Deborah's Story - A Tale of Reconciliation in Rwanda

by James Wackett
Journalist, World Vision Australia Additional editing by Lea Carsell on behalf of Outreach Media.

I saw the soldiers coming to our house and knew that we were about to die. They had killed one of my sons, and now they were coming to kill the rest of us. As they entered I recognised one of the soldiers who had taken my son. I prayed, ‘Lord take my life and forgive my sins if they have come to kill me’. The others remained in the sitting room, but the soldier whom I had recognised held me on the shoulder and led me into another room. I thought he was going to kill me there, although he had left his rifle with the others. When we reached the other room my heart was pumping hard. He closed the door behind us. What happened next was the last thing I expected.

My name is Deborah, and I am 54 years old. My name means ‘the lid of the calabash’, a traditional gourd for holding milk, because when my mother went into labour with me she was putting milk in a calabash and had to leave what she was doing to go and deliver me in the village. She forgot to put the lid on before she left.

Until the genocide in 1994 I lived here in Ruhengeri with my husband and eleven children aged between 11 and 32. Ruhengeri is a beautiful town, surrounded by high, mist-covered volcanic mountains and thick rainforests. During the genocide my family fled, fearing for our lives, across the nearby border into Zaïre where for more than two years we lived in refugee camps.

We are Hutus. The genocide was undertaken by Hutu extremists, the ‘Interehamwe’, who wanted to kill all Tutsis in Rwanda. We wanted no part of what was happening, but when the Tutsi rebels won the war, we had to flee for fear that they would seek vengeance on all Hutus.

In October 1996 we were able to leave the camps and come home. Many thousands of people were returning to Rwanda and during the journey our family was split up. I was with my husband and the second youngest of my children. Two of my boys had already managed to return to Rwanda, including my son Innocent.

For seven days we walked through thick forests without food or shelter. It rained, so we were able to collect some drinking water. On November 15, we finally reached Ruhengeri.

The Tutsi rebels had now become the army of the new Rwandan government. Hutu extremists, now based in Zaïre, kept coming into Rwanda, attacking soldiers and people. Many soldiers were based in Ruhengeri during this time because of the Interehamwe attacks. About a month after we returned to our home, there was a big army operation and soldiers entered every house in the town looking for Interehamwe members. A fearful vision In April, 1997, I went to spend some time praying, and I fasted for four days. While I was praying I had a vision of our seventh child, Innocent, being surrounded by many people. I asked them, ’Where are you taking him?’ They said they were going to kill him. They said that they would have killed the whole family, but that they had chosen Innocent as their sacrifice. I was very disturbed by this vision, and wanted to discuss it with my son.

Innocent was nineteen. He was working as a night guard at the compound of a Catholic charity in Ruhengeri. I explained my fears to him, prayed with him, and shared with my family what I had seen. I encouraged my family to stay close and to support and pray for each other.

One evening in December, Innocent had cooked for the family (we take it in turns to cook for each other). He gave me some bread and we sat on the floor on grass mats, because we still had no furniture in the house. I looked at my son and felt great love towards him as he served me the food he had prepared, but my heart remained troubled.

While we were sitting there on the floor, one of the children said that soldiers were approaching. I said, ‘Welcome them to the house’. I greeted them but I was scared, and I began to pray.

A few days before this, thieves had broken into the compound where Innocent worked. My son had gone to the authorities to report the theft and they found the stolen items and returned them. I began to hear rumours that the stolen goods had been taken and hidden by soldiers.

I felt that the soldiers who had come to our house were angry with my son and were coming for him. I asked if I could talk to them but they said that they were in a hurry. They wanted to take Innocent and ask him some questions.

I said to one of the soldiers, ‘Please, if you are going to kill him, first let us pray together.’ They said, ‘No, we just want to ask him some questions’. They took Innocent and left. I stood at the window to see which way they were going. They were not far away, and I could hear Innocent asking them if he could say goodbye to his mother. Two soldiers came back with him. I opened the door to my son who hugged me and said, ‘Mummy, they are going to kill me’.

