To heal, you have to love: this is the belief of a woman who not only forgave the man who murdered her husband 28 years ago during the Rwandan genocide, but also allowed her daughter to marry his son.
Bernadette Mukakabera told her story as part of the Catholic Church’s ongoing efforts to bring reconciliation to a society left divided into 1994 when some 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.
“Our children had nothing to do with what happened. They just fell in love and nothing should stop people from loving each other,” Bernadette told the BBC.
She and her husband Kabera Vedaste were members of the Tutsi community, persecuted after the plane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda was shot down on April 6, 1994.
Within hours, thousands of Hutus, indoctrinated by decades of hate propagandawell-organized assassinations began, attacking their Tutsi neighbors across the country.
One of them was Gratien Nyaminani, who lived with his family next to Bernadette’s home in Mushaka, western Rwanda. They were both peasants.
After the end of the massacres, when a Tutsi rebel group took power, hundreds of thousands of people accused of having participated in the killings were arrested.
Gratien was arrested and eventually tried by one of the community courts, known as gacaca, created to deal with genocide suspects.
At these weekly hearings, communities had the opportunity to face the accused and hear and present evidence about what really happened and how it happened.
In 2004, Gratien tells Bernadette how she murdered her husband and He apologized. And in this same audience, she decided to forgive him.
For this, Gratien did not have to serve a 19-year prison sentence, but a 2-year community service sentence.
“I wanted to help”
During the 10 years he was imprisoned before his public apology, Gratien’s family had tried to reconcile with Bernadette and her son Alfred, who was around 14 when his father was killed.
Gratien’s daughter, Yankurije Donata, who was around 9 years old at the time of the genocide, started going to Bernadette’s to help around the house.
“I decided to go and help Alfred’s mother with housework and even on the farm, because she had no one else to help hergiven that my father was responsible for the murder of her husband,” she told the BBC.
“I think Alfred fell in love with me when he was helping his mother.”
Bernadette was touched by her consideration: “She helped me knowing that her father had murdered my husband, she knew that I had no help because my son was in boarding school.”
“I loved her heart and demeanor, that’s why I couldn’t resist her becoming my son’s wife.”
But for Gratien it was not so simple. When they told her about the marriage proposal, was skeptical.
“He kept asking why a family he had offended so much would want to have anything to do with his daughter,” Yankurije said.
They were eventually able to convince him and he gave his blessing after Bernadette insisted that she didn’t blame Yankurije.
“I had no grudge against my daughter-in-law. for his father’s actionssaid Bernadette.
“I felt she could become the best daughter-in-law because she understood me better than anyone. I convinced my son to marry her.”
The couple married at the local Catholic Church in 2008.
It was here that Gratien confessed to the congregation, having completed his community service two years earlier, and asked for forgiveness.
“Without reconciliation, there is no communion”
The the church has led efforts to bring together to communities in the region.
Father Ngoboka Theogene of Cyangugu Diocese says people have embraced the reconciliation program. Other parishes have carried out similar initiatives.
The churches know that people have no choice but to live together, so it is best to do so in peace and understanding.
“Those who have been accused of crimes of genocide are not allowed to receive the sacrament until they have reconciled with the family of the victim,” says Fr Ngoboka.
The final reconciliation takes place in publicwith the accused and the victim standing side by side.
“The victim extends his hand to the accused as a sign of forgiveness,” he said.
Recently – shortly after Gratien’s death – several people attended an event in Mushaka to mark 28 years of the genocide and find ways to coexist,
“When we talk about change, it’s not about changing the color of the skin, but about change your bad tempersaid Apiane Nangwahabo, host of the event, from Mushaka parish.
“A change of heart is vital before deciding to live a holy life.”
It was during this event that Bernadette mentioned her son’s marriage to the daughter of her husband’s killer.
“I love my daughter-in-law so much, and I don’t know how I would have survived without her for helping me after my husband died.
He says he is heartened that Alfred and Yankurije’s love story has inspired many others to ask and offer forgiveness.