MBYO, Rwanda — They awoke early and gathered along a plot of land here in this Rwandan village made up of a handful of homes. Together, they began hacking away at a grass-bare patch with long-handled garden hoes. The mission: Dig a drainage ditch alongside a row of homes that had been continuously flooding during rains.
Scenes like this one were playing out across Rwanda on this Saturday — a monthly day of service known as Umuganda.
The premise is simple and extraordinary in its efficient enforcement: Every able-bodied Rwandan citizen between the ages of 18 and 65 must take part in community service for three hours once a month. The community identifies a new public works problem to tackle each month.
“We never had Umuganda before the genocide,” said Jean Baptiste Kwizera, 21, wiping sweat from his brow as he took a break from the project here in Mbyo, about an hour’s drive from Kigali, the capital.
Though the genocide ended a year before Mr. Kwizera was born, it is deeply ingrained in the lives of even the youngest Rwandans.
This compulsory work is emblematic of a broader culture of reconciliation, development and social control asserted by the government.
Each local umudugudu — or village — keeps track of who attends the monthly projects. Those who fail to participate without being excused risk fines and in some cases arrest.
Setting an example and seizing an opportunity to publicize the service on this Saturday, the country’s president, Paul Kagame, helped break ground for a new elementary school in the country’s northeast while dozens of photographers snapped photos.
“Umuganda is about the culture of working together and helping each other to build this country,” Mr. Kagame told reporters.
Rwanda has been a unique experiment in national reconciliation and assiduously enforced social re-engineering in the more than two decades since its devastating genocide, when thousands in the country’s Hutu ethnic majority unleashed unspeakable violence on the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu countrymen who refused to take part in the slaughter. In just 100 days, nearly one million people perished.
Umuganda was revived and dozens of other nation-rebuilding exercises were conceived under Mr. Kagame, who came to power after the genocide and has held the presidency since 2000. A recent constitutional amendment paved the way for him to seek a third term in office, and in August he plans to do just that.
While many of his administration’s programs have lowered poverty and child mortality rates, Mr. Kagame remains a controversial figure.
Many political analysts and human rights groups say Mr. Kagame has created a nation that is orderly but repressive. Laws banning so-called genocidal ideology that were adopted to deter a resurgence of sectarian or hate speech are also used to squelch even legitimate criticism of the government.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to gauge sentiment about the effectiveness of reconciliation efforts, including Umuganda. The government’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission has twice released a “reconciliation barometer,” which looks at dozens of factors to determine how well people are living together. In 2015, the last year for which the figures are available, the country deemed reconciliation in Rwanda was at 92.5 percent.
On this morning in Mbyo, none of the villagers openly questioned Umuganda or the wider reconciliation process.
“We needed security, and we found it because of our government,” Mr. Kwizera said, praising a government he sees as essential for charting a path forward.
“I was in the part which was being hunted,” he explained, describing his family’s ethnic identity without ever saying the word Tutsi. Like others in this generation, who have been taught from their earliest school days to suppress any sense of ethnic identity, he considers himself simply Rwandan.
But in Mbyo, acknowledgment of past divisions is inescapable.
Mbyo is one of seven “reconciliation villages” established by Prison Fellowship Rwanda, a Christian organization that facilitates the small cluster of homes for those convicted of carrying out the violence and those who suffered at their hands.
Pastor Deo Gashagaza, who helped found the organization, created a process to connect Rwandans who had been imprisoned for participating in the slaughter with the families they harmed, and encourage dialogue through community-centered activities.
“Rebuilding the nation requires everyone to help,” Mr. Gashagaza said. “We still have a lot of things to do for our communities, for social cohesion. It’s painful, but it’s a journey of healing.”
In these villages, reconciliation is not just a moment. It is a way of life.
On a patch of property shaded by yellow flowering trees, Jacqueline Mukamana and Mathias Sendegeya sat side by side shelling peanuts and tossing them into a metal pan.
At first glance, the pair could be mistaken for husband and wife, leaning against each other with ease as they shucked the nuts. They were neighbors before the genocide and have known each other most of their lives, after growing up in a nearby village.
In 1994, Ms. Mukamana was 17. Her father, six brothers, five sisters and nine uncles were killed that April. She fled to Burundi. When she returned, her family home was destroyed.
Mr. Sendegeya was among the group that killed her father and four other members of her family, a fact that both speak about frankly but without much detail.
While Mr. Sendegeya takes responsibility for the murders, he believes that the political leaders of the past orchestrated the killings and that without that influence, his life would have been very different.
“That was the fault of the then government that pushed us to kill Tutsis,” he said, his eyes gazing steadily ahead as he echoed a sentiment heard throughout the community from both perpetrators and survivors. “We massacred them, killed and ate their cows. I offended them gravely.”
When he was in jail, he was waiting for death, and reconciliation never crossed his mind, he said.
Mr. Sendegeya re-entered society through a program that allows perpetrators to be released if they seek forgiveness from their victims. While in prison, he had reached out to Ms. Mukamana through Prison Fellowship Rwanda.
“He confessed and asked for forgiveness. He told me the truth,” Ms. Mukamana explained. “We forgave him from our hearts. There is no problem between us.”
But the healing process has taken years.
At first, Mr. Sendegeya feared for his safety. He thought that the genocide survivors living in Mbyo would kill him for what he had done. At the first community meeting that brought all of the residents together, he found it difficult to sit across from them, or even raise his eyes from the ground.
After moving to Mbyo, Ms. Mukamana had her own fears. She knew what the perpetrators had once been capable of, and imagined that Mr. Sendegeya would one day kill her.
Both said living in this facilitated community had allowed them the space to gradually come to a place of trust and forgiveness.
They are now raising a new generation of Rwandans. Mr. Sendegeya has a wife and nine children — six who were born before he went to prison and three who were born after he came back.
Ms. Mukamana and her husband have four children. She has taught them about the history of the genocide, and she said that they knew the role that Mr. Sendegeya had played in killing members of their family, but that they had never feared him.
“Our children have no problem among them,” Mr. Sendegeya said.
Her children will go to his home to make meals, and she sometimes asks him to look after her children when she is away.
“This is the entrance of my home,” Ms. Mukamana said, gesturing to her front door, steps away from where the pair sat together. “Whenever he encounters problems, he may call me and ask for help, and it is the same thing for me.”
(c) 2017 The New York Times