Netflix’s Trees of Peace tells the story of four women who hide in an underground cellar during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. Despite facing terrible circumstances, they overcome their differences and develop an unbreakable bond of sisterhood. The film is inspired by actual events.
Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers
Trees of Peace opens by introducing the conflict that Rwanda was plagued by in 1994. When the Hutu president was killed in April, Hutus began eliminating Tutsis across the country, resulting in the death of over 1 million people in three months.
This conflict between the two tribes had been instigated by Belgian colonisers in the early 1900s. Amid the slaughter, a pregnant Hutu woman, Annick (Eliane Umuhire), hides in the underground storage area of her house, beneath the kitchen, with three other women, rescued by her husband Francois (Tongayi Chirisa).
As Francois goes away to get more supplies, the women get acquainted with each other. The first of the remaining three ladies is an American volunteer at the local church, Peyton (Ella Cannon), followed by a nun, Jeanette (Charmaine Bingwa), and finally a Tutsi farm girl, Mutesi (Bola Koleosho).
While three of the women are quite respectful and nice, Mutesi is rude and starts off by passing comments on Annick who is a Hutu herself. She replies that she does belong to the tribe that is murdering the Tutsis but she is a moderate and that puts her in equal danger.
The first problem they solve is finding a way to relieve themselves since the small room only opens from the outside. Peyton notices a hole beneath a loose floorboard and removes it to allow the women to pee.
Entering the third day, Annick talks about her love story and shares that she has had four miscarriages. Jeanette blesses her and exclaims that the boy she is pregnant with will be the one to survive. However, Mutesi still shows no signs of compassion or sympathy.
They then notice a group of boys playing football from a small opening in the storage room. The boys are confronted by a Hutu man who tells them off for playing during the time of “cleansing”.
Another day passes and the ladies spend time by playing games and talking until they hear a Tutsi woman running for her life. They try to find a way to attract her attention but are unable to. She is unfortunately cornered, raped and killed by a pair of Hutu men. This incident traumatises the four women as they question if they could have saved the one they saw die.
Later that night Mutesi blames Annick for the gruesome incident as she refused to alert the lady outside. Jeanette tries to calm things down by using God’s name but Mutesi refutes her by mentioning that the time for faith has long passed. She even goes on to say that Francois is probably dead and won’t ever return.
Mutesi reveals that she was also abused by her uncle as a child and therefore hates what she witnessed. Jeanette confides in them that her father, who was a priest, also used to force himself onto her mother.
The next day they find food in Peyton’s bag and Mutesi goes back to her antics as she blames her for letting them starve. Jeanette, despite being stern about her beliefs uses the opportunity to sneak an apple under her gown. Peyton shares the food and defends her actions by confessing that she was saving it for the worst case scenario.
Another day later, the women talk about languages and Annick asks Peyton to read aloud from a book that is in her bag. It is called “Seeds of Love, Trees of Peace”. While this is going on, Francois returns with rations and asks Peyton to leave with him as the UN is evacuating white people.
Instead of taking the opportunity to leave, she breaks down and refuses to go. Realising it is too late as the militia comes closer, Francois locks them inside again, promising to return soon. Mutesi berates her for choosing to stay as it would increase their ration division but Annick asks her why she didn’t think about her loved ones.
Peyton reveals that she was responsible for her little brother’s death during a drunk driving incident and since then, her family never cared about her. She tried to commit suicide but didn’t succeed. Therefore, she came to Rwanda as a volunteer to atone for her sins.
This revelation irks Jeanette. Being a woman of God, she comments that nothing can save Peyton’s soul as trying to take one’s life is the biggest sin. Peyton claps back at her by saying that despite being a nun, she doesn’t accept the fact that she’s the daughter of a rapist.
Annick uses this opportunity to put Mutesi in her place. She tells her that even if she has been abused, that does not give her the right to be cruel to others. Everyone has their own struggles and it would do her well to consider that she could receive the same treatment.
The wait grows longer until Francois finally returns with rations but there is a knock on the door as he hands them over. He quickly locks the women in again as a few members of the Hutu militia enter. They question him and leave as the ladies wait in shock. Francois departs again.