I was lost for words. We had been through so much, so much hardship and suffering - the war, the refugee camps, the long march back home. Through everything our family had persevered and survived. Now the premonition that had been haunting me for months was coming true. My son was being taken from me. When will the killing stop? They pulled us apart and took Innocent away towards some fields of maize not far from our home. I gathered my family and together we prayed for him. After about half an hour I found the courage to venture outside and walked towards a neighbour's house. In the darkness, staring towards the fields, I heard the bullets.

The next morning, we found Innocent's body, together with five others. One of our neighbours had lost two sons and a daughter at the same time. The boys had helped the soldiers to rob the compound. We retrieved Innocent's body, and he was buried shortly after.

After Innocent's funeral, I felt led to go and pray. I was feeling very bitter toward the soldiers. I was angry, asking God, ‘Why are there people who will kill? The Interehamwe killed, now the soldiers are killing. The old government killed, now the new government is killing. What is wrong with us? When will the killing stop?’

While I was praying I had a vision of a house built on a bridge. A road led from where I was standing to the bridge and, on the other side, the road led to Heaven. The only way across a deep chasm was over the bridge and through the house. On the house was a sign which said, ‘Inzu Y Umanzi Wawe’ which means, ‘The House of Your Enemy’. I didn't know what this vision meant.

I have a book which I use as a diary. I write down the things that happen, and the things that I pray about. In this book I drew the vision I had seen. As I drew it, the meaning became clearer. Beneath the picture I wrote, ‘Inzure ijyaku musaraba inyuze munzu y’umwanzi wawe’, which means, ‘The way to heaven is through the house of your enemy’. I remembered the sound of the bullets, and I started to pray for the man who had killed my son. Forgiveness In February 1998, two months after Innocent's death, I was in our sitting room when I three soldiers approached.

Since Innocent's death I had been hearing different messages about forgiveness. When the soldiers arrived that day I was reading the Bible, Matthew 18:21-22, where Peter asks Jesus about how many times he should forgive someone if they wrong him.

I greeted them, but this was when I thought that the soldiers had come to kill the rest of us and the soldier I had recognised led me into the other room. He closed the door behind us. I was expecting to die there and then. In those terrifying seconds, I didn't know it, but I had no need to fear. He turned around to face me and said, ‘Pray for me’. I didn't quite understand. He seemed distraught. Again he said, ‘Please, pray for me’. I knew then that I was not in danger though I was still confused. We knelt together on the floor and I prayed for him briefly.

Then he said, 'My name is Charles’. I said, ‘I don't know you’. He replied, ‘I live near here. You should know me’. Then, as his tears fell, he added, ‘I am the one who killed your son’.

He had come to ask me to forgive him. For two months, I had felt the pain from the loss of my son's life and for two months, Charles had felt pain because of the life he had unjustly taken. He said, ‘If you feel like taking me to court, then take me. I am the one who killed your son. It is not easy for us soldiers to kill someone who is not guilty, so my heart accuses me of the sin I have committed. I tell you the truth, we were asked to kill those boys and your son because he reported the thieves. But since then, my heart has accused me strongly that I must come and ask forgiveness. Do you have the heart to forgive me? If not, take me to court and I am prepared to be killed for my crime, because that is the law’.

In confessing to me, Charles was offering up his life. He knew that if I handed him over to the authorities, he too would be executed. He was giving me the power of life or death over him.

I was reminded of the Bible passages I had been reading and of the vision of the house and the way to Heaven. I began to feel great joy and I hugged Charles. I hadn't said anything, but Charles knew now that I wasn't going to hand him over. I felt very emotional and we both shed tears as we held one another. By this time they were tears of joy. A great burden had been lifted from both of us. I forgave him with all my heart, though it was very hard and I had to pray to God to help me. I told him I had been praying for him, and the only punishment I could inflict on him was to take him in place of my son and to feed him the food I would have given my son.

