[Kigali, 7 April 2014] 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 cooperatives 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 coordinator, 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 cooperative. It is a great support, we have come so far, we are united at work," she says. "We have some power now; we are not beggars and 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, 35, 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."
She finds strength in the love of her children, she adds. "When I am unhappy, they are the ones who calm me down. ’We are going to work; we are going to build a house for you Mum, be calm’ – this is what they say."
In 1994, Eugenia was 16. Each of her nine family members was killed during the violence. She survived by hiding in the hills. She was found by a member of the militia and taken to Tanzania. "He said: ’This is the one I am left with; I will do what I want with her’ … I became pregnant. I was still a young girl and did not know how a girl could be in this situation, so I thought I must have a sickness. I told him, but he started saying: ’How can I get rid of this snake?’"
After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized Kigali from government forces, Eugenia returned to Rwanda. "Others came back and left their children on the side of the road, but I persevered. I took my child – I was a child looking after a child," she says.
Some children who are born of genocidal rape receive help from Foundation Rwanda, a charity that helps with school fees, books, uniforms and transport.
"These children face great challenges and a lot of stigma in their lives," says programme coordinator Sam Munderere. "And for their mothers, the pain is severe – 20 years on, the effects of the genocide are still reverberating. We help as many as we can, but we can’t support them all – and our future is in jeopardy. Most of our children still have several years to go, but we do not know if we will have enough funding to continue next year."
Eugenia is concerned about the future. Her son, Olivier, was receiving assistance until recently, but his funding has been cut and she cannot afford his $100-a-term (£60) school fees. "My biggest worry is that my child needs to be schooled and I cannot afford it," Eugenia says. "It hurts me that I cannot support him. Although he is a child of the history, I want him to be like other children. It would be such a relief if he could just live like the others."
Janette Gahongayire, Avega coordinator in Eastern province, whose husband was killed during the genocide, said widows would continue to support one another through old age. The women had been on a journey, she added, which was not yet over. "After the genocide, we said: ’What are we going to do? Are we going to carry on talking and crying? We have to do something.’ And we continue in that spirit," Gahongayire says.
Back at Avega’s central offices in Kigali, Kayirere says this year will be particularly difficult for the women, when many genocide survivors will return to their villages to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. "We can’t forget," she says. "We don’t want to stay in the past, but we can’t forget what happened. You can’t forget your child or your husband – that trauma lives on in us. We have to remember."
* Names changed to protect identities