Gasto Ufiteumukinza spent 12 years in prison for murdering more than 30 people during the Rwandan genocide. Today, he lives among the families of those he killed, many of whom, he says, have forgiven him.
Ufiteumukinza, 56, owes his freedom to gacaca, a village court system that the government used to prosecute perpetrators of the mass killings. He’s one of thousands of people who have been reintegrated into society after they took part in the killing of at least 800,000 people in the 100-day slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
“I confessed and asked for forgiveness in gacaca courts,” Ufiteumukinza, a teacher by training who is now a part-time construction worker, said in an interview in the capital, Kigali, on April 4. “I also visited the families of the people I killed. I was forgiven, which I could not believe.”
The achievements of gacaca, which heard almost two million cases before ending its work in 2012, form part of the “significant progress” that Rwanda has made in bringing the perpetrators of the genocide to justice over the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch. Their reintegration into society has also helped rebuild an economy that shrank almost 50 percent in 1994 into one that doubled in size in the decade through 2010, according to World Bank data.
“Rwandans are testimony to the supremacy of justice in pursuing perpetrators of the tragedy of 1994, from which Rwanda has gradually but purposefully recovered,” European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement today.
In addition to the traditional courts, the United Nations- backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda set up to try people responsible for the genocide has convicted 49 individuals, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a March 28 report. Courts in countries including France, Germany and Belgium have held trials of genocide suspects who fled Rwanda in the aftermath of the killings, it said.
“We draw inspiration from the ability of the Rwandan people to unite and show that reconciliation is possible even after a monumental tragedy,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement last week.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been lauded for leading the efforts to reconcile the country’s ethnic communities, including a law that criminalizes denial of the genocide. At the same time, he’s been criticized by human rights activists for cracking down on civil rights and silencing dissent in the wake of the genocide.
His ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party won 41 out of 53 seats at the Sept. 16 parliamentary elections.
The U.S. in 2011 condemned reports about the harassment and disappearance of civil society figures, opposition officials and journalists in the country.
Rwanda and South Africa expelled each other’s diplomats after the attempted murder of former Rwandan army general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in March in Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital. Rwanda’s former head of intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, 53, was found dead on Jan. 1 in a hotel room in Johannesburg’s affluent Sandton area.
“People who forget that they owe who they are to Rwanda are now plotting against their country and have failed to understand that they can never be above the nation or its people,” Kagame said at a prayer meeting on Jan. 12 in Kigali. “It’s only a matter of time and we’ll get you.”
At a memorial in Kigali today, Kagame again criticized “external actors” for their role in the genocide, a day after saying French soldiers were complicit in the killings in 1994. The remarks led France to withdraw a delegation led by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to attend the ceremony.
The Rwandan government also rejected plans by the French Embassy in Kigali to attend today’s events in Taubira’s stead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said in a statement today in Paris.
Rwanda cut diplomatic ties with France in 2006 after a French judge accused Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front of shooting down a plane carrying former President Juvenal Habyarimana -- the incident that triggered the genocide. Relations were restored three years later.
Ufiteumukinza, whose victims were patients at Gahini Hospital in Rwanda’s eastern Ruraka district, is a volunteer for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and works to convince other perpetrators to join the reconciliation program.
“I have been given a chance to live in harmony and correct my wrongs,” he said. “The country has achieved a lot and I want to contribute to the progress if given a chance. We don’t want to see the country going back to where it was 20 years ago.”