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Remembrance and reconciliation, 30 years after the Rwandan genocide began

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And I'm Juana Summers in the Bugesera district of Rwanda. Many of us don't have the opportunity to handpick our neighbors. We buy or rent a place in a neighborhood with good schools or an easy commute. But here in this village, the idea of who your neighbors are and how people live alongside each other is far more deliberate and complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

SUMMERS: At the top of a long dirt road, there is a Pentecostal church. The pews are full. Down the road in a small courtyard, a woman tosses corn over and over again in this big, woven basket.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORN SHUFFLING)

SUMMERS: We were visiting a reconciliation village where people who survived the Rwandan genocide 30 years ago and the perpetrators who killed now live side by side. We reach a house and step through a curtain door to meet a woman named Rochelle Mukantabana (ph). She is now 45 years old. But in 1994, as the genocide began...

ROCHELLE MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) I was 15 years old, and I knew exactly what was happening. Even a child of 5 knew what was about to happen.

SUMMERS: She tells me her family's story and how she survived. And a warning - this story contains graphic descriptions of violence. Two days after the genocide began, she and her family, a group of 11, fled their homes. They tried to hide in a church, then a school. Ultimately, they ended up hiding in a big swamp. They didn't think anyone could reach them there in the water. But near the end of April, hundreds of soldiers and militia members came.

MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) They surrounded the whole swamp and killed people until the evening. Then they got tired and went back home.

SUMMERS: The next day they came back - even more soldiers and militia members than the day before. And that day, she was captured. She had just seen her younger sister killed with a spear. She begged them not to kill her.

MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) They were checking my legs and said, your legs look like a Tutsi's.

SUMMERS: She tells me how they beat her legs with a hammer. It was hard to walk. Even so, she was able to get away, to get back into the swamp. She and others hid in that swamp for weeks. A brutal pattern played out day after day.

MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) The way we knew the killing had stopped was they'd shoot one bullet in the air once. That meant the killing was over for the day. They would be back tomorrow.

SUMMERS: At night, they left the swamp and searched the bush for something to eat. In May, a group of rebel soldiers led them out of the swamp. Rochelle says she lost her mother, four siblings and more than 50 members of her extended family. Stories like Rochelle's echo across the country in homes, schools, hospitals, places like the low, orange brick church in the town of Karubamba, where you can feel the weight of the violent history that happened here.

We've just walked inside the church, and I have to say it's beautiful. There's so much light that is streaming in through the stained glass windows. And we know that 30 years ago, many people came to this church. They were seeking refuge and safety, and ultimately, thousands were killed. And this is a place that reporter Michael Skoler visited, reporting for NPR in the days following. When he was here, he described this unbearable stench...

MICHAEL SKOLER, BYLINE: The stench was unbearable.

SUMMERS: ...And said that he saw dozens of bodies that were piled up outside of the church.

SKOLER: Outside of the church, there are maybe two or three dozen bodies in the heat here in Rwanda. Many of the bodies are already almost fully decomposed. You can see some skulls.

SUMMERS: The Associated Press report from the time called Karubamba a flesh-and-bone junkyard of human wreckage.

SKOLER: In one of the church offices in the back, the bodies are piled one on top of the other, crowded into a room.

SUMMERS: Karubamba was not unique.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's some 40,000 bodies littering...

SUMMERS: Across the country, neighbors brutally attacked their neighbors with machetes, sticks and clubs. The violence was intimate and vicious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When he turned his head, you could see a long slice had been taken from the back of his neck by a machete.

SUMMERS: As many as a quarter-million Rwandan civilians participated in the killings beginning in April 1994.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Upheaval in the African state of Rwanda.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from National Public Radio.

SUMMERS: The mass killings, which grew out of a civil war, started after the Rwandan president's plane was shot down. Within hours, Hutu militias, called Interahamwe, began targeting Tutsis.

SKOLER: The Interahamwe broke down the doors of the church buildings with axes. They shot and speared, hacked and clubbed those inside for hours.

