This Sunday marks the 19th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In the following 100 days, in a country the size of Ulster and half of Leinster, more than one million Rwandan Tutsi were murdered during ethnic strife. It left more than 300,000 orphans, half a million rape victims, thousands infected with HIV and anguish of incomprehensible proportions in this tiny nation of 11.7 million people.
It is impossible to meet anyone anywhere in Rwanda today not affected in some way by that horrific year. There are genocide memorials everywhere, some still being built.
Some 64,000 died seeking refuge in Kabgayi Cathedral, the oldest in the country. Skulls stacked on metal shelving and bloodstained belongings of some of the 5,000 butchered in the Catholic church of Ntarama hang from the rafters, a grotesque reminder of their fate. It is hard to take in the scale of it all, but one incident on a recent trip brought home its chilling legacy.
En route to Ntarama, we passed a line of men dressed in orange climbing into a truck under armed guard. “Genocidaires”, said our driver casually, explaining that they were prisoners convicted for genocide crimes now engaged in community work. Their angry, aggressive looks as we passed were unforgettable.
Beata was living with her husband, five children and other relatives when the slaughtering began.
“The killers came and shot dead everyone in the house except for three of my children who managed to escape. I was shot too and they left assuming I was dead. I lay there with the bodies for four days, a dead child on my back,” she says quietly.
Rescued by the soldiers of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) who finally brought the killings to an end, she eventually managed to find her other children. Her physical wounds were quicker to heal than the psychological scars, but today she has work and hope. Two of her children, now 22 and 24, are students while another is married.
Beata was just one of a group of women artisans we met in Kigali who crochet blown glass beads into vibrant jewellery for a living, working for a fair trade company called Same Sky.
The jewellery, some of which is interwoven with local fabrics, has a huge celebrity following in the US, where fans of the friendship bracelets and necklaces include Chelsea Clinton, Donna Karan, Meryl Streep and Ben Affleck. Same Sky’s mission is to give women in African countries “a hand up, not a hand out”, according to its founder,Francine LeFrak.
Those who work alongside Beata have similar stories. One was raped and orphaned; another lost her parents and entire extended family and has no one in the world who knew who she was.
Julienne not only saw her husband and children murdered but was beaten and raped and now lives with HIV. Making jewellery, however, enables her to pay for medication and support the 24-year- old twins of her dead sister who are now studying at university.
Motivating the women to work is a way of rebuilding hope, says Odette Kayirere, a clinical psychologist and executive secretary of Avega, an organisation founded by 50 genocide widows for the empowerment and reintegration of survivors.
“We have 20,000 widows plus dependents,” she says.
“We have orphans and older women without children. We promote solidarity among genocide survivors and help them overcome trauma through group counselling, motivate them to work and to rebuild hope when they have lost everything. Sharing experiences helps them deal with emotional crises,” she says.
Avega also helps women start small businesses, provides health centres and offers education in all aspects of human rights. Members are categorised according to vulnerability.
At Same Sky, Theresa, who lost her husband and members of her family, recalls the hopelessness, isolation and despair familiar to so many survivors and how she recovered by sharing her experiences with others at Avega.
“It is so important to understand and listen,” she says, as she assembles an iridescent necklace.
“I love working with others and my job means that I can support my children. I don’t feel alone any more.”
Jehovanie, whose parents, brothers and sisters were murdered, but now is responsible for her two small children, concurs. “We console each other and talk about the future rather than the past.”