Speaking across the Divide: Cecile Nyiramana at St. Louis Meeting, June 29, 2005

Cecile Nyiramana, secretary to the legal representative (akin to general secretary) of Rwanda Yearly Meeting, visited the United States as a guest of the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams. She was invited to discuss Rwanda Friends’ work in her country, with special attention to Women in Dialogue, an organization she formed to help reknit her community in the aftermath of the genocide in 1994.

During the genocide, Cecile, a Tutsi, while pregnant, hid under a bed for three months in the home of some friends of her Hutu husband. Her mother was killed. After the genocide, she and her husband fled Rwanda, as so many others had done. After their return, they were struck by the terrible changes that had occurred. Cecile’s husband was imprisoned in 1999. Someone had accused him, apparently, of being a perpetrator. He is still in prison. Cecile was left with her two children, not knowing how to provide for them. Most people in Rwanda, regardless of which side they were on during the genocide, were traumatized.

Over 100,000 men (mostly) accused of perpetrating the genocide had been rounded up and imprisoned. Hutus and Tutsis had stopped talking with one another and avoided one another as much as possible. Rwanda Yearly Meeting helped survivors and established Friends Peace House. In 2001 Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops were begun. But it became evident that a program was necessary to address people’s trauma more directly. It was also necessary to help the prisoners who were being kept indefinitely, as the genocide had destroyed the nation’s justice system.

In 2002 Cecile was sent to an AVP workshop by Rwanda Yearly Meeting. After attending the AVP workshop, and then a second follow-up workshop, she heard a calling to forgive those who tried to kill her and to forgive those who took her husband.

Given that she was both victim and a woman whose husband had been imprisoned, she felt called to bring together the two groups of women: widows of the genocide and wives of imprisoned husbands, Tutsis and Hutus. She thought that if she could change the women she could change the community. She gathered a group of survivors and asked them what they wanted for the future and suggested that they meet the killers’ wives. They answered that they didn’t want to understand these women, but they did want the prisoners’ wives to come to them and tell them the truth about what happened. She then went to the prisoners’ wives and tried to get them to meet with the widows. It was a tough sell. They were afraid to go to their "enemies."

Cecile took her vision to Friends Peace House. The people there were surprised at her proposal, but at length agreed and helped organize the workshop. When the participants came, the women in each side sat separately from the others and didn’t speak across the divide. This standoff lasted the whole day. On the second day the "light and lively" game (an AVP staple) involved changing seats, thus engineering a physical integration of the two groups. Nonetheless, they wouldn’t talk to each other. When the third day began, however, they began to talk to one another about trivial things. It was a real breakthrough. During all three days, the workshop involved people in sharing their experiences (even if ostensibly only with members of their own group, with the other group listening in).

After three months, the same group of women from the same neighborhood came back for a second workshop, women who had known each other well prior to the genocide, prior to the social division. On the third day of this workshop the women were asked what they wanted in the future. They wanted to meet more and to rebuild relationships. They had gotten past their almost ten-year-old stereotypes of the others as enemies. They also recognized that they shared many responsibilities, including care of their own families. They decided to meet once a month to talk about reconciliation and peace, as well as to help one another in practical ways (food, shelter, etc. being major concerns). Each three months they invited other women (presumably from the same neighborhood) to join them. This group became the prototype. Cecile has now organized two other such groups, one in the north of the country and the second in the east. They have come to use dance and song to demonstrate reconciliation to other members of their communities.

Now Cecile is faced with the question whether to let the three groups grow in size, or whether they should be kept relatively small, which would require that many more groups be formed. She also wonders how these groups will be able to change the whole community, as she had originally hoped. With respect to this latter question, she hopes that the women can have a big impact by:

  • being good models of reconciliation;
  • helping their own (extended) families on the path of reconciliation; and
  • helping the prisoners while they are imprisoned and then helping them when they are released to become reintegrated in society.

Cecile tries to show the women the good they have in common.

I asked whether the local Gacaca judges knew of the Women in Dialogue. Cecile replied that the Gacaca process is a community process. The whole community attends the Gacaca proceedings, so she was confident that the judges in the three communities were aware of the Women in Dialogue among them.

Someone in the audience asked Cecile how she could forgive those who tried to kill her. Her first response was that she prayed for God to give her love for those who tried to kill her. Then she recounted her experience with one of the men who had tried to kill her. He, too, had fled Rwanda; he left when the Tutsi army was making good its effort to end the genocide and gain control of the country. She had known this particular man when they were students at the university. When in 2001 she heard that he had returned to Rwanda, she sought him out. When she found him, he was surprised and frightened. No doubt he expected her to denounce him and to have him sent to prison. Instead, she told him about her life. Then, warily, he told her he was jobless and in distress. At length she was able to introduce him to someone who would train him in computer skills. Still he didn’t trust her. Then she invited him to visit her family. He came, but expressed his bewilderment and his inability to understand why she was doing this for him. She told him it was the only way she could forgive him. After he finished his computer training she found him a job at a school in the North of Rwanda.

The amazing work of Cecile and her colleagues in the African Great Lakes region deserves our attention and support.

Thomas Paxson

Thomas Paxson, a member of St. Louis (Mo.) Meeting, is a member of the Working Group of the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams.