KIGALI – On April 7th Rwanda will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in which over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed while the international community wrangled over whether or not to intervene.
Ten years on, the scars that the genocide left still haunt the Rwandan psyche, but one does not need to go too far to see the devastating effects of the mass murder campaign against the Tutsi.
Pierre Kavubi is one of 27,000 people who became physically disabled as a result of the genocide. In a poor country with an economy that is just recovering from the war, life is difficult and most of them are still severely traumatised by their ordeal.
Kavubi is a technician by training. During the genocide, his wife and children were killed. The attackers thought that he too was dead and threw him into a pit latrine. He survived but his hands were badly wounded and maimed.
“Look at my fingers!” he tells Internews, showing the stumps of what used to be full and active digits. “I can only use two of them,” he says. “It’s even hard for me to hold a screwdriver.”
Kavubi says he still suffers the psychological impact of his experiences. “I think my mind was affected. I’m absent-minded most of the time.”
Therese Karanganwa used to be an active woman before the genocide, but today even the most basic house hold chores are difficult. She lost the use of her hands after the nerve endings were severed by machetes.
Mukantabana Denise lost her husband and all her children during the genocide. Their killers also cut off her right arm with a machete. These days, she relies on AVEGA, a local association caring for genocide widows, which provides her medicine and other basic needs.
”The worst time is when I can’t work, that’s when I feel really bad.”
Although a significant number of Rwandans were maimed during the genocide, many more lost their limbs to exploding landmines and bullets in the ensuing war.
Olivier Ahorukomeye was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Army, the forces that put an end to the genocide. He lost his arm and now earns a living as a moneychanger. He accepts his disabilities as a matter of fact and as one of the consequences of being a soldier.
”When I joined up, I was sure of three things: life, death or disability.”
But not everyone can be so philosophical. Barakagwira Leoncia lost her arm in 1994 and now scrapes by from begging. She doesn’t take kindly to Internews questions about the challenges she faces and what can be done to alleviate them.
“I’d like to say something to the government of unity. We’ve been on the streets since 1994. People take pictures of us, pretending they’ll help. But look around. What’s changed? Nothing!”
But not all disabled Rwandans live in misery. Emmanuel Gatera is a successful businessman, despite his disabilities. He runs the Mulindi Japan One Love project, which makes artificial limbs for others like him. All the people working on the artificial limbs are demobilised soldiers or people who have disabilities. The project creates jobs for them and at the same time, helps others in need.
He says the government has made some efforts to facilitate their work.
“For example, we don’t pay taxes on equipment we import or on the items we sell. Those taxes are paid by the people who buy them.”
Disabled people see their own dilemma very clearly because they live it every day. For most ordinary Rwandans the question of how to help them is sometimes simply overwhelming.
“They’re poor, they can’t do anything. Of course, not all able-bodied persons are rich; but for the disabled, life is very hard,” a lady running a small shop near the Kigali Central Hospital says. Her colleague, Rehema , agrees. “They are so many in the streets; most of them are beggars, with little hope”
A man who preferred anonymity is more forthright with his frustration. “There are so many disabled people, you can’t help them all!”
It is a pessimistic view that Innocent Twagirayezu has to constantly fight against. Twagirayezu is the disabled people’s representative in the Rwandan national assembly. He thinks the biggest problem is that many Rwandans think disabled people have nothing to offer.
“I know someone who passed a test for a job, but when he presented himself at the office, the employer could hardly believe his eyes! Society still marginalizes disabled people.”
Jean Marie Ngarambe a business man in Kigali thinks that things are slowly changing.
“In the past, disabled people were not considered. But now, things have improved. For example, they now have representation in parliament.”
Innocent Twagirayezu believes representation is a step in the right direction but says the society needs to see the physically disabled as important members of society, and as people who have a lot to contribute to the current dialogue on issues of justice and reconciliation.
But the forgiveness and reconciliation necessary for healing is not so easy. Zachary Bazatuma used to work on tea plantations until his leg was severed by a land mine. Now he makes a meagre living as a beggar. He is cryptic about his views on the process of uniting Rwandans.
“We need reconciliation. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
For Denise Mukantabana the process is one of overriding importance. “We have to reconcile, whatever the price! Our country needs to make progress.”
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Internews Justice and Rwanda Project