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Published:January 27th, 2006 23:44 EST
Back Home After 10 Long Years of Absence

Back Home After 10 Long Years of Absence

By Jermaine Uwahiriwe

August 2005, thousands of prisoners were released.  Only old people and those who accepted to confess could board government trucks back home. After spending eleven years in detention, the detainees are finally back with their families, once again living with the people they wronged in 1994.

A large number of prisoners were crammed up in Rwandan prisons as the result of the 1994 genocide, the unspeakable cruelty that turned the country into a nightmare.  After the mayhem, thousands and thousands of people were arrested and accused of participating.

During 2003, as the nation proceeded towards unity and reconciliation, President Paul Kagame decided to temporarily release a number of detainees.  The freedom is tentative, because if detainee statements are revealed incorrect later, the person is brought back to prison.  40,000 were released the same year, and 37,000 in 2005.

On the pass-out day, families were full of emotions; boys had accompanied their mothers to meet again their fathers, people could not wait to meet relatives again whom they have been missing for ten years.
“This is a special day to me and my family because my dad is back”, said Marie Jeanne Nirere, 17. “I used to hide that my father was imprisoned.  Being a prisoner’s daughter was a big shame,” she added. Nirere declared that among her friends, she would rather say that her dad had died than reveal that he was imprisoned.

“I’m here to welcome home my brother who was locked up for eight years,” said Martin Gasasira 49, a former prisoner released in 2003, whose brother remained imprisoned because he did not own up to his crimes?  He added that another of his brothers died in prison before serving his sentence.

“It’s my turn to contribute in the reconstruction of my country, because I participated in its destruction, eleven years back.“ said Valens Mulindahabi, a former primary school teacher who has been in prison for 10 years.

Ex-prisoners promise to promote an attitude of peace and forgiveness once they arrive home.  “Our minds have changed, Tutsi or Hutu, we are all Rwandan”,  declared Valens.

Things have changed!  There is no simply going back. Ex-detainees first pass by a training camp locally known as ingando where they learn many subjects regarding their next re-insertion, similar to psycho-social rehabilitation before they go back into the community they were alleged to have destroyed; a  re-insertion that obliges them to live beside the families of 1994 genocide victims.

Prisoners come to ingando when they are distressed due to nightmares and trauma that echoes from the genocidal atrocities they committed.  Community reintegration implies a removal from a society and then a physical and psychological reinsertion back into that social and psychological space.

When home, some of the released prisoners face challenges such as their wives remarrying other men or simply children they left ten years ago, who hardly recognize them as their parents.

These people also have to adapt to the fast growing development and get fully involved in Gacaca process, a traditional form of justice, since they confessed.
Ex-prisoners are taught main government policies that include the history of Rwanda that resulted from the Genocide, a culture of peace and tolerance, Gacaca jurisdiction, fighting diseases, the unity and reconciliation process and conflict management, among others. 

Ex-prisoners are not the only thing to be regarded by their re-integration.  Communities they are from are also involved.  These communities need to be well prepared to accept prisoners back. Advocacy and information rising is an important component in mobilizing communities.

One of the factors, which really promotes reintegration and reconciliation, and the acceptance of former prisoners, is the ongoing and constant awareness that all Rwandans need to leave the ugly things behind, like tribal rivalries and spearhead the useful ones so that they set up a firm foundation of both the country's reconstruction and the country's Vision 2020-- a long-term development program.

The categories of released prisoners include: the sick, the aged from 70 years and above, children imprisoned at the age between 14 and 18 years, plus those who confessed and asked for forgiveness.  The number released is about 37,000 throughout the country.

Rwandans have realized that their society calls for all its members commitment in the time-consuming way towards Unity and Reconciliation, and then towards development.  They have realized that all Rwandans have to work jointly to achieve development.  No more mistrust, no more shame, no more hate among them. 

Links: Rwanda unity and reconciliation commission site,
Rwanda government official site.
Photos: Jermaine Wahirr