When Denise Uwimana made the decision to forgive her Hutu neighbours, some of the other survivors called her a traitor. But 25 years after the Rwandan genocide, she says the act of forgiveness can heal—and has now written a book to tell her storyby Suchandrika Chakrabarti / April 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
Three months after witnessing the 1994 Rwandan genocide—and seeing her own relatives murdered in front of her—Denise Uwimana returned to her hometown of Bugurama and publicly forgave her Hutu neighbours.
Leaving her parents’ home in the relatively safe capital, Kigali, Uwimana took her three small sons (the third of whom was born on the day the killings began) and went back to the ransacked house she’d fled because she needed her job at the local cement factory, Cimerwa. The company also owned her home, so she had little alternative. Her husband Charles had gone into hiding before the killings began, and she never saw him again.
After returning to her pillaged house, Uwimana reflected on how unlikely her survival had been: an estimated 800,000 Tutsis like her had been killed between April and June 1994.
Her house had been emptied, even the crops torn out of her allotment outside town. The final straw came when she saw a woman outside her house wearing a dress that had been a gift from her now-missing husband. He had given it to Uwimana to celebrate the birth of their third child, and the dress had not yet been worn.
When I sat down with her, she tells me this was the violation that made Uwimana “boil over with anger.”
Uwimana’s memoir of the time, From Red Earth, is published this month on the 25th anniversary of the killings. I met her in a quiet room in a London hotel, a world away from the story she describes.
Uwimana looks petite and delicate, but she speaks clearly about her decision to tell her story: if she stays quiet, the meaning she has found in processing the horror will be lost. It is important to forgive, she says emphatically, but not to forget that Rwanda still needs rebuilding.
When Uwimana returned home in August 1994, she decided to find a way to co-exist with former friends, despite her anger. The next day, at a gathering of the villagers, Uwimana said that if the Hutus could take responsibility for stealing from the victims of the killings she would “make peace” with them.
As the list of names and stolen items was read out, she says, “no one would meet my eyes.” There was only silence, then shouts of “Forgive us!”
Uwimana was convinced that confronting her neighbours and then drawing a line under the events was the only way to remain in her home. She told the gathered crowd that she did forgive them.
How did it feel? “Of course it was hard,” Uwimana says. “Inside I struggled. Many times I thought, no, it’s not possible, but I felt overall that it was important to survive by grace and do good for others.”
This courageous act made things harder for her in the short term. “Some other survivors called me a traitor,” she says, “and the police had me brought in for questioning”—but they could not find a crime to pin on her actions.
However, long-term, she feels that the act was healing. “I have met many Rwandans in the diaspora,” Uwimana says—referring to the huge number of Tutsis who left the country after 1994. “It is much harder on those who did not go back and look their neighbours in the eye, who did not face up to it. They have found it harder to move on.”
In a 2017 Guardian article on the genocide, Professor Helen C Epstein wrote how “the Rwandan genocide has been compared to the Nazi Holocaust in its surreal brutality.” She added: “The hatred the Hutu génocidaires unleashed represents the worst that human beings are capable of.”
Uwimana’s forgiveness of her Hutu neighbours is all the more remarkable because she witnessed some of the most unbearable scenes imaginable—even if she did escape with her life. From April 16th, 1994 onwards, 342 Tutsi were murdered in Uwimana’s hometown of Bugarama.
“How gladly I would forget all I saw that day, but—as war veterans can confirm—such images are seared into the brain a if by a camera’s flash,” she says in From Red Earth. There follows an unforgettable scene where Uwimana, heavily pregnant, is searching her house for her small sons as the Hutu enter. She hides under a bed.
“My arm felt wet—and I realised I was lying in my relatives’ blood,” she recounts. “I was breathing blood; its odour filled my mouth and nostrils.”
Stuck for hours under that bed, where she can hear the Hutu killers laughing, Uwimana’s waters break. She manages to escape her own house and get next door, where she gives birth to her third son in her neighbour’s guest room, alone. “Through the wall, I heard voices and scraping, dragging sounds; looters had moved in. My neighbours, helping themselves…”
Uwimana now lives with her second husband in Germany, and has founded Iriba Shalom International, a Christian organisation that helps Rwanda survivors. Her sons are young men now, with two studying in America and one at home in Germany.
Publishing the book is still so necessary, 25 years on, she says, “to shout and let the world know what happened.” If we forget, she believes, we create the conditions needed to let history repeat itself.