Jean Gihana calmly admits that he armed and directed a band of killers in his neighborhood during the Rwandan genocide. Confessing got him out of prison early, and today he counts survivors as his friends. "For the one person who I killed, I have apologized to his family." Jean said in an interview outside a seminar on reconciliation and healing conducted by REACH in Kirehe District, Rwanda. Initially, he said he couldn't determine how many people died due to his orders. Asked to guess, he said "42."
"For the 42 people I ordered others to kill, I have apologized to the government. Each man who killed apologizes to the family of the victims," 42 year-old Jean Gihana explained. He said the government is to blame for the fact that he took a machete and slashed a man named Paul, murdering him during the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Though he does not seem to take responsibility for the murders he ordered, Jean also offers that as a leader of his neighborhood's Interahamwe, he supplied men in his neighborhood with guns, machetes, and studded clubs so that they could kill their neighbors.
Jean, who has four children together with his wife, says he has apologized to Paul's family and they accepted this apology. Paul is friendly with Anyesi, a bright, friendly and upbeat grandmother of four with a hearty laugh. They were neighbors before the killings and today.
Anyesi's ability to forgive and move forward is incredible. She has forgiven killers who slaughtered her husband and her three sons. She and her daughter were the only survivors. She even forgives the people who led her to identify her husband by a body part hanging from the town hall. Seeking shelter with her family, her own relative then raped her, blaming it on the fact she married the someone from the "wrong" group. He gave her HIV. After the genocide she adopted five orphans and she continues to care for several children today.
Since sharing her story with us for the first time in 2006 she has been attacked again. A neighbor, angry she has been encouraging reconciliation and identifying killers, snuck up on Anyesi. While she was cooking right outside her house one evening he walked up to her hiding his intentions, and smacked her in the forehead with a studded club-the same sort of weapon used in the genocide. The attack left a scar and lingering pain. Later, he confessed and promised to pay for her health care bills. Then he left town. She has forgiven him.
She also forgives Alexander, the man who helped destroy her house during the genocide. She even considers Alexander, his wife, and five children as her own extended family. Alexander receives Anyesi in the front room of his clay house. The home is surrounded by pigs, cattle, and plantain trees at the end of winding dirt road barely suitable for vehicles. They sit next to each other in an area formerly used as neighborhood bar, until the government somehow found it and shut it down. Alexander justifies his action saying, "We did what the government told us to do. Otherwise we would be killed." He says he was very young at the time. He was 24 in 1994. Asked if he saw anyone punished for refusing orders, he said no.
Anyesi now leads a group of survivors and wives of genocide perpetrators in cooking meals for dozens of people. The women wouldn't even look at each other several years ago. Now they credit the teachings of REACH (Reconciliation, Evangelism And Christian Healing), a ministry that aims to teach Rwandans about the history of colonialism, the church, and the genocide. REACH now pays the women to prepare meals for its seminars. REACH tries to teach participants about the value of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace building. This week they held holding a seminar in the Kirehe district of Rwanda near the border with Tanzania. In the seminar, approximately 40 released prisoners sit separately from about one dozen survivors on their left and a choir on their right. The singers are survivors and children of killers. In the front of the church a group of pastors rotates leading the discussions and lectures. The choir provides interludes to energize participants between preaching, bible reading, and small group discussions.
Anyesi has attended numerous seminars in the past, at first she says she wouldn't even look at the wives of killers. She says when she realized what was happening, survivors being paired with perpetrators' wives, she wanted to beat up Father Philbert Kalisa, the man who founded REACH and organizes seminars across Rwanda. Now she credits Kalisa with helping her to find a way to forgive and move forward.