Godelive Mukasarasi has always exhibited qualities of selflessness, mostly owing to the strong sense of community she observed growing up. Her parents often went out of their way to help others, providing assistance to neighbours who needed it. This, she says, is what drove her to pursue employment as a social worker, which she did for 25 years, in addition to various church-led charity activities. ALSO READ: New documentary offers lessons on post-genocide Rwanda Fondly called ‘Mama Sevota’ by almost everyone who knows her, Mukasarasi, gained admiration and respect for her compassionate role in helping widows and orphans in the aftermath of the catastrophe—even in the face of her own misfortune. Her story Born in 1956, in Gitarama, Muhanga District, Mukasarasi had a happy childhood, raised in a family with strong Christian convictions. Mukasarasi later relocated to Taba in the Southern Province, after she met and got married to Emmanuel Rudasingwa, with whom she had four children. Before all her endeavours, Mukasarasi was just an ordinary Roman Catholic Christian, mother, wife, and an engaged member of society. But in April 1994, her faith was put to the ultimate test. During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, her area of residence, Taba, was the scene of some of the most horrific massacres and atrocities committed. Armed Interahamwe militia murdered hundreds of Tutsi and Tutsi women were savagely raped, Mukasarasi’s daughter being a victim of rape too. As the atrocities worsened, her house was burnt to ashes by Interahamwe, whom she says promised to return to wipe her family out. Forced to flee, Mukasarasi’s family was mostly saved by different neighbours who would hide them for a day or two, before chasing them away for fear of being identified and killed as well. She recalls how they found themselves face-to-face with death many times, instances where the killers would be distracted by deserted homes to steal from, hence allowing Mukasarasi and her family to flee, again and again, and other times, they would have to pay money in exchange for another day to live. “I pleaded with God over and over again, asking him for protection for my family. I would say, ‘God, if you keep them safe, I will honour you eternally’,” Mukasarasi shared, adding, “But I didn’t even know what that thing would be.” After numerous days and nights of cold, hunger, despair and constant death threats, Mukasarasi finally made it to the Inkotanyi camps, where they were protected. Her prayers were answered; her entire family survived. “After the Genocide, I remember thinking to myself that maybe I should set up an orphanage, or for children born from rape. There were many cases around and the mothers were either traumatised or had rejected the kids,” she said. Mukasarasi discussed the idea with her husband but was dissuaded from it. He said, “Look at us! Poor and only fortunate to still be alive. How do you intend to sustain an orphanage?” “And it was true, I had no means to do that despite feeling guilty about the promise I had made to God in my prayers,” Mukasarasi says. Following the conversation with her husband, from time to time, she would experience vision-like moments during church mass, or even while sleeping. “I was continuously thinking about weeping women; widows, and those who had lost their children and were the sole survivor of their families. I would see children who were poorly dressed and crying, most likely abandoned orphans. Then I’d see them again, totally transformed and joyful. That’s when I decided I was going to do something no matter what,” she said. The mission With her meagre resources, Mukasarasi founded SEVOTA in 1994 in Kamonyi District, with the goal to assist widows and women whose children had been killed during the Genocide. Later, they widened the scope to encompass orphans and children conceived of rape during the Genocide. The organisation stands firm today with the help of a trained team, working to promote peace and non-violence among Genocide widows and orphans, as well as the reconciliation among Rwandans. Earlier on this journey, Mukasarasi was adamant that recognising crimes and the perpetrators was essential to achieving reconciliation. But in 1996, together with her husband, they consented to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a body established by the UN Security Council to bring to justice those accountable for the Genocide. ALSO READ: One woman’s efforts to restore livelihood, self-worth of Genocide survivors They consented to give their testimony, making them the first to do so in Rwanda, in the trial’s initial case against their then mayor, Akayesu, who actively participated in several killings during the Genocide as a supervisor and compiled a list of Tutsis who were to be slain. Unfortunately, shortly before appearing before the court, her daughter and husband were murdered by armed militia, something that shook Mukasarasi and made her question her initial convictions. “I was sure I was going to quit SEVOTA. Because I didn’t see any more value I could still bring to the group. Now, I was also a widow and had lost my child,” she recalls. She continues, “But then the same women showed up for me, checked on me and kept asking me to join them for the weekly gatherings since I had stopped attending them. I couldn’t let them down. We were in the same struggle now more than ever.” After a long and complex trial, Akayesu was finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998, and found guilty of nine crimes, including genocide and direct and public incitement to commit genocide. It was marked a landmark ruling because it was the first time that the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was applied. Mukasarasi was then honoured for her courage with the 2011 Human Rights International Award, the 2018 International Women of Courage Award and many other various awards. The government of Rwanda also honoured her with the ‘Umurinzi w’ Igihango’ pendant. “The issue of sexual violence against women during and after a conflict has an impact on them and their communities as a whole. We had to fight to have it recognised and have them supported,” she notes. SEVOTA remains operational. It provides medical care for survivors of sexual violence during the Genocide including those who contracted HIV. It also provides them with psychological support, among other things. Mukasarasi states that having visionary leadership was essential in the fight for gender equality. “Regardless of your motivations, you can’t really make a major impact on your own. You need all the help you can get, from the women, the government, and everyone else,” she says. Since its inception, SEVOTA has made many milestones, which include; creating and following up 60 groups that carry out small projects, made up of 900 widows and 214 parents who have adopted orphans; forming 10 ‘Hope and Peace’ clubs made up of 600 (and counting) orphans and vulnerable children; supporting 100 women of violations committed during the Genocide through the creation of a Network for Women for Peace in Kamonyi District, to mention a few. “Looking back, I’m amazed by all that has happened, and all the women I have had the honour of meeting. It has indeed been a long and challenging journey,” she says. This article is part of the Herstory Initiative – an exploration of women’s rights and gender equality organizing journey in Rwanda by the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation and ImagineWe.