This article originally appeared on VICE.
Editor's note: All names have been changed.
At the entrance to Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, Rwanda, armed guards stand beside painted letters that read, No Corruption. Through the gates, I spot guards escorting inmates around. Prisoners wear pink if they are awaiting a sentence, and orange if they are serving one.
During the three-month long Rwandan Genocide 20 years ago, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died at the hands of their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. After the catastrophe ended, a huge amount of people needed to be prosecuted, but there were limited resources to conduct the trials. To speed up the prosecution procedure, a system of local justice called gacaca courts was brought in. Trials were held in villages, where victims and their families publicly confronted the accused before their communities.
Gaining access to a prison here is a complicated affair that involves collecting and submitting several letters of recommendation, culminating in written permission from the Rwanda Correctional Services. After supplying all the necessary proofs, I wait on a couch in the reception area and then speak to two former Rwandan genocidaires: Justine, a 50-year-old woman wearing a polka-dot orange head scarf, and Thomas, a 54-year-old man who wears a watch on his wrist and shakes my hand before he sits down.
VICE: Why are you in prison?
Justine: I'm here because of the genocide issues. I was part of the ruling party, and I did participate in what happened to my neighbors. When the genocide started, a roadblock was set up beside my house. They said they were trying to capture the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] soldiers there. I didn't know it was a genocide; I just believed that this was true. It continued, and my neighbors were killed. To save my family members, I began killing people too and was in the Interahamwe [a Hutus militia].
How long is your sentence?
I've been in prison since 1996, but in 2007 I was released and allowed go home. But later they pressed more charges against me, and after three years, I was brought back again. I had already confessed to everything that I did and had asked for forgiveness. I thought it was over — people tell me that I'll be here for a lifetime.
Why were you brought back to prison?
They set up the gacaca courts, and everybody comes to blame you when you're being judged. They say that one person killed all the people in their area, when that would not have been possible.
Many people were affected, and as time passes and they haven't found it, they want someone to blame. They get angry and say things, and the list of things you are blamed for keeps getting longer. The gacaca courts meant that there were a lot of accusations directed at one person. I had no chance to say what exactly I had done — they wanted me to say that I was someone who was killing everybody. The people who are having charges pressed on them now are not receiving charges from the people they harmed. It's the government taking issue with them now.
The crimes we committed, we confessed to them long ago. The survivors have already pressed their charges. The people from my area have forgiven me; it's the government now that is pressing charges that are not true.
So for me, more accusations came up later. There was also a person in my area who shared a name with me, and died in August 1994. They're probably pressing her charges. All I know is I said what I did and confessed to that already, but later I failed to get someone to defend me from the further charges. In the gacaca courts, if you didn't have a supporter, then you lost.
It's still incomprehensible to a lot of people that so many Rwandans were mobilized to go out and kill people. Do you have any idea how so many people ended up participating?
I was working at the airport as a receptionist. We used to read newspapers. When [President Habyarimana's] airplane was shot down, it was read out on RTLM [Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines]. Those newspapers and radio stations gave and planted hatred in the people. After the plane crashed, they said you had to be watchful, that there were people around you who wanted you dead. It's likely that the media contributed a lot. RTLM told people that it was getting its information from the Tutsi radio. When you read the newspapers, it puts something in your head. And I read it because I needed to know what was going on.
The genocide came to an end because of the victory of the RPA, a majority Tutsi army. How did you react to that?
At the beginning when the genocide ended, we were so shocked. We thought if we had killed that we would be killed, but instead they gave us the best treatment. We got water, food, showers. We were never mistreated. We live in the best way, unlike the survivors — we watched films about how the others were treated. People who say the government of Rwanda is bad are wrong. If you're sick, you get medicine. We can't visit our families, but they can visit us.
Is there any distinction made inside the prison between those who participated in the genocide and those who were convicted of other offenses?
No. I'm touched by the way all the prisoners live together. With my life sentence, I associate with people who are just serving 30 days. Sometimes people feel guilty about that because of the terrible things they did and how they are now treated. There's no distinction here based on people's crimes. The only separation is between those who have kids, because they need more attention.
Do you think that there would be a possibility of the tensions ever flaring up again in Rwanda?
If the government continues to teach people the bad impact that the past had, it won't repeat itself. It's important to plant love in them.
How long is your sentence?
Thomas: My sentence is 30 years.
Many say that the media, along with the politicians, played a large role in mobilizing so many Rwandans to commit such huge atrocities. Would you agree?
The fire was lighted by the media, because the leaders used it to get their message across. People say the genocide was sparked by the plane crash, but I think it was the media that lit the fire.
Do you think that the existing tensions continued after the end of the genocide?
In 2002 and 2003 before the gacaca [courts], the citizens were not living in a good way, but they tried to reunite the people and hosted teachings in the prisons. I was a leader, so now I teach people here. I want to reverse my previous teachings — I want to teach peace instead.
What's your normal day like in here?
Here in prison we do sports from 7 to 8 AM, and then study subjects like electricity studies, mechanics, and other practicals. Then later on we all work in different areas. I work in the security department.
Did you do anything to mark the recent genocide commemoration events?
Yes, we held an event in the church.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame's term comes to an end in 2017. He was a former RPA leader. How do you think the country will change when he leaves office? Do you think the country can remain as peaceful under the leadership of someone else?
The constitution [that says his term will end] was implemented by people over two periods, so people can still change the constitution. Even the president can change his mind, and he's not saying a word. In prison we're not allowed to vote though, so I will have no say in that.
All photos by Sally Hayden
Follow Sally Hayden onTwitter: @sallyhayd