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.

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.

* * *

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."

* * *

Call it trickle-down reconciliation. After the genocide – in which some 800,000 people were killed in just 90 days – Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated government proclaimed, "We are all Rwandans," and created a climate of extreme political correctness. It's now taboo even to utter the words "Hutu" and "Tutsi." The aim is to quash any public mention of ethnicity – and therefore any recurrence of violence – while focusing on economic growth that will benefit both Hutus and Tutsis. It's the Rwandan equivalent of President Reagan's economic approach: Create a rising economic tide to lift all Rwandan boats – and float them away from the jagged rocks of ethnic conflict. "The more people have a house and a car, the less reason they have to throw a stone at someone," explains Shyaka Kanuma, editor of Focus, a private newspaper in the capital, Kigali.

Yet the strategy is risky. It leaves little room for direct dialogue about why ethnic tensions exploded – and how a recurrence can be prevented. Government-sanctioned "gacaca" community courts aim to bring justice and reconciliation – and ostensibly provide a forum for dialogue – yet they are overwhelmed with cases and are seen by some as one-sided and biased. In general, "There is no reconciliation going on – Hutus still hate Tutsis, and Tutsis still hate Hutus," says one political analyst who asked not to be named because of the taboo against speaking so frankly. More ethnic killing is "inevitable," he adds, if political leaders fail to spread the country's wealth equitably.

Indeed, the threat of violence from both sides still looms. This extremism is "like a lion who is asleep," says one human rights activist who also asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of her comments. "But when he is hungry, he will wake up." This hunger, she adds, is fueled by economic inequality. By this analogy, Rwanda's challenge is like trying to feed a lion while it sleeps – and hoping it doesn't wake up.

* * *

For five years after the genocide, Jeannette rarely spoke. She had few people to talk to and little to say. She avoided the killers, who still lived in town. Afraid of reprisals, they avoided her, too.

But by 1999, a group of neighbors had decided to start a coffee cooperative. For decades, local coffee farmers had sold raw beans to middlemen at low prices. Now the cooperative wanted to help farmers keep more of the profits.

Jeannette decided the time was right to join the Abahuzamugambi cooperative. She had inherited her dead relatives' coffee farms, and she was looking for help in making the fields productive and profitable. Yet her decision was based on more than money. After five years of isolation, "I thought that coffee-growing could connect me to other people," she says. It was also a way of honoring her family, which had grown coffee for generations: "Coffee can help me remember the relatives."

Some Tutsis wouldn't join the cooperative – whose name roughly means "growing together" – because it included Hutu killers. But for Jeannette, it was a lifesaver. If it hadn't come along, she says, "I would have gone mad."

Soon she had business relationships with people who killed her family members. Then, to her surprise, in cooperative meetings, bits of truth would emerge about what had happened in 1994. Jeannette says several people – both Hutus and Tutsis – told her Anastaz was part of a group that had killed her husband. At first, "If I had a gun, yes, I would have killed him," she says. But, living on her own, she feared reprisals: "I had no one to protect me."

As years passed, the cooperative prospered – linking into the $20-billion global "specialty coffee" market, which includes roasters like Starbucks. The cooperative now even sells its own brand – "Maraba Bourbon" – at retail stores in Britain.

Over the years, Jeannette began to separate killers' past deeds from their current contributions. "This doesn't change the emotions," she explains, "but it does help me interact" with them. Through the cooperative, she says, "We've been building a relationship that changed our lives. We ended up reconciling in a way we didn't know."

* * *

Rwanda's economy is expanding quickly. And coffee exports are helping fuel it.

Since 1995, the country has often achieved 7 percent annual growth. This year, coffee surpassed tea as the country's biggest export, bringing growing prosperity to the country's 500,000 coffee farmers. One group of 20,000 farmers saw revenues of about $800,000 last year, says Dr. Schilling, a Texas A&M professor, who runs a US-funded initiative called the Partnership to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL). It helps connect Rwandan farmers with high-end overseas buyers. This year's harvest was better than last year's, so the 12 cooperatives expect about $2 million in revenues. Roughly 85 percent of profits go to the farmers, whose average coffee-related annual incomes have jumped to $400 in 2006, up from $75 in 2001 , Schilling says.

* * *

In the spring of 1994, it was as if the government had promised Anastaz a kind of lottery jackpot in return for killing people.

If this poor farmer – and millions of other Hutus – would help kill all the Tutsis in Rwanda, the genocide-era government pledged that they would have riches, land, and security. And they wouldn't have to work again.

