THE day when 29-year-old Denise Uwimama gave birth to her third son was the day that Interahamwe killers broke into her house with machetes and slaughtered five of the family members who were sheltering there.
The horror had started a week earlier. For days, fanatical voices on the radio had called for all Tutsi “snakes and cockroaches” to die. “Look in the bushes! Look in the swamps!” was the shrill message. “Whenever you find Tutsi, kill! Kill without mercy!” Later, it emerged that the massacre had been planned for months. Young men were trained as killers, while lists of Tutsi victims were being compiled with ruthless efficiency.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning when the slaughter reached Bugarama, in the far south-west of the country, close to the borders with Congo and Burundi. Denise and her husband, Charles, had lived there since their marriage. At first, they both had good jobs at Cimerwa, a huge cement works: Charles as a geologist, Denise as an administrator.
But, by the time the killing took place, Charles was no longer able to live at home. He had been imprisoned without charge for six months and, after his release, sacked from his job. As a result, he was forced to work away from home, visiting the family only under the cover of darkness.
That day, as the attackers stormed her home, the heavily pregnant Denise handed over her two older children to her houseboy, who begged her to spare them the sight of their mother being murdered. “Leaving my children tore me in two, but they had a better chance with my Hutu houseboy than with me,” she says.
Denise Uwimama, the author of From Red Earth
She crawled under the bed and waited for the worst. While the men continued their killing spree, she lay for hours on a concrete floor that was wet with the blood of her relatives. She heard her 16-year-old cousin Thérèse praying for mercy as she bled to death. Finally, at three in the morning, her waters broke, forcing her out of her hiding place.
With the help of another cousin, Manasseh, who had somehow survived along with Denise, she crawled out of the house into the garden of her Hutu neighbour. The woman sheltered her just long enough for her to give birth — in silence — while looters tore apart her house. She dragged herself and her newborn baby into a store cupboard, while Manasseh hid in the attic.
They were still not safe. The killers descended, determined to root out any remaining Tutsi “cockroaches”. Manasseh was beheaded before her eyes. Miraculously, Denise was spared, thanks to the intervention of another Hutu neighbour. Reunited with the older boys, she was taken to the medical centre where a small remnant of Tutsis sheltered for the next six weeks.
The massacre continued, and dead bodies piled up outside their windows. Daily, the survivors were threatened with rape and death, and survived thanks only to the food and drink smuggled in by their Hutu friends and neighbours. There was no news of Charles.
THE genocide that swept through Rwanda in 1994 lasted 100 days. During that time, close to a million victims — one tenth of the entire population of Rwanda — were slaughtered by the militia, aided and abetted by Hutu neighbours. The trauma is almost unthinkable.
Twenty-five years later, Denise has written a book, From Red Earth: A Rwandan story of healing and forgiveness, “because genocide is not the end of the story — not for me, and not for my beloved country”.
She writes: “How gladly I would forget all I saw that day but — as war veterans can confirm — such images are seared into the brain as if by a camera’s flash.
“As a witness to the genocide against the Tutsi, I must tell what happened, no matter how painful. I hope my account will help ensure that nothing like this ever happens again, anywhere on earth. If a nation’s shameful deeds are not to be repeated, they must be recognised and remembered, not swept under the rug.”
Those who planned the genocide were aiming for extermination, she says now. “Their motto was ‘Leave no one to tell this story.’ But history must not be forgotten. I must bear witness.”
Remarkably, simply bearing witness has not proved enough for Denise. She has also determined to forgive her killers, and help others to do the same. “The whole world needs to learn from us survivors. It is up to me to spread the message of healing and forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is a process, she emphasises, and remains a constant daily struggle. A personal turning-point came when she met other widows, and they told their stories. “Everyone shared what she experienced, how she passed through hell,” she says. “Before that, I thought I was the only one.”
THE accounts were horrific: women raped and tortured, forced to witness their children being beheaded before their eyes; victims brutally mutilated, or burned alive; entire families exterminated. Denise’s mother-in-law, for example, lost all eight of her adult sons. Besides being profoundly traumatised, many of the women were now HIV positive or pregnant as a result of rape.
Having heard their accounts and given her own, Denise felt able to reach out to others. “I made home visits with my colleagues, in order to listen. I began to see [widows] smiling. I became a mother to many others. Luckily, my children never complained.”
It was never easy. When Denise returned to Bugarama, she found it impossible to live in her house, which bore the bloodstains to prove the slaughter. She encountered a former neighbour in the street wearing her own best dress. Another time, she found herself invited to exchange the Peace in church, only to find that she was standing next to one of the perpetrators.
“It is a battle every day,” she says. “I remember Jesus saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they have done.’ I must forgive.”
She couldn’t help asking God how he could allow this atrocity to happen. “Then, one day, I heard God speaking clearly to me,” she says. “‘You survived only by grace. Give that grace to others.’”
Healing takes a long time. The needs are great: many of the widows were uneducated, and could not find work after the genocide. As well as practical assistance, they needed psychological help. This was especially so in the villages, as NGOs tended to focus their work in towns. “But I did not give up. I wanted to help others.”
IN THE mean time, in 2005, the Rwandan government re-established a traditional community court system, Gacaca, designed to get people to speak the truth. “The country is behind us, and wants to help us heal,” she says. Nowadays, there is one day every month where people come together. “We come together for community work, and that gives us a chance to talk.”
Learning love instead of hate – children at the Iriba Shalom centre, Mukoma
Having found healing herself, Denise started working with Solace Ministries, an organisation supporting the widows and orphans of the genocide. In 2015, she founded her own charity, Iriba Shalom International, to promote healing and reconciliation. “‘Iriba’ means fountain or wellspring. Iriba Shalom is a ministry of women from different backgrounds,” she says. “We are a mix of women who stand for peace. We offer an oasis of hope.”
Last year, the Iriba Shalom Centre opened in Makoma, Charles’s home village, in an area of the country which had experienced some of the worst of the genocide and whose survivors were severely traumatised as a result. Her mother-in-law, Consoletia, donated a plot of land to enable the work to happen.
The charity provides trauma healing and counselling and medical treatment, and offers accommodation and financial support to widows and orphans, and help into work. There is also a project to give cows to survivors. Cattle have a symbolic as well as financial and practical value in Rwanda, and thousands were deliberately slaughtered during the genocide. Giving the widows cows is “a sign of giving back dignity and an important part of healing process”, Denise says.
Eventually, Denise took steps to have Charles declared dead, but she still doesn’t know what happened to him. She has remarried, and now lives with her second husband, Wolfgang Reinhardt, in Germany, from where she continues her work. Her sons are in their twenties. Their journeys have been painful. The oldest literally could not speak about his experience; it took him more than 20 years to tell his mother that he had witnessed the death of a close neighbour.
Her second son still suffers from violent nightmares that men are coming to kill him. “He didn’t want to tell me, because he thought it might make me sad.” Her youngest never met his father, and they all feel the loss of not knowing how Charles died, or where his body lies.
Will the work of Iriba Shalom ever be complete, I wonder. “No. It is never finished,” she says. “Evil is always [in the world]; so healing is always there, too. And the source will never stop, because it is living waters. Our source is Christ.”
From Red Earth: A Rwandan story of healing and forgiveness by Denise Uwimana will be published by Plough Publishing on 25 April, at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).