Kwibuka25: Trauma, Genocide ideology, are the most sticking issues for survivors – Ibuka

Naphtal Ahishakiye, the Executive Secretary of Ibuka during the exclusive interview. Courtesy.

Today marks 25 years since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi broke out in Rwanda, a killing frenzy that in which over a million innocent lives would be killed in cold blood, within just 100 days.

According to the umbrella organisation of Genocide survivors, Ibuka, a lot has been achieved in rebuilding the social economic lives of the survivors of the massacre, but issues such as trauma and genocide ideology are still a challenge.

In an exclusive interview, Naphtal Ahishakiye, the Executive Secretary of Ibuka, took The New Times’ Nasra Bishumba through what has been achieved and what remains to be done.

Below are the excerpts.

In terms of transformation, where can you say a Genocide survivor is 25 years later?

In the last 25 years, there has been tremendous transformation in terms of rebuilding lives. I can say that we are on a very good track.

We initially had issues of accommodation but as of today, more than 40,000 people were given homes and right now, only between 1,500 and 2,000 people (survivors) are on the waiting list.

In terms of education, most of the youths who survived the genocide have been given an opportunity to be in school and since FARG (the fund to support genocide survivors) was established in 1998 to date, approximately 107,000 youths who survived the genocide were sponsored and completed secondary education while at least 40,000 completed university.

Around 18,000 are still in school. Currently, there are those that are being sponsored to study in technical schools. Most of the survivors are now adults and in university.

In the area of health, there was support that has seen most of the survivors seek and get medical help. There are those that are treated domestically and in the last 25 years, a total of 428 were treated abroad.

The survivors who need experts to deal with their issues have been given special support by several hospitals, but in particular, the Rwanda Military Hospital has been dealing with them and where necessary they have travelled to see the patients from their areas because it was difficult for some of them to travel to Kigali.

In terms of justice, a lot was done. When the Genocide against the Tutsi came to an end, the survivors were really thirsty for justice. This is because of many reasons.

The first reason was that justice must be served. Secondly, this was not the first or second time Tutsis were being harassed and killed with impunity.

The government before the current one was not interested in justice but instead, they were propagating hatred.

The survivors wanted that to change and for the perpetrators to be punished and to serve as an example that violence, murder, genocide cannot go unpunished anymore.

We are grateful for the justice system, for the Gacaca courts and also the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, even when it eventually didn’t work to the best of its ability.

At least we were happy genocide against the Tutsi was finally recognised by the International Community.

Right now, what is priority is to build the capacity of the survivors to help them to be self-reliant. Through groups, financial support is being given so that they can be transformed from the category of the poor to the one of self-reliant.

You mentioned that there are some people who are still waiting for homes to this day. Is 25 years not a long time to wait?

The people in this category were not homeless after the genocide.

There are some people who were young, for example, a 40 year old widow who was capable and employed and renting their own house but then at some point, she stopped working. They were not helpless in the beginning.

There are people who have even told us that they were given homes and they declined because they felt that there were people who were in more need of homes at the time than they did.

However, the abilities that they had at the time are not the ones they have today so they come to us seeking help.

There is another category which is the orphans. At the time, they were very young when houses were being distributed and were living with families.

Today, they are young adults but while they can for example foot some small bills like health insurance, they cannot afford to pay for housing.

Does this mean that Ibuka is going to permanently provide this kind of support to survivors?

Our mission is to help the survivors to be self-reliant but we must accept that there are people that are going to be under our care for as long as they live.

For instance, the parents, especially mothers who lost everyone, the people who were rendered incapacitated because of the injuries they sustained during the genocide and the people who were infected with incurable diseases among others.

What is your biggest challenge to date?

The biggest challenge we have to deal with almost on a daily basis is trauma.

A recent survey by Rwanda Biomedical centre indicates that 35 percent of the survivors live with severe trauma which can lead to death.

The numbers are going up instead of down. We have youths who were not here during the genocide but are experiencing trauma. This is a big number and it requires serious intervention.

You said that the number of people living with trauma is going up instead of down. What is the cause for this?

When the genocide was stopped, the survivors couldn’t believe that it was finally over. Most of them were celebrating the fact that the horror had come to an end.

