Forgiveness and peanuts

The man who we traveled to see lived outside Kigali in a small village on the way to Nyamata. We had driven up a long, dusty, rugged trail to the top of a small hill, and Mucyez A., who asked that he not be fully identified, met us when we stepped off the bus. I shook his hand, taking in his green-striped shirt and baseball hat before moving down the line and greeting the group of men, women and children who surrounded him.

When I reached the end, I waited for everyone to follow, taking time to look around at the property on which we found ourselves. A square hut was the same dusty brown as the earth. A cow was roped to a makeshift pen on the left, and benches outlined a small courtyard in front. Except for a patch of crops, wild green vegetation enshrouded the rest of the property.


We met with a man who spoke about his role in committing murder during the genocide and the changes he has made since his release from prison. Melissa Urscheler/Missourian
We nervously crammed together on the long wooden benches. Although we didn't know it yet, we had come to this house with Faith Victory Association, an organization helping with the post-genocide reconciliation process in Rwanda. Two men from the organization took turns introducing us to their goals, purpose and methods. They then called the man in the striped shirt to join them and asked him to tell his story.

Considering the number of people who were killed in Rwanda and the number convicted of rape, murder or brutality stemming from the genocide, I should not have been surprised to eventually meet someone like Mucyez on the trip. Maybe I had been expecting someone different, someone not so quiet or slight — he was a lean 5-foot-6 — and someone who didn’t make every effort to greet us and thank us for coming when we arrived.

The encounter with Mucyez, however, was my first with someone who openly talked about being a génocidaire, a French adjective used by Rwandans as a noun to describe someone who killed during the genocide.

Mucyez took off his hat and began by saying he had been convicted of killing during the genocide, had served his time and was now living in this small community filled with other convicted murderers. That was all he offered about his past.   

Instead, he focused on how life is vastly different for him 15 years later. Since the 1994 genocide and his release from prison, he has worked with Faith Victory Association to educate others on the dangers of hate and even tries to make amends by working with a neighbor whose family he admits to murdering. He made every effort to convey that he was no longer a génocidaire but a changed and wholesome man. A woman from the organization spoke on behalf of the surviving neighbor, who wasn't there, relaying his story of sorrow and forgiveness. Mucyez ended by inviting us to come back and help farm peanuts with him.

Afterward, the men, women and children who had joined us began to shift and reorganize. Some left to go inside the house, returning a short time later with trays of small brown bags, which they offered to each of us. Hesitantly, I reached for one and found it full of peanuts. We knew we were learning about the genocide, but this level of intimacy with one of its perpetrators was far from what I expected. At the start of this trip, I never thought I'd be sitting with a convicted murderer and his community eating peanuts, but there I was, brown bag in hand, sharing peanuts with the half-dozen children now running around the yard.

We said our goodbyes and made our way back to the bus. The people followed — singing, dancing and waving goodbye.

I have nothing in my life to compare to the experiences of these people, to Mucyez. I don't know what it is like to be ruled by hate for one’s neighbor to the point of murder. I don't know what it is like to suffer like the people in Rwanda have, and I cannot fathom the forgiveness and strength it must take for those who have been wronged.

But I do know that while I listened to a convicted killer tell his story, my new Rwandan friends — our student guides and our professors — whose families had been exterminated or devastated, sat next to me and listened with respect and without interruption.

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One Rwanda

Gallimore discusses the trouble most people have in understanding how the Rwandan genocide could have happened. Today, communities of reformed génocidaires are helping the country move on.



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Standing out at a prison

In our second and final week in Rwanda, we traveled about 20 miles to Gitarama Prison. The Rwandan minister of justice, whom we had met earlier in our trip, told us we would be granted access to meet and interview prisoners as part of our research on the genocide.

When our small bus pulled up to the entrance, groups of women and children were walking in and out of the gate. They carried buckets and containers of food for those inside. At first glance, the prison seemed more like an open market than a place responsible for housing almost 7,000 men, women and teenagers. We crowded together before nervously moving inside the prison gate, where we were greeted by one of the young guards.

Visiting friends and family members were lined up on our left, and the prisoners sat quietly on wooden benches to our right. They were dressed in orange or pink jumpsuits; the pink is for those guilty of acts of genocide. The guard told Gallimore we had come during the weekly family visits.

No matter how hard we all tried during the trip, it was difficult not to stick out as a foreigner in Rwanda, and at that moment I felt more alien than I had at any other time. I was walking between these two groups of people, cutting through the middle of a world to which I will never relate.


A board inside an office in Gitarama Prison which reads more than 5,000 current prisoners were involved in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Melissa Urscheler/ Missourian
These families probably lived in small, earthen houses and most likely grew much of their own food; we traveled around in a private bus and returned to Kigali every night to a hotel with Internet, electricity and running water. They have probably never traveled outside of the country; we flew from North America. We carried backpacks with cameras and computers; they had groceries and young children swaddled against their backs. 

The guard rushed us inside an office in a building at the end of the courtyard. Everyone from our group crowded inside while Gallimore and other members of our Rwandan team spoke with the guards in French and Kinyarwanda. I took a seat in a small woven chair in the far corner. Behind me, a blackboard showed a handwritten breakdown in neon chalk of those incarcerated in Gitarama — more than 70 percent for offenses connected to the genocide.

We weren't allowed to meet or interview the Gitarama prisoners, but it was enough for us to be able to walk through a prison courtyard and put faces to people we had been studying for more than a month.

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Timeline

1918 Rwanda-Urundi, a former German colony, is given to Belgium under the Treaty of Versaille.

1926 Ethnic identity cards are introduced in order to distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis.

1960 Belgian colonial rulers organize municipal elections. Hutus win.

1961 to 1962 Rwanda becomes an independent country.

Mid-1960s Half the Tutsi population is estimated to be living outside the country.

1967 Tutsis massacre begins.

1973 Tutsis are no longer allowed at universities and are restricted to 9 percent of paying jobs.

1975 The National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) is formed.

1986 Rwandan exiles form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

1989 Coffee prices collapse, creating a sever economic downturn in Rwanda.

1990 to 1991 The army begins to train civilian militias. The MRND stalls on creating a multi-party system. Tutsis are killed in many massacres. Opposition is persecuted.

February 1993 RPF renews fighting around Kigali, lasting for several months.

August 1993 The MRND and the RPF sign a peace accord, creating a coalition Hutu-RPF government. About 2,500 U.N. troops are deployed to oversee the return of the refugees.

September 1993 to March 1994 Militia training intensifies. MRND stalls on creating government. Extremist radio stations broadcast please to attack Tutsis.

April 6-7, 1994 The Rwandan and Burundi presidents are killed after their plane is shot down. The Rwandan army and militias start killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. U.N. forces stand by because intervening would break their mandate.

April 21, 1994 The U.N. reduces forces to 250 after the killing of 10 soldiers.

April 30, 1994 The U.N. Security Council condemns the killings but omits the word "genocide," releasing it from the obligation to protect civilians.

May 17, 1994 The U.N. agrees to send more troops with power to protect civilians and begins to use the word "genocide."

Mid-May 1994 The International Red Cross estimates that 500,000 Rwandans have been killed

Nov. 1994 A U.N. tribunal is created.

Jan. 10, 1997 The first trial comes before the tribunal.