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The Courage of Living

The priest of the small parish in Karama town—150 kilometers south of Kigali, the Rwandan capital—directed members of his congregation to offer a sign of peace to their neighbors. Tutsi women sat on one side of the church, Hutu women sat on the other, and they never so much as looked at each other. This moment in the service passed the same way every week for years after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The Tutsi women in the congregation were widows from the genocide. The husbands of the Hutu women had raped the Tutsi women and killed their husbands and other relatives.

Months after the genocide, Hutu women had started to return to their villages. Their husbands who had participated in the genocide were in prison either waiting to be tried for their crimes or already serving sentences. When the wives brought their husbands food at the prison, they were stoned by Tutsi women and children.

In 1998, the wives of the perpetrators approached a nun at the church and asked her to arrange a meeting with the Tutsi women. Several dozen Tutsi women agreed to meet. As one of these women recounted years later when Bread for the World Institute visited the community, she was scared and as soon as she entered the church, she wanted to leave. “I saw them as their husbands,” she said. Her baby had been killed by one of these men; for days, she continued to carry the child on her back. The nun who had brought them together said, “You accepted and they are here. This is hard for them as well.”

A Hutu representative said, “We know we didn’t help you when your relatives were being killed, but we want you to listen to us.” The Hutu women had come to ask forgiveness. “It took more than three years to work up the courage to ask for this meeting. We’ve carried around our shame ever since we returned.”

The Tutsi women did not forgive them initially, but slowly their hearts softened. They were caring for many orphans from the genocide, and the Hutu women offered to help them by cleaning their homes, fetching water and firewood for them, working in their gardens, and caring for the children when the Tutsi women had to be away.

The turning point for the Tutsis came when they asked the Hutus to find out from their husbands where their victims, the Tutsi husbands and relatives, were buried. The Hutu women went to their husbands in prison and returned with the information.

The Tutsi women had formed support groups as early as the first months after the genocide to cope with their suffering. Now, they invited the Hutu women to join their groups. “I never thought I would be able to forgive them,” said the woman who had longed to run out of the church at the first meeting. “But I truly forgive them from the bottom of my heart.”

The women wanted their children to learn to get along, and for the first time allowed them to play together. The children have grown up as friends, and recently some of them have married each other.

“Today, we share everything,” explained one of the women. “We live like sisters.” The group continues to expand, consisting of more than 1,700 members.

Word began to spread around the country and to other parts of Africa about these women. They call themselves The Courage of Living. In 2010, The Courage of Living was honored by the national government, and in 2012, the group received a delegation of Kenyan women parliamentarians to discuss ways to reunite Kenyans who remained divided by post-election violence in 2009.