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New Documentary Examines Relationships Between Victims, Perpetrators of Rwanda's Genocide - 2004-04-03

The horrific 1994 massacre in Rwanda is still taking its toll on the country's eight million people, with survivors often living in the same small communities alongside people who are responsible for killing their loved ones. One award-winning western filmmaker tells this story in a new documentary that had its U.S. premiere in Washington.

The new documentary is called In Rwanda We Say . . . . . the Family That Does Not Speak Dies.

A decade ago, 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a massive genocide, perpetrated by extremists in the country's dominant Hutu majority against minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Ten years later, the film, In Rwanda We Say, follows one man, Abraham Rwamfizi, who took part in the brutal killing. Mr. Rwamfizi is released from custody as one of around 20,000 suspects who have confessed to their crimes and served the maximum sentence that would have been handed down under the citizen-based justice system known as Gacaca.

After his release, Mr. Rwamfizi returned to his home in the small hillside community of Gafumba. The film focuses mostly on the feelings of Gafumba's other residents - including the relatives of people he is accused of killing.

Genocide survivor Jean-Paul Shyirakera speaks directly to the camera, saying "My brother's murderer lives near our home. Why," he asks, "hasn't he come to ask for forgiveness?" He adds that the filmmaker should bring the murderer along with her next time, so that the survivors can "talk to their would-be executioners."

Comments like these posed an apparent challenge to French-American director Anne Aghion - who agonized over whether she should bring the neighbors together. In the end, she decided to convene a meeting between the two sides - the survivors and the murderer.

"At some point in the process, we realized, you know, I'd been bothering these people all this time, and I had to take on some kind of responsibility and to bring this meeting together and to see what would happen," she explained.

What happened was that everyone began to talk to each other. The conversation was not explicit and the deep wounds obviously had not healed, but in this case, all parties made hesitant first steps toward reconciliation.

Ms. Aghion says reactions were mixed when the completed film was shown to 150 people in a crowded church house back in Gafumba. A special VIP section included the people who were featured on the screen.

"My interpreter came along with me, and I addressed the whole audience," she said. "And I said, I realize this is very, very difficult, but I thought it was important for you to see this film. And then I moved in closer to the VIP row, and one of the women got up and said, 'You can't show us this. This is too traumatizing. This is too difficult.' And I asked the others if they felt the same way. And, there was about five or 10 seconds of silence, and one of the guys spoke up and said, 'No, no, no. It's very important that you show us this film. It's very important what you're doing, and we appreciate it.' "

A decade after the massacre, Rwanda is still reeling from the affects of the catastrophe.

Antoine Rutayisire is Vice Chairman of Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, a government agency set up in 1999 to bring together both sides. He watched the film in Washington and took part in a panel discussion afterwards.

Mr. Rutayisire says as more and more former prisoners are released and return to their home communities, stories like the one depicted in the documentary, are increasingly common.

"In Rwanda, we don't have a Hutu land and a Tutsi land," he said. "We don't have Hutu villages and Tutsi villages. We don't have Hutu neighborhoods and Tutsi neighborhoods. Our children go together to the same schools. They go to the same wells. They go to the same churches. They go to the same markets. And those are the people who have to live together as neighbors, when yesterday, one was a victim and the other was a murderer."

Last May, the first batch of 20,000 people was released from Rwanda's overcrowded prisons after the suspects confessed they took part in the genocide. The country recently announced that it plans to release 30,000 more by the end of June, cutting by a third the 90,000 prisoners still being held on charges of taking part in the slaughter.

Mr. Rutayisire says he, himself, is a genocide survivor. He says he understands what he describes as the melting pot of emotions Rwandans feel.

"The anger, the fear, the hopelessness and despair, the uncertainty about the future, and even the hope," he said. "So, you find all those things put together, and that's Rwanda, the Rwanda of today, where we have to say this is what happened to us. It's a reality. But there is a hope for tomorrow."

One young Rwandan boy interviewed in the film - who appeared to be too young to have been alive during the genocide - gave concrete weight to the official's optimism.

"The parents should find a way to deal with their own problems," he said with a disarming grin. "In the meantime, let us kids play together as friends."