SUMMERS: There were roadblocks set up across the country. Hutus began to seek out Tutsis to kill. Propaganda radio broadcasts using dehumanizing language fueled the violence in broadcasts that said, cockroaches are not real Rwandans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: One hundred days of violence, nearly 1 million people killed. Forgiveness and reconciliation are personal, but in Rwanda today, they are also orchestrated by the government. The government has even changed the way people talk about their identities. The official view is that the ethnic divisions of Hutu and Tutsi - they no longer exist. At the reconciliation village, we tell Rochelle that we plan to meet with genocide perpetrators, including a man she knows who lives not far from her. I ask Rochelle, what question does she think we should ask someone like that?

MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) What I would ask them is, when they were killing people, inside themselves, did they feel human or like animals?

SUMMERS: That is a question I put directly to Dedas Kayanamura (ph).

When you were committing those crimes, did you feel human? Did you feel animalistic? How would you answer that?

DEDAS KAYANAMURA: (Through interpreter) I asking me the same question. I don't understand how someone can kill his own children because the mum is a Tutsi. I am asking me always the same question. How come people went up to become like an animals? I think that we lost humanity at that period.

SUMMERS: Wow.

We meet Dedas Kayanamura in a house he's renting. He insists that we come in quickly rather than linger outside. And speaking through an interpreter, he tells us the story of when he decided to participate in the violence in Rwanda. He tells me he was coerced by a killing group. They threatened his life. They took him to a man, a Tutsi man.

KAYANAMURA: (Through interpreter) And they give me a stick, a very strong stick. And they said, you have to kill him with this stick. I tried to kill him twice, but I was not able to kill him. And someone came, took the stick from me and killed him. So this is the first day I went in the genocide.

SUMMERS: He says despite pressure, he never participated in the violence again. He says, one guy - that's it. I stopped. I killed once. First-person narratives about genocide are complex. Experts say there can be a tendency among perpetrators to minimize their role, sometimes in the hope of a shorter sentence, sometimes because the trauma of the genocide alters a perpetrator's memory.

KAYANAMURA: (Through interpreter) And I'm not saying I'm not a killer. I'm not saying I didn't participate in a genocide. I did. I did, and I committed genocide. Why? Because when this group of people went to kill this gentleman, I went with them, which means to go with them, I becomes already genocidaire.

SUMMERS: A genocidaire, a term for someone who perpetrated a genocide. Perpetrators like Kayanamura were tried in community-based courts that sprung up quickly. The accused were judged by their neighbors. The proceedings relied on eyewitness narratives of fast-moving, violent incidents. These Gacaca courts tried criminals but also promoted interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation.

KAYANAMURA: (Through interpreter) And the first thing they said in a Gacaca court was to say, if someone agree, if someone says yes and ask for forgiveness and they say what he's done, he will get out of the prison. This is why I said, yeah, I agree.

SUMMERS: I want to know how you see yourself today. When you think about your identity, when you look in the mirror, do you see yourself as a genocidaire? Do you see yourself as a killer?

KAYANAMURA: (Through interpreter) I consider myself as someone who committed genocide. So I don't consider myself as a genocide survivor. I don't consider myself as a Tutsi. I consider myself as a genocidaire. And this is my big challenge. My identity is a genocidaire.

SUMMERS: Rochelle has a different identity - mother. She's raising five children and sees a clear future for herself.

MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) The fact that I have children gives me the confidence to rebuild my life. How can I put it? My children have allowed me to start over.

SUMMERS: And that new life includes learning how to live in a community with people who, 30 years ago, could have wanted her dead. I ask her if she feels comfortable living here, and she gestures just outside the door. The man walking outside, she says, is a Hutu, and she doesn't feel afraid.

MUKANTABANA: (Through interpreter) Thirty years after genocide, things are pretty good. People live together peacefully. There's no more Hutu, no more Tutsi. We are all Rwandan.

SUMMERS: They are all Rwandan, all now living under the shadow of a brutal, violent history that pitted neighbor against neighbor. The people who served the longest sentences for their roles in the genocide are just returning home. And the work of learning to live side-by-side continues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FARMER")

THE GOOD ONES: (Singing in non-English language).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tomorrow we talk to three young Rwandans about the country's future and their own.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So you have to show potential and just go for it, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FARMER")

THE GOOD ONES: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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