How One Woman Walked Into the Forest and Helped Reconcile Her Country
The following is an edited excerpt from Rwandan Women Rising by our founder Swanee Hunt. Buy it here.
“From the time I left the camp until 2003, I wasn’t even sure if he was still alive. I lived like a widow,” Anne Marie Musabyemungu says of her husband.
She was working for the Rwandan social security agency when the genocide began in 1994. Her husband, Jerome, had been an officer in the national army, and she and her two-year-old daughter were protected from the spiraling violence by their Hutu ethnicity. But when the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) intervened to stop the slaughter, Anne Marie fled with her daughter to the packed refugee camp in eastern Congo, unsure of whether the new government would retaliate against those sharing the ethnicity of the killers.
Two years later, facing disease and despair within the camp, Anne Marie decided to go home. Now with two small children and a third on the way, she quietly settled into a new life in Rwanda, with the help of the government. Jerome chose to stay in Congo, moving into the remote rainforest and joining the new rebel group—the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR)—spawned by the former government’s soldiers, some of whom, like some civilians, were genocidaires.
“In 2001, there were some [FDLR] soldiers captured near the border, but the Rwandans didn’t harm them. There were as many as two thousand,” Anne Marie says. “I was involved in telling them to feel at ease. ‘Yes, you’re captured, but you’re home…we haven’t killed you, because our country wants unity and peace. You must participate, and you must convince the others like you.’”
She had become involved in women’s empowerment initiatives, finding inspiration in radio broadcasts about the new UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which highlighted women’s roles in security. “Hearing about 1325, I felt like I could do something.”
So she set off on a treacherous mission: to convince fighters still in Congo to come home, starting with her husband.
She traveled to a town in eastern Congo’s South Kivu province. “From Bukavu, it was five days of traveling to reach where he was in the bush—one day of driving, then four days of walking,” Anne Marie remembers.
“When we arrived, my husband wasn’t there. He was deeper in. They said, ‘You’re not going any farther. Tell us what you’re doing here.’ They could see that I was a Rwandese who was…who was not on their side, I’ll just say. That I was a Rwandese for reconciliation and ending the war.”
Surely in the presence of these FDLR commanders, Anne Marie couldn’t make her true feelings known; if they didn’t already suspect her purpose, telling them why she came would pit them against her and put her in grave danger.
“But of course I told them! That was my mission. I had to explain it to them, regardless of the consequences. I had to make my presence known to everyone there, so that my message would spread—my message that the people in Rwanda wanted to live peacefully together.
Luckily, many of the leaders were from the old army in Rwanda before 1994, so we knew each other. They wanted to know, ‘What’s the news of my wife and my children? How is Rwanda now?’ They just wanted to talk.
I explained the new government’s principles of unity and reconciliation and told them about how our new local legal system would work, what advantages the system would have, what would be the punishments. I talked to them in detail about what it would be like to put down their guns.
For two weeks, I talked day and night to people eager to listen and ask questions. I started to think, ‘This has been my mission, to give these messages. If my husband comes or he doesn’t, the mission I came to do is done.’”
But Anne Marie’s message wasn’t well-received by everyone. Some of the soldiers talked to their commander, insisting that they should arrest her as a spy. Or kill her before her husband returned.
“I’m told that four times this happened,” she says. “At one point the commander himself called me to his tent. ‘Tell me what you want to say about the situation in Rwanda,’ he said. We talked for four hours. At the end, he said, ‘You can go, but you can’t keep talking about things that will demotivate our soldiers. You will be punished harshly if you continue.’”
After two long weeks, Anne Marie’s husband finally arrived. And she told him everything. On the fourth day, he agreed to leave with her and return to Rwanda. The next Sunday, Anne Marie and Jerome sneaked away on foot.
“With the help of God, and with the support of the high authorities of the RPF, I managed to convince my husband. Now he’s chief of staff for the RPF reserves,” she says. And they live again in Kigali with their eight children—including the three orphans they adopted after the genocide.
Anne Marie returned to the forest several times. She doesn’t want to say how many. The first time was three weeks after she arrived home with her husband. That’s when the same FDLR commander she’d spoken with for four hours came out along with 120 of his senior officers, and all their weapons and equipment.
But that wasn’t all: “These one hundred who left with the general started to talk to the others,” she says. “I’m very proud that more than ten thousand FDLR soldiers defected, including a great number of officers.”
Anne Marie herself went on to serve a five-year term in Parliament. To her, the sense of belonging she felt as she remade her life in Rwanda and took part in the country’s development was astonishing. She describes how being welcomed in spite of the country’s fractured past convinced her that her bold mission was worth the risk.
She put herself in danger because she intimately understood an essential, pragmatic element of Rwanda’s rebuilding: to establish a peace that’s not ultimately a standoff with rebels just across the border (or with neighbors next door), but a sense of shared security that enables former rivals to thrive.
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