"During the genocide, everyone was planning to take properties and kill – but not have to work," Anastaz says, remembering when then-President Juvenal Habyarimana came to a nearby town and told Hutus they wouldn't be prosecuted for killing Tutsis.

It clearly didn't work out that way.

Sitting on a crude wooden bench in a two-room house with a dirt floor, Anastaz begins quietly shaking and sweating as he talks about the genocide. A trio of baby white rabbits hops around his feet. He's raising them for food. A machete sits within arm's reach.

Anastaz has publicly admitted to killing two people during the genocide – and has spent seven years in prison for the murders. In many cases, Hutus who resisted killing Tutsis were harassed, hurt, or killed for not pitching in. Asked if he was involved in killing Jeannette's husband, his eyes widen, he blanches, and stays quiet. Yet later, he hints he did more than he has admitted to, saying, "The punishment is not big enough for the crimes I committed."

Yet he also blames the previous government for his terrible acts. "We were just implementing," he says. "There was a policy" that every Tutsi "found in his or her home would be killed." It was a perversion of traditional Rwandan culture, which has long thrived on communal labor. Indeed, for centuries, groups of villagers have tackled projects that one person alone couldn't do. During the genocide, the "project" was killing. "It was like we were doing a community activity," says Karori Murwanaskyaka, a Hutu sitting with Anastaz.

But now, "We are feeling guilty and very bad for what happened," says a clearly repentant Anastaz.

These days, unlike before the genocide, there are no promises of easy riches. And Anastaz says it's better that way. "The economy is different," he says, "We don't have war. And we're getting money." During the two-month harvest, he and others make about 80 cents a day picking coffee. Now, "someone can work and save, and everyone has the right to own properties."

* * *

A simple handshake says volumes.

Jeannette is standing outside Anastaz's house on a rutted dirt road. Before leaving, she walks over to say goodbye, extending her hand. But she doesn't face him directly – or look him in the eyes. He, however, faces her and carefully takes her hand in both of his. Expressions of regret and pain flash across his face. After an awkward moment, she manages a smile and steps away.

Because of what he did, she says later, "I feel so bad to shake hands with that man." Yet, even she says his murderous acts weren't entirely his fault.

"I have to shake hands with this man, because such people were innocent. It wasn't their will," she says. "It was an ideology raised by the government."

Despite the government's promises of wealth, she observes, he's still mired in poverty: "He looted many properties, but he's still poor." With a tone of indignation, she adds, "I mean, can you imagine? He lives with rabbits." Jeannette, meanwhile, has become increasingly prosperous. She lives in a tidy three-room house in a wealthier area.

In the end, the proximity of victims and killers in this crowded country – along with the strong hand of government preventing further mass violence – has forced a grudging, practical reconciliation. On certain hillsides, coffee has become an enabler for this fragile unity.

And, for Jeannette, the initial economic pragmatism has evolved into a budding empathy she might have once thought impossible. Still referring to his poverty, she says simply, "I have to employ him. I know how he lives."

Rwanda's 'gacaca' courts

Across Rwanda, a traditional form of justice is being meted out every day. The country's 12,000 "gacaca" – or "under the tree"– courts tackle smaller genocide-related crimes, such as looting and indirect involvement in killing. National and international tribunals prosecute those responsible for organizing the 1994 genocide. For instance, the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – holding court in nearby Tanzania – is slowly trying those accused of masterminding the genocide.

Back in Rwanda, locally elected "gacaca" judges collect testimony from victims and encourage perpetrators to confess and apologize. Their task is enormous: An estimated 600,000 people had some role in the genocide. "Gacaca" courts are expected to hear about 100,000 cases – although that could mushroom to 500,000 as early testimony implicates new suspects. Although empowered to sentence wrongdoers to prison, the courts will reportedly soon be sentencing at least 55,000 to community service instead.

Supporters say it's an ideal forum for dialogue about the horrors of 1994. But critics say it only reprimands Hutus while ignoring the misdeeds carried out by Tutsis.

At a glance: justice after the genocide

• Decades of ethnic tensions between Rwanda's dominant Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus exploded in 1994 when Hutus – apparently following government orders – killed about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 90 days.

• In 2001, traditional "gacaca" courts – in which ordinary Rwandans judge their peers – began to hear genocide cases.

• Last year, the government began a mass release of 36,000 prisoners, most of whom have confessed to involvement in the genocide. It is the third phase of prison releases since 2003.

• The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has rendered 30 genocide judgments since the first trial in 1997.

The Associated Press, BBC

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Why Jeannette employs her family's killers
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today