Rwanda is observing the 20th anniversary of its genocide – a three-month killing spree that left close to one million people dead.
The trauma lives on for the women who survived the Rwandan Genocide.
When the killing finally ceased in Rwanda, close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been slaughtered and up to half a million women raped.
Among the estimated 300,000 Tutsi survivors, there were up to 10 times as many widows as widowers. Many of these women had seen their husbands hacked to death with machetes and their children thrown into latrines; some had been abducted, mutilated, gang-raped and infected with HIV.
With nothing left, and no other means of survival, they turned to one another. Widows’ associations were formed, including Avega, which gathered its members into co-operatives that played a leading role in getting rape recognised as an instrument of genocide.
Twenty years on, the challenges confronting Rwanda’s widows have changed. With members approaching old age alone, the association is challenging societal taboos by opening retirement homes.
“Our biggest challenge now is that our members, those who are left, are getting old,” says Avega’s national co-ordinator, Odette Kayirere. “They have no family and no one to look after them. Avega becomes all the family they have.”
The organisation plans to open a home in which older members can not only be looked after, in keeping with Avega’s autonomous tradition, but can also look after one another.
“The women understand what has happened to them, they live with that trauma – but they accept they have another family,” Kayirere says.
Eugenie* was a 23-year-old student when the massacre happened. She was raped, kidnapped and taken to Tanzania by a fleeing member of the Interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary organisation. “It helps that I work with the other survivors in the co-operative. It is a great support, we have come so far, we are united at work,” she says. “We have some power now; we hope for better things to come.”
Other widows are turning to the orphans they adopted, or their surviving children, for support, and an estimated 20,000 women are looking for help from the children they conceived through rape.
Jeanne* is among the 76% of genocidal rape survivors living with HIV. She was 16 when she was attacked and saw her family killed.
“My strategy was to hide during the day and move at night, but after eight days I was so hungry I came out of a bush. I met a man who had a knife, I asked him to shelter me and he gave me some water and a banana,” she says.
“I thought I had found shelter, but this man said to me, ‘if you do not want to die at the hands of the Interahamwe, you have to be my wife.’ But the Interahamwe were his friends. They said, ‘you will rape this girl and we will rape her too.’ Then another gang came in the evening and they raped me too, all of them. Later, villagers came to the house. They said to the men: ‘Do you want to kill this child like this? If you want to kill her, take a machete and kill her outside.’ ”
After escaping, she met an uncle in a refugee camp. When she realised she was pregnant, she begged him to help her get an abortion.
“After the birth I didn’t even want to look at my baby,” she says. “But my uncle told me I had to love my daughter, that she would grow up and be important to me.”