President Paul Kagame’s government wants to free thousands of prisoners convicted for the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. It says the move aims to ease overcrowding in prisons and foster reintegration and reconciliation.
Joseph Ndagijimana from the Northern Province of Rwanda is among the convicts waiting to be freed from prison after serving his term for the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.
In just 100 days in 1994, an estimated 1 million mostly Tutsi people were massacred in Rwanda.
Ndagijimana had participated in the killing of his Tutsi neighbors. He knows that his reintegration will require acceptance and trust from society.
“I am finishing my sentence soon. I am ready to go home and seek forgiveness because I am changed,” Ndagijimana told DW, adding that he will confront his past honestly.
“I will also reveal to my fellow citizens the new direction of my life: to join hands with Rwandans to do good deeds and avoid the past mistakes that got me here.”
Thousands of genocide convicts up for rehabilitation
Ndagijimana is among the over 20,000 genocide convicts receiving rehabilitation training developed by the government.
Genocide convicts who face between 20 and 30 years of jail terms are eligible for this rehabilitation plan. According to the national unity ministry, President Paul Kagame’s government plans to release up to 2,500 convicts annually. But the reintegration journey for these convicts is an uphill task.
Jean Bosco Kabanda, a Rwanda Correctional Service officer, told DW the rehabilitation curriculum the convicts go through has elements of personal growth to help them rebuild their lives and find a place within the community.
“The rehabilitation lectures we give the convicts help them on this new journey,” Kabanda said. “We have no doubts that they will conduct themselves appropriately when they finally reintegrate into society.”
Mixed reviews for the reintegration program
According to the correctional officer, former inmates who have already returned home say that the education and guidance they have received helped them rejoin their respective communities.
However, the release of the genocide convicts has, in the past, sparked anger among survivors of the genocide. Many fear that the convicts can commit new ethnic killings.
Inmates like Thomas Hategikimana, who has been serving a 30-year prison sentence, has a different concern. He wonders how he will face the victims of his acts.
“I hope to meet the people who may be suffering the pain I caused,” Hategikimana told DW. “I am not even sure they are alive.
The prison authorities plan to release Hategikimana in two years, but he is now contemplating how to face his neighbors who live just meters away.
“I doubt if I will get the courage to step into that village, it’s tough, and that’s why I plead for help. I hope they [my neighbors] can accept me.
Margaret Mahoro, who works with Inter-Peace, an NGO that collaborates with the government to rehabilitate and resettle these convicts, said they had restored hope.
“Through such programs, they have gained hope for life outside prison,” Mahoro told DW. “Instead of thinking about suicide after prison, now they are talking about how better they can live with the other members of society.”
She said many released and rehabilitated convicts want to repent and co-exist peacefully.
“Previously most were struggling with thoughts of suicide, the feeling of rejection and just preferred to remain in prison.”
Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu and Benita van Eyssen