Historically, Rwanda’s main ethnic groups — the Hutus and the Tutsis — lived in relative peace. But in 1923, Belgian colonialists introduced the seeds of hatred when they created an elite ruling class of Tutsis. Like the yellow star of the Holocaust, every Rwandan was forced to carry an identity card. The division bred bitter animosity and in 1994, under majority Hutu rule, the rivalry turned violent.
Their orders were clear. “There was no real rule except to kill,” says Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch.
Authorities demanded the extermination of the people they call “Tutsi cockroaches” and convinced hundreds of thousands to murder them.
“You could call them hunting parties — parties of attackers who went out and down into the swamps and basically attacked people — the way they would have attacked animals as if they were on a hunt,” says Des Forges.
Armed with machetes, Hutus butchered their neighbors, their friends, even their family members. Their aim was to kill 1,000 people every 20 minutes.
They ignored all of the sanctions of religion and law. They even attacked in the churches. This continued until most of the people were dead and then they came back and finished up the next day.
The killing lasted 100 days. Seventy-five percent of all Tutsis were murdered. There were 500,000 cases of rape, and over 300,000 children were orphaned.
More than a million corpses covered the land of a thousand hills. Today, the bodies are gone, but the scars remain. Reminders like a church left stacked with the skulls of the slaughtered, overcrowded prisons, and a land of survivors awaiting justice.
Busingye Johnston, secretary general of the Ministry of Justice, believes it will be a long, hard road to retribution. “Time-wise, it was impossible, it was an impossible task. You would never do justice in the lives of these people. I don’t think you could even do it in the lives of their kids.”
Officials estimated it would take more than a century to try every suspect. So Rwanda went back to its roots and rebuilt their traditional justice system, called gacaca. In 16,000 local courts, villagers have become the judges, neighbors the jury.
The idea was that most crimes were committed locally and in broad daylight and that everybody knew. It was the local community which was the most appropriate group to deliver justice.
There have been complaints. Thousands of suspects awaiting gacaca trials now live freely amongst the survivors, many of whom struggle to come to terms with the national push towards unity.
“In some cases, they have come to terms in part because this is a desperately poor country and it doesn’t matter whether you are a recently released killer or a victim. Basically, you are on the edge of survival,” says survivor and former Chief Genocide Prosecutor Jean Marie Mbarushimana.
To unite his people, Mbarushimana established a program where Hutus and Tutsis build homes and cultivate the land together. Today, they use the same machetes that once tore them apart.
“We believe by working together like this, we overcome what divided us 11 years ago. That’s for sure,” Mbarushimana says.
There are incomprehensible stories of forgiveness. Samuel and Celestin are two men who were friends before the killings began. But in the days of the genocide, Celestin sent his hunting party to the church where Samuel’s family was hiding. Somehow, for the future and his surviving children, Samuel says he must open his heart.
"This is where I see hope — with the ordinary people," Mbarushimana says. "Only people at the grass roots, for whatever reason, are finding ways to work it out.”
In January, Seth Nsabimana received a letter from the prisoners who murdered his brother’s family. They asked to meet and begged his forgiveness. So he joined a group of survivors heading for the local prison. In the aftermath of inconceivable hatred, they sing of the gacaca and reconciliation.
Hundreds of prisoners gather to meet the bus and as the villagers file in, it is sadly ironic. Many warmly greet their former neighbors and old friends.
“The picture is not simple. It is not a case of black hats and white hats. It is a case of human beings caught in incredibly horrible circumstances and often making the wrong choice,” says Des Forges.
Seth Nsabimana stands before the murderers who took his loved ones. He has said he is not angry, but thankful. In the letter they sent, the killers revealed where they had buried his family. Eleven years later, one man can finally say a more dignified good-bye. After a few minutes, Nsabimana does something many might not understand. He embraces both of his brother’s killers.
Their meeting ends with another ritual. It is a dance of forgiveness and unity and perhaps a sign of hope for the future of this country.
In 1994, the United Nations Commander General in Rwanda estimated that as few as 5,000 troops with the authority to enforce peace could stop the killing. Instead, the international community did nothing. Today in the Darfour region, the same violence and atrocities are continuing each day. Even after the lessons learned in Rwanda, again, the international community has done very little.