Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Why Jeannette employs her family's killers
In Rwanda, which was riven by genocide in 1994, a coffee farm brings Hutu and Tutsi together.
A tall, slender Tutsi woman named Jeannette Nyirabaganwa has at least 100 perfectly good reasons never to speak to Anastaz Turimubakunzi again.Skip to next paragraph
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That's how many of Jeannette's relatives, including her husband, parents, and baby, were killed during the 1994 genocide that raced through her hometown here in Africa's midsection. Anastaz is a confessed killer who, Jeannette says, helped murder her husband.
Yet Jeannette does, in fact, speak to Anastaz regularly. She even pays him – along with other Hutus who killed her relatives – to work on her coffee farm. Increasingly, their uneasy partnership is paying off: The beans they grow and pick together are being sold, along with those of many other Rwandan coffee farmers, to Starbucks and other high-end US coffee purveyors, creating growing prosperity for her, him, and others.
Jeannette's explanation of how she can stand to work alongside such men is utterly pragmatic: After genocide laid waste to Rwanda, she says, "The only solution was to go together with my countrymen" – even the killers. "There was no alternative."
This is a tale of Rwandan-style reconciliation. It may seem almost incomprehensible to outsiders, yet in some cases it works here.
It's driven largely by economics: Coffee is Rwanda's biggest export. To get the beans grown, harvested, and processed, both killers and victims from the genocide are striking an uneasy peace born of economic codependence. "They need each other to make that container of coffee," says Timothy Schilling, a coffee consultant, referring to steel shipping containers that are packed with beans and shipped overseas.
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Jeannette may employ the man she says helped kill her husband, but she hasn't forgiven him – or even begun to forget what happened.
It started Sunday, April 10, 1994, when her husband ran to find her and declared, "The killings have started." The two of them, together with their 4-month-old baby, eventually fled into the courtyard of a medical clinic in town. Trapped with about 300 others, they came under attack, she says, by extremist Hutus who lobbed grenades into the courtyard. The trio survived. But they slept atop dead bodies for several days.
When a rainstorm came, the killers finally left. Her family ran. As they fled through town, Hutu women and children would shout and point, she says, "as if there was an animal." They were calling for killers to catch her family.
After hiding with a sympathetic Hutu relative for a few days, she and her husband decided to split up to try to avoid detection. Jeannette headed back to town with her baby. But a Hutu gang intercepted her, beat her, and raped her. She fell unconscious. Waking up after a few hours, she says, "I found the child next to me, dead."
When she later discovered her husband's body, she says, it was being eaten by dogs.
Finally, she gave up: "I waited for someone to come and kill me." But when a gang of Hutus found her, the leader declared, "It's bad luck to kill someone who's almost dead. She has no husband and no child. She's not going to survive." They left her.
But for weeks she did survive, scrounging for roots and fruits in a ravine near her family's coffee farm. Finally, in July, now-President Paul Kagame's Tutsi-dominated rebels arrived and saved her and others. She soon discovered that only a handful of her family members had made it: "All of a sudden, everything was gone."
In retelling the horrific story today, Jeannette seems, outwardly at least, calm. She doesn't shed any tears. But that, she explains, is a choice. "When you are crying, the killers are feeling proud," she says in a low, defiant tone. Besides, with most of her family gone, "I have no one to cry with."