Genocide: Women survivors recollect the thorny journey to recovery

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After 23 years, many survivors are yet to recover from the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

They say time heals, but for 30-year-old Josiane Ishimwe, it is taking longer. Twenty three years later, she is yet to recover from an incident that robbed her of her innocence during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.  On the ill-fated day,  Ishimwe and her mother were running for their dear lives when a ‘good Samaritan’ offered them a safe haven. Little did they know that the ‘good samaritan’ would sexually abuse them and infect them with HIV.  He raped the mother, and also molested Ishimwe who was just seven years old. As the genocide commemoration week starts tomorrow,  it will be yet another trying period as survivors like Ishimwe recall the brutality that was meted on them during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.  

When I met Ishimwe last week, it was a heart breaking moment as she narrated her childhood ordeal.  Recalling what happened to her 23 years ago, revokes memories of agony.  She lets out the pain that sits deep in her heart as she recalls the suffering she endured at a very tender age.

“The genocide started when I was seven years old, I remember I was done with kindergarten. Our mother took me and my little brother to seek refuge at a neighbour’s place, but they weren’t as welcoming. They always threatened to throw us out, we later had to look for another hiding place,” she recalls.

Day and night they endured heavy rains and throbbing hunger as they tried to avoid getting in the way of the killers. The wilderness became their home with little hope for survival.

“After nights of running we stopped and camped in a bush that was far from the road, this is where a man came across us and offered us shelter. But he later turned against us, he would rape my mother regularly, and later he turned to me and molested me. He threatened to kill me if I told anyone. It was when I started bleeding that mother came to know, we had to flee his home,” she recalls as tears soak her face.

With their hope of surviving fast waning, luck came their way when they met with Inkotanyi (the liberators) and this is how they survived.

Sadly Ishimwe’s mother passed on in 2002 after succumbing to HIV/AIDS related illness.

Regardless of what she went through, Ishimwe has slowly picked up the pieces.  Before, she led a life of despair as an orphan living with HIV. The thought of committing suicide constantly crossed her mind but leaving her brothers without any one to take care of them was not something she would do.

But all hope was not lost.  She later joined a group of women survivors, Appui psychosocial des femmes victims des violences sexuelles, a move that gave her a second chance at life.

“By the time I joined this group I was on the verge of committing suicide; everyone knew I was HIV positive since I started medication at a very tender age. I had no means of survival; I mostly did simple chores in exchange for some little cash yet I had to take care of my siblings,” she narrates.

Today, life has turned for the better, she is now a married woman and a mother of one, she has her own house and has managed to shape the future of her brothers, one of them joined the Police force while the other has joined university.

Ishimwe is just one out of the scores of women whose lives were extremely affected by the genocide; some have managed to heal while others are still struggling with the effects of the genocide which left over one million people dead.

Emilienne Mukansoro one of the founders of Appui psychosocial des femmes victims des violences sexuelles, a project that helps women survivors in Muhanga  says that by the time she started the initiative, survivors had lost hope.

The pain these women felt was despicable, most were still struggling to get to terms with the reality, she recalls, and this is the major reason why she started the project. 

“We started this project in 2012 with the late Dr Naasson Munyandamutsa, as social workers we thought it better to look out for the psychological well being of the survivors because they needed their emotional stability back more than anything.”

She says the start wasn’t easy at all; women were experiencing a lot of trauma to the extent that most of the sessions were filled with nervous breakdowns, some used to faint and it was only an ambulance that would come to the rescue.

“The women were facing a lot of struggles and we thought of starting up an initiative that would help them heal emotionally. This would later lead to subsequent physical healing which we have so far managed to achieve,” Mukansoro says.

Aside from helping rebuild their lives, the women are given skills on how to be self reliant.

Many of the survivors have since picked up the pieces and are now healing. They are engaged in different economic activities like farming, others are into crafts and animal rearing where as others have ventured into small businesses that help them earn a living.

Mukansoro says that though much has been attained, there is still a challenge when it comes to stigmatization from the societies these women live in.

“Some of these women still live in areas where they were raped from; they feel guilty because they were blaming themselves for what happened to them. We are working hard to deal with this, it’s still hard but this is my target now.”

Mukansoro believes that if more organizations came up to help survivors, more success will be achieved because from her observation, women have done much healing because of the interaction they have with fellow survivors, even those who were on the verge of committing suicide got the courage to live on.

Pascaline Mujawase was in her early thirties when the killings started, and it wasn’t long when the killers’ next stop was on her door step. It was too late for her to escape the blood thirsty killers.

“That day the killers came purposely for me, they dragged me out of my hiding place. I had a three-month old baby and they told me that I should breastfeed her for the last time, I sat quietly waiting to breath my last,” she recalls.

“Fortunately one of the killers suggested that they should spare me since I was married to a man from their tribe, this is how I survived death, but that was just the beginning of a past I would never forget,” she adds.

Mujawase was raped by a gang of men who after their shameful acts physically assaulted her and left her for dead.

“If one tells you that they survived the genocide, you need to understand that what they went through was agonizing beyond limit. I lost my family, my child and everyone else; you can wonder how one can get the courage to embrace each day of this distressing life.”

She, however, says that ever since she joined the survivors’ group, life has been better. She says her past cannot be changed but at least her future has light and hope in it.

“I thank Emilienne for her generous heart; she has been there for us and has dried my tears. She has taught us so many things; we can now be self reliant and have managed to find solace.”

Claudine Uwamahoro is at a loss of words when she starts recalling what happened during the genocide. Now in her late fifties, the mother of seven still mourns for her only daughter who was massacred during the war; it’s a wound in her heart that will never heal.

She was tortured and recalls men pondering on whether to spare her or slit her throat, “you can only imagine fellow humans deciding the fate of your life as if I had committed a crime of being who I was. I remember as they dragged me to the place where they wanted to kill me from, they would often stop and beat me till they got tired and then continued with the journey.

During the genocide, Uwamahoro lost her daughter, her husband and relatives but luckily her other children survived. She has lived a life of struggle but thanks to the group, her life too is gaining momentum.  

“We have now managed to go on with our daily activities knowing that at some point we are meeting with fellow survivors to comfort each other.”

How can women Genocide survivors be offered a helping hand?

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Mukantabana

I think more should be done for the widows, but this should depend on their current situation and age. For the young, they should be empowered economically to be self-reliant, whereas the elderly need to be comforted and helped in all always -

Cressence Mukantabana, Woman Activist

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Murungi

Women survivors can be mobilised and be comforted that there is still hope. We should be united such that we fight genocide never to happen again. For those who were sexually abused, they should continue getting counselling. I know it’s not easy but they should understand that it’s not the end of the world and fight for their future-

Patience Murungi, Student

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Nyirabareba

I understand different organisations have done a lot to help women survivors and I think the efforts need to continue. They still need people to be by their side and encourage them to work towards a better future.

Marita Nyirabareba, Farmer

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Nyange

I really applaud what the government has done so far for the Genocide survivors. Women have come from far and now there is actually hope for a better tomorrow. What we can do is continue offering the support we can in all ways, either emotional or financially.

Martha Nyange, Student