An intense altercation takes place when Mutesi attempts to consume the rations without proper division. Annick slaps her, and she returns the gesture by trying to choke her. Peyton and Jeanette pull her off but Jeanette almost kills Mutesi instead.
They find the remains of the apple Jeanette stole and she breaks down. Annick and Peyton hug her while Mutesi — still uptight — looks on. Peyton then starts teaching the others about English and they use crayons to write on the walls of the room as they practice.
If you still have doubts about the ending, here’s a full breakdown.
Trees of Peace ending explained in detail:
Even though Annick can speak English very well, she finally learns reading and writing it, thanks to Peyton’s efforts. She decides to write letters for her soon-to-be-born son and Jeanette asks her to read one.
She narrates a letter in which she addresses their current situation. Then surprisingly, she touches upon her companions, the burden each of them is carrying and hopefully, they can let it go.
This prompts Mutesi to speak up and divulge her past. She confesses that her anger and resentment comes from the fact that while she was being abused by her uncle, no one said or did anything. People who were mother and father figures to her, kept silent in fear of shame.
She adds that she doesn’t want to die with this anger and will do everything in her powers to protect her companions. The woman embrace and vow to survive this hell together.
Mutesi finally adds her name to the wall where the other three had written theirs as a symbol of their bond and time together. They ask Annick to name her child and she decides to call him Elijah — the middle name of the author of “Seeds of Love, Trees of Peace”. She then puts his name on the wall as well.
With over 50 days in the room, the women start losing energy and their time learning languages and playing games seems to be doing no good. Francois’ visits become less frequent therefore they have to survive on minimal food.
On day 56, he arrives with supplies but is worse for wear himself. He breaks down and tells them that no one is coming to save them. It is a lost battle and everyone they knew is dead.
Being a teacher, Francois hides in a science school nearby but with increasing roadblocks, finds it difficult to return to the women. Annick has a heartfelt moment with him before he leaves again. The day counter ticks to over 70 now and Annick starts hallucinating death and pain.
On day 73, Mutesi reads a note penned by Annick while everyone sleeps. In that she talks about her lost hope and wish for death. Amid this, Peyton has a seizure but survives. Finally, Francois arrives on day 77 with some food and gives them a good news.
He reveals that the rebel army is fighting back and winning. Hutus are fleeing and the roadblocks are almost abandoned. He tells them that he can escort them to Hôtel des Mille Collines — a safe place for refugees — later that night.
The women realise that they will be free in just one more day and bide their time as they consume the limited fresh supplies.
The next night, Francois doesn’t arrive and they hear Hutus outside torturing Tutsi kids. They threaten a teacher who worked with Francois to tell them his location and kill the children. He does so in desperation to survive but still ends up getting shot.
The women realise that the Hutus now know about the school where Francois is hiding and this terrifies Annick. Later, Mutesi convinces them to try and break out of the room and they try to push open the door but the lock doesn’t budge.
At that moment, members of the militia enter the house and start searching for the women. As they break things they talk loudly about how they found Francois, getting a confession out of him as they tortured and killed him. The revelation breaks Annick but the Hutus are called away before they can find the women.
Day 81 arrives and a distraught Annick finally regains hope when her baby kicks after a long time. Mutesi uses a sharp object to try and open the lock and it gives way as the other push. The women crawl out of the hole in the ground and embrace in the kitchen.
They hear a vehicle stop outside and men come in. Waiting for death, they are relieved to see that Francois is with them and they are rebel fighters. The four survivors finally get rescued as Annick’s voice-over talks about how they lost everything but found each other. Now, it is time for them to find healing and peace together.
The film ends with closing text that reveals how after the genocide, women survivors have led the political movement of healing and forgiveness in the country. Rwanda now has the highest percentage of women appointed as government officials compared to any country in the world.
It also reveals how the Gacaca courts – a system of community justice formed in 2001 — helped the country to reconcile and heal. Due to the courts’ efforts, thousands of people have forgiven their hunters and are finding peace as neighbours.