As the soldiers in the sitting room stood up to leave, Charles turned to me and said, ‘I am your child now. I will visit you whenever I can’. A story of reconciliation Over the next few months he would visit me whenever he had some time off. He began to think of me as a mother to him, and I came to see him as one of my own children, someone to whom I felt a duty of care. He told me about his background. He was just a year or two older than Innocent. As Tutsis, his family had all died during the genocide. He had dropped out of school to join the army. He now wanted to leave the army, but was unable to.

The reconciliation between us was amazing. With the ongoing violence and hatred I knew that there were many in Ruhengeri who might learn from our story, but it was still dangerous for us to talk openly about what had happened. After a while though, I asked him, ‘Can you allow me to share this testimony to others?’ He agreed.

Augustin Ahimana ran the World Vision aid program in Ruhengeri prefecture. He asked me to become involved in the peace-building and reconciliation seminars that World Vision was running. He told me, ‘You can give seeds and tools and blankets and medicine, but without reconciling people it does no lasting good’.

Along with others, both Hutu and Tutsi, who have a similar story of loss, forgiveness and reconciliation, I have shared my story with thousands of people. Hundreds have come to visit me in my home, and many tell me that they have learned to forgive those who have wronged them or to be forgiven for the wrongs they have done. Ruhengeri is now a different place. The killings have stopped, the Interehamwe are gone and peace has returned to my beautiful corner of Rwanda. I am proud to have played a small part in bringing this about.

However, Charles and I were never able to share our story together. He was posted to another town with the army and we were able to remain in contact, although I have not heard from him since September 1999. I fear that he was sent to fight in the war in the Congo and has been unable to write, or worse still, that he has been hurt or killed. I continue to pray for my child Charles. We may yet meet again.

Additional Information about Rwanda

Rwanda is a small, landlocked nation in central Africa with a population of 9 million. It was taken as a colonial possession by Germany at the end of the 19th century, with rulership passing soon after to Belgium following World War One.

The differences between Hutu and Tutsi, the two main population groups in Rwanda, were not ethnic but primarily social, with the cattle-owning Tutsis ruling the crop-growing Hutu. The dividing line between the two was not rigid. It was possible for a Hutu to become a Tutsi, and a Tutsi a Hutu. They shared the same language, culture and beliefs. The Belgians initially favoured and promoted the Tutsi ‘class’ over the Hutu creating an artificial wedge between the two groups similar to the European style class system.

They altered this favouritism following World War Two to benefit the majority Hutu over the Tutsi. In the lead up to Rwanda’s independence the rift that had been created between the two groups was irreversible. Resentment, suspicion and hostility boiled over into violence on several occasions in the 1960s and 1970s and into all-out civil war in the early nineties between Rwanda’s Hutu-led government and Tutsi rebels operating out of neighbouring Uganda.

In April 1994, in the power vacuum following the death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyirimana, Hutu militia groups and the Rwandan Army unleashed a carefully pre-planned genocide of Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus. More than 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days. The killing only ceased with the victory of the Tutsi ‘Rwandan Patriotic Front’.

More than a million Hutus fled to neighbouring Zaïre where for more than two years they lived in squalid refugee camps, prevented from returning to Rwanda by the extremist militias. A mass-repatriation occurred in 1996, made possible by the instability caused by a civil war in Zaïre between forces loyal to Laurent Kabila and Zaïre’s then President Mobutu Sese Seko. Most Rwandan Hutu refugees were able to return to their country to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Despite the recent assassination of Laurent Kabila, conflict continues in Zaïre, now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, which involves armies from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and a myriad of rebel groups loyal either to new President Joseph Kabila or to the foreign forces in the country. Dubbed by many as Africa's ‘World War One’, this largely unreported conflict has claimed the lives of over two million people in the last three years.