Maria Mukagasana was hiding in a church when Juvenal Moudenge came to kill her.
With her two terrified young children, aged 5 and 3, by her side, Maria closed her eyes and listened to the screams of the people being killed around her.
“I put my hand in some of the blood that was all around me,” she says. “I covered my face in blood and lay down on the floor. I took a bedsheet and I covered us to wait for death. That is the last memory I have with my children.”
Juvenal was among the militia members taking part in the attack on Kibeho church, where thousands of Tutsis had sought refuge as genocide was unleashed on Rwanda. An estimated 30,000 people were killed during this one attack.
Today, Juvenal struggles to come to terms with what he did that day.
“I can’t find words to describe what it was like,” he says. “I was like an animal. I knew most of the people that were killed that day because we were neighbours. Our objective was to kill people so you could not think about whether you knew them or not. The objective was to exterminate them.”
Although Maria survived, both of her children were murdered, along with her husband. She was left completely alone to rebuild her life.
Juvenal was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the genocide but was released after 15 years. Maria says she found it difficult when he moved back into their village.
“We crossed the road to avoid each other,” she says. “Whoever saw the other first would take another direction so we would not cross paths. I would tell myself, 'if this person killed my people, he might also kill me’.”
Trócaire’s partner, the Commission for Justice and Peace, began organising workshops for genocide survivors where they encouraged them to forgive perpetrators who had shown remorse and who had agreed to publicly confess to their crimes.
“We had meetings where we talked about rebuilding the country,” she says. “I ended up agreeing that we can't reverse things. I found it important to forgive and reconcile. At the beginning, it was very hard. I used to cry when I heard the stories and I didn't think it was possible to reconcile with the people who had killed my family.
“It was very emotional. So many people would cry, especially when they would hear about the deaths of their relatives and friends. It was very hard at the start but eventually we could meet each other and hug and talk. I realised that the killers regretted what had happened and that made it possible for us to live together.”
By confessing to his crimes, Juvenal sought forgiveness from the community and from people like Maria who had lost family members.
“I can’t say it was easy,” he says. “I kept praying to God that he would give me the strength. I felt shame for what I had done. When I confessed, the survivors would cry. I felt very bad. I was traumatized because of what I had done. I still feel the consequences. Sometimes I cry and feel traumatised as if something has hit me. When it happens I sit or lie down for a while. It happens from time to time.”
Today, he is thankful that the survivors have forgiven him for what he did.
“I have good relationships with the surivors,” he says. “We meet, we hug and talk to each other. I find it is a miracle where we are now. I wonder where we would be if things had always been like this. Taking a killer and a survivor and putting them together. I find it so strange, like a miracle.”
Maria is also hopeful for a better future for Rwanda. She says that this is entirely down to the work of the Commission for Justice and Peace, who have enabled the people of the area to rebuild their lives and move on from the past.
“We are very hopeful and optimistic about the future,” she says. “For us, the only real problem is just poverty. But otherwise, the meetings we have about peace and reconciliation make me think things will be better. I hope for a Rwanda without any more genocide or any more war; a Rwanda with peace.”
Photos by Elena Hermosa from the film Let the Devil Sleep.