Updated: Wednesday, 02 April 2014 11:25 | By Agence France-Presse

Living with the killer next door, Rwandans grapple with reconciliation

The scene outside Frederic Kazigwemo's home is a typical rural Rwandan scene: a cow chews under a rickety shelter, cassava dries in the sun, women weave baskets and children play.


Living with the killer next door, Rwandans grapple with reconciliation

Children from two different families play in the doorway in the village of Mbyo, in Rwanda's Eastern Province, on March 12, 2014 - by Phil Moore

But in Rwanda, where 20 years ago a genocide claimed over 800,000 lives, the difference is that Kazigwemo murdered his neighbours -- relatives of his wife's weaving partner and next-door neighbour in a "reconciliation village", where free housing comes at the price of forgiveness.

"It was hard living here at the beginning, as this woman's husband helped to kill my family," says Cecile Mukagasana, as she sits on a porch tying colourful string around grass to make coiled baskets for curious tourists.

Before 1994, different groups in Rwanda lived relatively peacefully together for much of the time and intermarriages were not uncommon.

But then "the government was teaching the Hutu that the Tutsis were colonising them again, so we must kill them and take their property," Kazigwemo said.

"They gave us guns and trained us to go and kill," he added, although his mob "used machetes and spears" to slaughter seven people.

"We didn't feel guilty. We were proud of it as the government was wanting us to do this, so we did it again."

In the second attack, Kazigwemo's gang -- among them "people who were sharp at killing" -- hacked two of Cecile's relatives to death. 

Kazigwemo is one of around two million people tried over 10 years by the traditional "gacaca" court system, set up in the wake of the genocide as traditional courts were overloaded.

He had his sentence reduced after admitting to the killings and apologising for them.

"Before I apologised I didn't have peace in my heart, sometimes when I was standing somewhere, I would see the faces of those I killed in my eyes," he said. "Now I don't see them anymore."

- Bitter pill -

But Dieudonne Gahizi-Ganza, the founder of Best Hope Rwanda that offers counselling to victims of rape, their children, and those of the killers, says that the gacaca trials aren't enough.

"Gacaca did a lot to bring about justice and also handle the cases of perpetrators, but we also need reconciliation," he said.

"After the genocide, we had more than 300,000 orphans and 500,000 widows," says Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana, Executive Secretary of the government's Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

"To recover, for them, it is not so easy", he said.

For Vestine Mukandahiro, who lives in one of the many mud-baked lanes lined by banana trees on the outskirts of Kigali, reconciling with a daughter born of rape took years.

Aged 13, Vestine decided that she couldn't kill herself or the baby, but "after she was born, I thought I couldn't be with my own daughter as I'd look at her face and she'd remind me of the rape," she said.

Vestine fled the family home as attackers hacked her entire family minus her two- and four-year old youngest siblings to death, only to stumble across her rapist in a field.

She said people treated her "like a prostitute" bringing "the child of a curse" into the community.

Reconciliation programmes focusing on grassroots and group counselling have lifted such widespread or overt stigma, but the double-edged sword of speaking out is that those born years after the genocide have been forced to relive it.

"Trauma cases -- it's something that can be transmitted from one generation to the next", said Gahizi-Ganza.

- A country still in mourning -

As the country prepares to mark 20 years since the start of the 100-day massacre on April 7, a cloud of fear and sadness still hangs over Rwanda, and a certain stoicism prevails at all times.

Questions of ethnicity are no longer allowed or included on identity cards.

The horrors of 1994 can now only be referred to as The Genocide Against The Tutsi -- a term that ignores the massacre of moderate Hutus and obscures a far from bloodless advance to power by rebel forces led by Rwanda's now President Paul Kagame.

"We don't talk about ethnicity. We only talk about our past," said 19-year old Yvette.

The only leisure activities Yvette can list are after-school clubs warning against AIDS and drugs and the "Never Again Club", where she and her peers dissect the genocide.

Yvette wants to grow up to be a role model in the community, to show that she can be useful and to avoid more friction.

"With my generation, we must make a big effort to make sure that what happened never happens again," she said.

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