“I grew up in Bugesera hating the Tutsi. I led mobs that killed hundreds including children, women and adults. With my own hands I killed 3 Tutsis in my village. I had no mercy. My spear and clubs had very cruel names.
It was strange because I was also an evangelist. Many people used to call me pastor. I drew my hate from my grandmother who used to tell me how bad the Tutsi were. She showed me my uncle’s pierced eye one day and said, ‘this was done by the Tutsi in the past. Never mix with them, never trust them.’ As a young man, I used to beat Tutsi children at the water pool. I could provoke them and raised the Hutu children to hate and cause trouble.
When the government started to propagate messages of hate on radio I had no difficulty to swallow everything the leaders said. It was a confirmation of what was inside. After the plane crash, the leaders told us the Tutsi have killed our president, that it was time for us to finish them all. I joined the Interahamwe wholeheartedly and killed without remorse.”
“My wife’s family were the neighbours of Eliya who took the lives of her father and relatives. He forced them to go near a big mining hole and hit them one by one and threw them into the deep hole. In my family no one had told me that we were Tutsi; I thought all of us were Hutu. I did not suspect any animosity between Tutsi and Hutu. One time in school we were asked to stand to be identified by ethnic groups. I rose among the Hutu because they were many and most were my friends and neighbors. The teacher hit me hard and with disdain he told everyone that I was a Tutsi trying to pretend to be a Hutu. Later my father confirmed that we were the only Tutsi in the village.
When the genocide broke out, I realized we were the only family that had to flee. Mobs attacked us in many places. Some of the militia were our immediate neighbours, people we thought they were friends. We had shared everything with them. My family had to scatter and from my hiding place I got news that all of them were killed. I was caught with my sister and the militia hit my head and the side of my body with a big nailed club and pushed us in the mining hole. I found some people at the bottom, some were dead and some were alive. My sister was also hit and thrown on top of us all. God revived both me and my sister and all the survivors agreed to send me to try to find food. I got out of the hole, tried to seek help from my brother-in-law who was Hutu, but it was in vain.
Later, I found thousands of Tutsi hiding in Ntarama Catholic Church. The militia surrounded us, threw grenades that killed many and wounded hundreds. They came in and hacked to death thousands with machetes. Few of us survived under the bodies. We were considered dead. I joined another group trying to escape toward Nyabarongo river, the first contingent fell into the militia who killed them. One escaped and warned us. We went back into the bush and later the Tutsi soldiers rescued us."
Eliya (perpetrator) tried to run away after the Tutsi soldiers had overpowered the militia but he could not go far. He was paralyzed by fear and remorse. He thought to himself, "I deserve to die because I killed."
Gaston (survivor) could not stand the idea that he survived when everyone else died. He felt useless, guilty, and due to trauma he attempted to commit suicide. He tried to go back to school but his mind was full of images and sound. He had to drop out. Gaston explains, "I could not go back to church because it was filled with Hutu and I knew some of them were just pretending to hide under religiosity after all the wicked things they did."
"One day in my hiding," Eliya describes, "I had to separate from my family because I was tormented inside. I heard a loud voice asking me why these children were killed, and why all these innocent people were brutally murdered. I did not see anyone but that voice was terrifying. I knew it was God, it was the Holy Spirit. I cried out ‘Mwami Yesu mbabarira’ (Lord Jesus, forgive me). Cool water from heaven descended into my heart. I felt as if someone was bathing me. Air could not enter my lungs but I felt peace and joy. I took the decision to turn myself in to the authorities although I did not know what would happen to me. I was committed to telling the truth about all the killings but was afraid. As I was still hesitating, I was reprimanded by people from our village and taken into custody. I confessed all my crimes before the prosecutor, including those the authorities did not have in their file. I was taken to prison where I served 7 years, encouraging others to confess. It was not easy."
Later, Eliya was granted reduction of punishment and released to do community service. Back in the community, he could not face the people. He was filled with shame again, not knowing what to do. This persisted until he attended a Healing and Reconciliation workshop, run by Joseph and his team.
Gaston had also been invited to the same healing and reconciliation workshop and he recounts the experience: "I believe God sent Joseph and his team to rescue my life. When I read the invitation it said the event will bring healing and reconciliation. I thought it was a joke. I attended anyway because it happened in my church. The church building was tense, survivors sitting on one side and perpetrators on the opposite."
Both sides did not know that they would be meeting in the same building. When Gaston saw Eliya on the other side of the church, he was furious. But God had something miraculous in store…
When Joseph and his team read from the Bible, Gaston was refreshed. He realized how much there is in Scripture that can bring comfort and life. During a writing exercise, Gaston poured out his heart and wrote about all the pain and hurt he had experienced. The participants were then encouraged to physically nail their writing to the cross as a symbolic act of separation (Isaiah 53:4, Isaiah 61:1-3). As he hammered the nail through the paper into the wood, a feeling of relief and peace came into his heart.
Shortly after, Eliya also experienced a life-changing moment. The facilitator gave an opportunity to ask forgiveness for their own sin or to stand in the gap for the sin of their groups (Ezekiel 22:30). Eliya knelt to the ground and said, "I am here to confess that I killed your relatives; I shed innocent blood. Please forgive me and my people."
Gaston, already released from his bondage, found then the ability to forgive. He hugged Eliya and both broke down and wept together. This unlocked an incredible work of the Spirit to wash over the room as other perpetrators and victims confessed and forgave one another.
Gaston and Eliya are now inseparable friends. Gaston’s family, including his wife, were able to accept Eliya as a part of their own family. Gaston expressed how drastically different things are now between the two families: "We share life together," he says, "when one is in need the other is there to help. Even in Eliya’s wedding I was the best man and my wife helped with all the cooking."
Such a radical shift, from mortal enemies to best friends, is surely the work of God. The two families now travel all over Rwanda giving their testimony, encouraging others to take the step towards reconciliation. Their lives are proof that God’s Spirit can overcome even death.
Eliya and Gaston currently serve as volunteers with Rabagirana Ministries,
a partner of PRN.