Stories | Countries | Rwanda | Philippe Ngirente and Teresphore Uzabakiriho

Philippe (left) & Teresphore (right)

In 1994, when one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, Teresphore Uzabakiriho (a Hutu) murdered the father of Ngirente Philippe (a Tutsi). 13 years later, Philippe came face-to-face with his father’s killer at a Gacaca court trial, a participatory justice system traditionally used in Rwanda to settle community disputes.

Philippe

The killing started after the death of President Habyarimana on 6 April 1994, and a week later it reached our village. My father sent my oldest sister and my four younger sisters to the place where I was hiding. He thought women would not be targeted and assumed they’d be safe with me.

In the end, my oldest sister died from not taking her malaria medicine. Three weeks earlier my mother had passed away from diarrhoea. When Teresphore found my father hiding among banana trees, my father pleaded for mercy, saying, “If you kill me, my five orphans will have no one to protect them”. But his attacker had no pity and said, “If I could find those orphans I’d kill them too.” Then he killed my father with a machete.

I remained in hiding until the genocide was over. My four younger sisters also thankfully survived, and we decided to live together. Eventually I started studying again – I wanted to learn a lesson about taking revenge without violence. I felt guilty about my parents’ death because I had not been there to protect them, but I knew I had to rehabilitate myself and in time I reconciled with this great loss.

I had always planned to be a priest, but now I told the Bishop of Kigali Diocese that I’d changed my mind because I wanted to do something to honour my parents’ memory and this meant getting married and having children. But I vowed that I would never marry a Hutu lady. I then went to university to continue my studies and in 2006 I married a Tutsi woman. I wanted a woman who would be everything to me – mother, sister and wife.

In order to assist with the reconciliation process in my country, I started working for the community Gacaca courts to help bring justice to victims and rehabilitate perpetrators. I had no idea who had perpetrated the crimes against my own family, until one day an official from the courts asked if I would meet the person who had killed my father. I didn’t hesitate; after all, by now I had come to terms with the death of my parents. But when I went to the court and heard Teresphore explain how he had killed my father, the wound suddenly burst open all over again.

I was overcome with emotion and so upset that they had to suspend proceedings for a short while. I was weeping a lot. And I was confused because a few months before, I had discovered that members of Teresphore’s family had hidden my wife during the genocide.

When I recovered, Teresphore continued his story. I had worked for two years preparing perpetrators for the Gacaca trials, encouraging them to seek forgiveness so they could personally be redeemed, and now it was my turn to apply this to myself.

I looked, and I saw Teresphore on his knees in front of me, crying and asking for my forgiveness. I forgave him immediately but wanted him to come to my home, so that as a family we could all forgive him together.

When he asked me to explain exactly how I killed his father so that he might forgive me, I started weeping.

Four months later he came to my house. He brought food and banana wine. Again he started crying and repeatedly saying how sorry he was. Eventually I escorted him home.

My wife and I embarked on the path of true reconciliation. We wanted to do more than just forgive, but to actually live as neighbours and friends, side by side. We wanted to improve society, to respond to evil with goodness. So now his mother also comes to my home, and we share meals. We are all true friends.

Teresphore

I led an armed gang of killers during the genocide, and among those I killed was Philippe’s father. But once the killing was over I regretted it deeply. After spending some time in exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I returned to Rwanda where I was imprisoned. I felt I deserved to be in prison.  

In time, the government sent people to teach us to recognize the harm we’d caused and admit to our crimes. Some of those who had been in my armed gang threatened to kill me if I spoke out, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to stay quiet. I had been living with guilt for too long.

In the end, I was one of the first genocidaires to reveal the truth about what had happened. I admitted that I had killed Philippe’s father, although at the time of course I didn’t know he was Philippe’s father. All I knew was that I had killed an old man.

When I came to the Gacaca court, Philippe was there representing his family. When he asked me to explain exactly how I killed his father so that he might forgive me, I started weeping. And then so did he. 

Afterwards he invited me to his house to meet his family so that they might forgive me too. I doubted I could do that, but finally I found the courage to face my victims, and they greeted me with open arms and granted me forgiveness. From then on, Philippe and I have worked together on a programme of reconciliation in Mushaka Parish of Cyangugu Catholic Diocese.

For our hearts to mend, and for our country to mend, we must work together.

(This story was collected from a “Healing the Wounds of History” event in Kigali where both men spoke.)

The Gacaca courts, set up between 2001-2012, were specifically intended to deal with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and had a large reconciliatory component. 

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