. We support each other in developmental activities, like we come together and we go support one on his or her farm. And that has helped us to work together and support each other toward economic development.”

Emmanuel’s friendship with Juliette is a tangible reminder of the ongoing work of forgiveness. Her willingness to let Emmanuel redefine himself has changed him forever, he says.

Emmanuel: “Asking forgiveness, for forgiveness, is not an easy thing. It’s very difficult to come out and ask for forgiveness. And also, forgiving is another difficult thing that [the survivors] can do, especially in a situation whereby we killed people.. But the training that we got from World Vision brought us together and helped us to understand the importance of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. And we took that step. And I asked for forgiveness, and she forgave me.”

This story originally appeared in the World Vision magazine. For complete World Vision coverage of recovery in Rwanda, view Healing Hearts: 20 years after the Genocide.

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