KIGALI – After the horrors of the 1994 genocide, it seemed almost inconceivable that one day, Rwandans of different ethnic backgrounds might live side-by-side in peace.
But early in 1995, women from Karama district in Butare province realized that staying apart from one another, just made things worse. To bridge the divide, they created an association called Ubutwari bwu Kubaho (“the courage to survive”).
The association brings together women who lost their husbands in the genocide, and women whose husbands are on trial for participating in the genocide. The association has become an important point of contact for the two groups. Members do not have to solve problems alone and have learnt to accept the support of those who they once believed to be their enemies.
“I realised I was not the only one with problems. I started listening to other widows, and I discovered we were just the same, and all of us faced the same problems,” Mariana Nyirabarame, one of the survivors in the association, says.
The members of the association meet each week at Karama Parish, where most of the widows’ husbands were killed in 1994. Eugenie Uwamaria, is another of the members of the association. Her husband is in jail for his alleged involvement in the genocide. She says that coming together is helping to heal some of the wounds.
“We were afraid to talk to our neighbours, we thought they wouldn’t respond after all that they’d been through,” but she now sees that it is possible for them to be friends.
But it wasn’t always so easy to socialise in this way. At the beginning, they could only meet in two separate groups. One group was made up of genocide widows, in the other group, wives of genocide suspects.
It was difficult to get the two working together. The community was not ready for it and there was a lack of political tolerance. But what human beings could not achieve, nature forced. Eugenie Uwamariya says it is a prolonged drought that changed the way in which the two groups related to each other.
“When hunger hit our region, some well wishers decided to give some food aid to genocide widows. At that time there was a nun, Sister Thea who used to visit them. The widows told her they wanted to share with us the food aid they had received. The nun called for a meeting between the two groups in which the food aid was distributed. The following day, the nun asked us how we felt about sitting side-by-side. It was such a good experience.”
Mukakigeli Phelomena survived the 1994 genocide but lost her husband and children. She says that now, the association ‘Courage to Survive’ is her family.
“Before I joined the group I was hopeless, but now I feel revived,” she asserts.
The members of the group also credit the efforts of Father Gerome Masinzo in bringing them together.
“We wrote him a letter, asking him to come and help bring us together. He came to the church and called us to join him there. Then he asked what we needed him for. We told him we just needed someone who could help us reunite so as to have peace in our hearts. He accepted and started to teach us the word of God, which helped us much,” says Eugenie Uwamariya.
Verediana Kimpaye and her family fled the ongoing violence in Rwanda to the Congo. Her husband died while in the refugee camps.
“When we returned from exile after the 1994 war, father Gerome Masinzo did a lot for us, it looked as if he had come straight from heaven! He brought us bibles and started to teach us how to set aside our differences and learn to love each other,” she states.
Kimpaye says she can hardly find words to describe the aftermath of the genocide and the difficulties in the relations between the survivors and the rest of the community.
“Things had completely fallen apart. We were accusing each other and saying things such as: ‘you killed my people!’ or ‘You sent my husband to prison!’ But after the priest came, those things stopped,” Kimpaye explains.
Prayer is not the only activity that brings the women together. Genocide widows support prisoners’ wives with food for their husbands, while prisoners’ wives assist the widows with various everyday chores.
Until her recent death from an illness, Mariana Nyirabarame was the head of the association. In an interview granted before she passed away, she told us the association provides both moral support, and practical assistance.
“Let me give you an example. When I was rebuilding my house, my colleagues assisted me until the house was completed. We do everything we can to help each other,” Nyirabarame illustrates. Maria Mukandutiye has also benefited from the active support of her colleagues.
“The association did a lot for me! I remember when I was facing a terrible hunger situation; they gave me a pig which I sold later and got some money to buy food and clothes. I was very happy about it!” she exclaims.
But despite such cooperation, it’s not easy getting by. The association used to have grain mills, but these proved difficult to maintain and do not function now. To start them running again, the association needs assistance from outside.
“Our grain mills have been unworkable for quite a long time. We used to get money for medication fees and other needs from them, but now they’ve become completely useless. We wish we could get support so as to be able to carry on,” Mukakigeli surmises.
The support is needed and maybe even justified and the association of genocide widows association AVEGA, although aware of the problem, faces a challenge in meeting it.
Kayiganwa Aurea is in charge of advocacy, justice and information for AVEGA, she explains the constraints.
“AVEGA alone can’t deal with all problems facing widows, especially at a time when donors have finished what they call their ‘emergent’ phase. But when we come across such problems, advocacy is all we can do to help them get funds.”
If funds can be found, the women of the association ‘Courage to Survive’ will continue their efforts at national reconciliation. One can only wonder how quickly Rwanda would progress, if other communities followed their courageous and compassionate example.
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Internews Justice and Rwanda Project