Hyppolite Ntigurirwa was seven years old when his father, friends and relatives were killed in the Rwandan genocide. He spoke to New Internationalist about why he’s chosen to forgive the perpetrators.
Echoes of church hymns swell in the background as Hyppolite Ntigurirwa records a video of himself outside an Easter vigil at St. Jean’s Church in Kibuye, Rwanda.
‘We’re going to church to pray – [the] same church where people were killed, the same church where survivors and perpetrators still go to, the same one where survivors and perpetrators used to go to before... the genocide against the Tutsi,’ he tells the viewer soberly.
Few people have any frame of reference for how to rebuild life after genocide. It’s for this reason that many do not picture the logic of the aftermath: perpetrators and survivors will, to some degree, co-exist.
Twenty-five years after 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans were killed, Hyppolite has chosen to go on what he calls a peace walk, covering each of Rwanda’s 30 districts over 100 days – one for each of the days the massacres took place.
Daily, he records vlogs, marking his walk with the slogan ‘Be the Peace’. He documents Rwanda’s rolling green landscapes, ambling through different memorials, collecting and archiving strangers’ testimonies about the possibilities for healing.
Now on day 25 of his walk, he speaks to me over the phone, painting a poignant, mixed picture of the country.
‘The person I met yesterday rescued six Tutsis, risking his own life, and [the life of] his nine kids and wife. Those are the messages that people are thirsting for – that peace can be achieved by doing something different,’ he says.
Even people whose parents who have perpetrated genocide join him. ‘I have played football with the children of killers. The people who join [me], are people who want to heal.’
‘I started from the south west, now I’m in the north. Nobody has asked me whether I’m a Hutu, Tutsi or a Twa,’ he says.
Now 32 years old, Hyppolite is heading up the British Arts Council programme and uses playwriting and poetry for the purposes of restorative justice.
During his 100-day experiment, Hyppolite has so far planted trees, visited care homes for the disabled and run food and clothing drives. But he admits the task of forgiving a society that killed eight in ten Tutsis isn’t easy.
‘For me, forgiving is never easy or [about] letting things go. Forgiving is an education. If it was just about my peace of mind – for myself – probably I couldn’t forgive. It’s about what comes after you – your children, your descendants.’
‘There was a time when I wanted to become a killer and do revenge. I decided to forgive, I didn’t want anyone’s kids or my own to see what I have seen.’
The seven-year-old Hyppolite survived the mass killings by hiding between bodies in a mass grave inside a church. Later, he was enslaved by Hutus participating in killings.
‘I couldn’t even walk outside. The only way I could walk was through hiding, when I was made a child slave by killers, the only way I could walk freely was if the killer was behind me, so they knew I couldn’t escape them.’
He also regularly meets people who rescued Tutsi people in the genocide, recording their testimonies, and tells me how he wants to write about their lives after the walk, maybe start a podcast.
Despite genocide denial being punishable by law in Rwanda, he admits he still encounters those who won’t accept the events of 1994 as reality.
‘Hate persists, hate that’s been taught for generations before the genocide – that can’t just go away.’
At the peak of the killings, public radio transmissions called on Rwandans to engage in violence against Tutsis. ‘People have been transformed by hate, been fed it for many, many generations,’ he says.
And the realities of the aftermath mean Hyppolite often recognizes those who participated in killings 25 years ago. When he visits his mother in a village near Mibirizi, he sees former neighbours: ‘the people who I saw 25 years ago who were trying to kill me’.
After bearing witness to his father’s murder, Hyppolite tells me about how he rebuilt his life, about how forgiveness requires work, and is a laborious, difficult process.
But the kind of social healing Hyppolite wants bring about requires institutional support and creative ways to engage with trauma. After returning from a refugee camp some months after the genocide, he started primary school. He tells me he spent years not speaking.
‘Just sitting in class was like sitting in those memories. Looking at classmates would remind me of friends I had seen buried in mass graves where I hid, teachers reminded me of the women I had seen raped. I didn’t talk for years.’
‘After the genocide it was just biology, geography [being taught] or whatever and then nothing – you move on. I wanted to speak about what I witnessed.’
As soon as he was literate, he began writing and performing poems, using theatre to speak about what he’d witnessed. Coupled with the help of a government-run survivors fund and an anonymously donated stipend, Hyppolite eventually went on to study sociology at the University of Bristol in the UK.
‘Academia tells you not to shock the audience, to make your experiences “readable”. What does academia miss about life experiences? I ask myself these questions a lot.’
Hyppolite’s activism subverts common ideas about forgiveness. He sees it as a political, collective act, not geared towards denying interpersonal trauma – but about reimagining one’s social world – and carrying the flame for what could be.
‘Nobody was born evil. I’ve seen the bad side of humanity, but I’m also a witness to the goodness of it. There are people who aren’t survivors but who rescued people.’
‘I don’t think the world can become a paradise. But I think people should be making themselves a source of joy for other people. I have hope, and that’s all I need.’
Hyppolite Ntigurirwa is a peace ambassador for One Young World and founder of Be The Peace in Rwanda.