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A couple in Rwanda defeats ethnic hatred with love

Viateur and his wife, Judith, have married across the divide between Hutus and Tutsis, becoming entrepreneurs and peace builders.

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    Judith, seen here with her one-year-old child, Liliane, and her husband, Viateur, come from separate Hutu and Tutsi backgrounds. But they hope their marriage and the work they do as peace builders will inspire others to do the same.
    Courtesy of Kristoff Kohlhagen
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The red brick walls of Nyakiriba Prison tower above Viateur Manishimwe, his wife Judith Mureshyankwano, and their nearly one-year-old daughter Liliane.

Liliane, sound asleep and tied securely to her mother’s back, has been silent for most of the family’s several mile trek. Stoic-faced guards usher the family through the first wall of the prison toward the man waiting inside: Viateur’s father, a convicted perpetrator of the Rwandan genocide.

Sentenced six years ago by the Gacaca traditional court, Viateur’s father was found guilty of commanding a roadblock where Tutsi and moderate Hutus were raped, sexually humiliated, and killed.

Judith and Viateur sit down across from him. Viateur presents his father with some potatoes that Judith has grown and a card with inspirational messages. But this visit has more important things to deliver than potatoes or well-crafted words of encouragement. Today Viateur’s father will meet his granddaughter for the first time.

Viateur holds his daughter out to his father. Her perfect fingers reach up to the bright sky. Born of a Hutu – Tutsi union, she symbolizes what the genocide attempted to destroy. Her bright eyes and shock of curly hair stand as living proof of the failure of 1994’s mass orchestrated murder to kill off a people and permanently drive tribes apart.

Viateur’s father reaches out his calloused hands and takes hold of his granddaughter. She is light and full of promise. She coos at him. He looks at her, pausing for a moment.

“Imanizabikora,” he calls her. It is his special name for his perfect granddaughter. A granddaughter whose possible existence he once fought against. Imanizabikora translated from Kinyarwandan means, “God will do it.”

Judith, whose father was killed during the genocide, immediately catches the power of the name. Miracles can happen. Like the birth of her daughter who ties two peoples together, or perhaps even the commuting of a life sentence so that Liliane can grow up alongside her grandfather.

A guard signals to the family that the five-minute visitation period is over. Liliane is handed back to her mother, and she and Viateur begin their 1 1/2-hour walk home. Next week they will likely make the same three-hour trek for the chance to bring some hope to their father for another five minutes.

Back in town, Viateur and Judith are local entrepreneurs. Utilizing space rented from their neighbor and money for initial supplies borrowed from his older brother, the couple operates a pub in the town of Kabumba. Their meager earnings from the pub help them to afford rent for their small two-room home with an outdoor pit latrine shared among neighbors. To help supplement their diet, earn extra money, and share with those that are in greater need, Judith also grows corn and potatoes.    

The pub, while crucial to their survival, is not their true passion. The couple’s true passion is helping to build peace in their country and continuing the important work of reconciliation. Their love for one another and willingness to traverse difficult societal boundaries has led them to join a local reconciliation group that strives to teach tolerance, acceptance, and to heal old wounds.

“Our great-great grandparents, Hutus and Tutsis lived well together,” Viateur says.  

Some of our elders thought that we could and should bring back this tradition.” This concept of harkening back to past generations of Tutsi and Hutu living in harmony was the inspiration for “Inyenyeri,” Kinyarwandan for “star,” a reconciliation-focused association of which both Viateur and Judith are members. Based in Rwanda’s northwestern Gisenyi province, Inyenyeri’s name was born because as Viateur explains, “a star shines for everyone, no matter what group they belong to or the color of their skin.”

The group brings together genocide survivors, perpetrators, and their families. More than 80 people participate in their activities, with members ranging from 13 to 70 years of age. Partnering with Search for Common Ground in 2013, Inyenyeri engages local villages in dialogues centered on peace and forgiveness, and participates in joint collaborative action, including the building of 10 houses in the community. Six of the houses were given to survivors of the genocide; the other four houses were given to the wives of genocide perpetrators.

By recognizing the needs of all members of the community, including families of perpetrators, the association has built strong relationships of trust and support networks.

For the deep and powerful work of Inyenyeri, Viatear and others were recently honored by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame for their reconciliation work. It was a moment of pride for Viatear.

Both Viateur and Judith view themselves as peace builders.

“It is not important to continue going back to what happened,” Viatear says. “I married a Tutsi, yes. But I married by love, not by looking to the past.”

The sincerity of his ability to look forward and not dwell on the past can be seen when he welcomed into his pub the very man whose testimony secured the imprisonment of his father.

Judith says that she does not always find support for her choice to marry a Hutu.

Some people even claim that she is not a peace builder, and that she should have married another Tutsi. But she sees that love is more important.

“I think being a peace builder means that I live with my husband regardless of if he is Hutu or not.” Her hope is that others will feel empowered to imitate her and her husband’s example of crossing cultural divides for love. And that others too, will imitate that next group of lovers, and so forth, and that through such acceptance and love, peace will be secured.  

A week later, Viateur’s father sits at the prison with his son and daughter-in-law. For these simple five minutes out of each week the weight of his life sentence feels somehow lighter.

“Keep it up,” he says to his son. Viateur knows that he means his work with Inyenyeri and building peace. His father believes that his son’s reconciliation work is, in a way, helping to atone for his own wrongdoings.

He looks down into the face of his lovely granddaughter. “Imanizabikora,” he whispers to her. “God will do it.”

Once again the five minutes of visitation are up, and he is led deeper into the prison. “Imanizabikora,” he whispers again. And perhaps he is right, perhaps God will do it. But divine intervention or not, it is through the dedication, example, and striving of young adults such as Judith and Viateur that divided groups are brought together and old wounds begin to heal.

• Kristoff Kohlhagen is a writer and peacebuilder who has worked in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia with Invest in Children Africa and Search for Common Ground. He is the manager of Africa programs for Kidsave International, which focuses on finding safe, permanent, and local families for children in Sierra Leone orphaned by the Ebola crisis. 

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