Joseph Ntakiyimana is a 26-year-old university student who survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Twenty years after the pogrom in which many of his relatives and friends were killed, he has reconstituted a family of new friends and people he currently calls his brothers, sisters and parents.
This has been realized through what is known as AERG Family, a group that members have gradually got accustomed to calling a family even if it is an association.
AERG is an association of students who survived Genocide. Its organisational entity starts with a family of 26 students at every secondary school or university where survivors live and study.
Founded in 1996, its creators wanted it to be a solution for survivor students, many of whom didn’t have families to belong to and felt the need to create one from wherever they were living - secondary schools and institutions of higher learning.
An AERG family of 26 students elects a father and a mother who have responsibilities of looking after family members and receiving their enquiries and requests related to their social protection needs on a daily basis.
Family heads report the requests to the association’s leadership at school level and national levels and solutions are sought and provided.
Naftali Ahishakiye, the executive secretary of Ibuka; the umbrella organisation for 15 Genocide survivors’ associations, says associations like AERG have helped to bring survivors together and avoid a situation of loneliness.
“Without these associations, Genocide survivors would be living in miserable conditions and lagging behind in terms of rehabilitation,” he said.
Ntakiyimana agrees with that statement.
“Members comforted me so much in 2005 when my biological family was going to pay tribute to my two brothers, uncles, aunts, and other family members who were killed in the Genocide in Rusizi district,” he said.
He recalls that he was then studying at Ecole Secondaire de Mukingi (ESEM) in Southern Province’s Muhanga district where his AERG family used to counsel and support him materially.
“In AERG family, when we meet we are not egoistic. We listen to each other’s testimony and discover that we are not ther greatest sufferers after all. That consoles and pushes us to always care for each other,” Ntakiyimana said.
When he joined A-level at the Adventist College in Gitwe, Southern Province, Ntakiyimana was elected a father of one AERG family at the school.
The association at the school built such strong ties that some of its members committed to continuing with different activities to help their new family members even after leaving school, Ntakiyimana said.
In 2009, more than 38 students who included Ntakiyimana, started an association dubbed Isano Hope Family where they committed to regularly contribute some money to cater for emergencies and start businesses.
They opened an account in Banque Populaire du Rwanda and started depositing Rwf500 every month.
“So far we have more than Rwf2.5million on the account. The money helps us in social activities such as rehabilitation of houses, upkeep at school and other things,” he said.
Isano Hope Family, which has some members that have either completed school or are employed, is still mobilizing funds to start a supermarket.
As of now, the group’s members have small businesses, including two photocopiers and three that pop-corn machines.
Ntakiyimana, who says that belonging to an association of fellow Genocide survivors has boosted his confidence, has also registered a civil engineering consulting company with the Rwanda Development Board.
He says that his dream is to become an international consultant in the engineering field.
Methode Ruzimbana, AERG’s vice president, said the benefits of belonging to the association are countless. They include belonging to a new family that understands survivors’ issues and easy attraction of sponsors who might want to improve the life of young genocide survivors.
One of the latest achievements for AERG is a shelter built in Kigali; the One Dollar Building, which is a shelter for vulnerable and often homeless AERG members.
It was built by contributions from Rwandans in the country and the diaspora who donated money through the One Dollar Campaign project.
The campaign’s outcome is now visible in Kagugu and Kinyinya sector with the four-storey One Dollar Building which has more than 50 rooms. The building will be able to host about 190 student Genocide survivors by April 2014.
Other associations for Genocide Survivors
Apart from AERG, other associations of Genocide survivors like the Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA), draw specific fields of intervention and they are created with specific purposes to improve living conditions of special groups among Genocide survivors.
Some survivors remain with critical need for shelter, medication, education and counseLling for mental illness.
Their associations provide advocacy and put pressure on the government to put in place policies to support survivors.
A taskforce under the country’s Prime Minister has been working to tackle wrangles among the genocide survivors’ properties after Ibuka complained about the matter.
The government has also set up the National Fund for Genocide survivors (FARG) and the National Commission against the Genocide (CNLG) to ensure that queries from genocide survivors have a place to be heard and responses availed.
Jean de Dieu Mucyo, who is the executive secretary of CNLG, said survivors’ associations are very important for their resilience after the Genocide because they help to highlight survivors’ issues among other challenges.
“The associations are very important. They really help us deal with the aftermath of the Genocide, especially by the counselling they provide for their members. I do not figure out how Genocide challenges would be dealt with if these associations were not in place,” he said.