If you were to conduct research about it then, the level of trauma in 1995 or 1996 was so low because the survivors could not believe that they would escape the perpetrators who were hunting them like animals.

However, as years passed and everything cooled down, peace and security were guaranteed and then people started dealing with what they had experienced.

The young ones who are experiencing trauma have had to deal with many questions about the past; some which are hard to process.

There was an issue of property that belonged to children orphaned by the genocide which Ibuka was following up. How far have you gone in terms of recovering the property?

This was a very complicated issue but it has been fixed to a large extent. When the genocide was stopped, we had children who were very young with their age ranging from just a few months to about ten years.

They didn’t know how many houses their families owned, how big their land was or even whether their parents had bank accounts.

Due to this obstacle, there were many attempts made by people who knew these families to illegally seize these properties and claim ownership or sometimes even claims that the deceased had sold them. 

What was done was to conduct a census of the children with this issue and in total, they came to 1,200. The Prime Minister then put together a team of different stakeholders which was led by the Deputy Ombudsman and it moved around the country fixing these issues.

More than 1,000 of these issues were fixed. There were some challenges because some of this property had been disputed in court and this team didn’t have the powers to change that.

RBC and GAERG workers’ training on trauma management. Courtesy.

Genocide ideology is a challenge that the government and survivor organisations have talked about over the last 25 years. Is it still something that worries you a lot today?

Genocide ideology is still there but compared to what we had to deal with years back, it has reduced significantly.

What is your office say about having the history of this country published?

We do lots of advocacy especially to authors but it has not been so fruitful. That is why we encourage districts and organisations to try and write what happened in their respective areas. 

There are times when people have actually written these books or journals but when you read them, you feel that they are lacking in terms of bringing out the story vividly.

There are still challenges in this area, whether it is in terms of skills or even financially. Conducting such a research is expensive.

I think it is important that the government sets aside a budget for research to be conducted on the genocide against the Tutsi. This would encourage more people to write.

There is also a challenge in Rwanda where we lack a reading culture. It is discouraging to authors.

Publishing is a money-minting business elsewhere but that is because people are reading what you are writing. We need to inculcate the culture of reading, starting with children.

There was a plan to combine some memorial sites which are scattered all over the country making it easier to care for them but also to make them more accessible. How far has that plan gone?

The plan is still on. There is no place in Rwanda where people were not killed so you really can’t have memorial sites everywhere.

They are very important but we also need the land for other purposes.

For consolidation of memorial sites to happen, there are some conditions and they include considering the number of people buried in a particular grave, accessibility is also key, because you can’t move remains to distant place and convincing the survivors the value of moving their loved ones far away from them.

There have been previous reports of resistance from survivors regarding the idea of consolidating the memorial sites. Is that true?

It’s a process. It requires time and sensitisation that’s why it’s being done slowly. Culturally, we have never had to bury people in mass graves and we faced resistance when the suggestion of memorial sites with mass graves was mooted.

Most survivors wanted their loved ones buried at their ancestral homes yet they were not living there to care for the graves. We showed them the value of bringing the people together in memorial sites and slowly, they warmed to the idea.

The same will be applied to the consolidation of sites.

Where do you stand with regard to the Mechanism of International Criminal Tribunal today?

Judge Theodore Meron (the immediate former President) who was the Judge of the court never did what took him there.

He did not deliver justice as we expected and our relations with the court deteriorated over the years.

Today, we have some hope in the new judge Carmel Agius who is aware of our frustrations and has openly talked about the need for change at the court. The great thing about this is the goodwill on both sides. We are hopeful.

What one or two issues would you want to see get more attention going forward?

We are constantly improving in many ways but the issue of trauma is a stumbling block. Someone with this issue can’t work, go to school and generally live a normal life.

The other one is justice. I would want to see the people who committed genocide in this country who are fugitives all over the world apprehended and brought to face justice for the inhumane crimes that they committed.

To wrap up this interview, what special message do you have for Rwandans today?

Let us continue to work together, let’s join hands to remember and let’s come together to fight genocide ideology.

If we could enter this commemoration period and come out of it without hearing of genocide ideology incidents, we would know that we are on the right track.