During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Marie Madeleiene Mukarwigema, 62, lost her husband, four of her six children and dozens of other relatives.
And in the aftermath of the atrocities which claimed over a million lives in less than 100 days, Mukarwigema thought her life had hit a dead end. She was left with almost nothing and her future looked bleak.
“There was no clear path to the future. All seemed dark and I was in total despair,” the widow says.
Indeed, the Genocide not only claimed innocent lives but also destroyed the core foundations of society causing deep wounds and suffering among survivors.
Fear, trauma and despair characterised many of the survivors–particularly widows and orphans who had lost their loved ones, including husbands, children, parents and other family members, and property.
For many of the survivors, getting out of the desperate situation they had been pushed into looked impossible–with a number of them looking at death as the best ultimate end.
But one particular group vowed to never let those who inflicted the unimaginable pain on them take a win and so decided to own up their destiny by bravely confronting the bitter consequences brought about by the Genocide.
For a group of Genocide widows to stand up and live again in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide seemed a mere dream.
But today Duhozanye Association stands out as a living testimony of how unity and hard work can lead to success.
Created in November 1994, a few months after the Genocide, the association aimed at helping Genocide widows “console and comfort each other” and put themselves on the path of life again.
They also sought to look up for ways of raising the many orphans of the Genocide who had been left hapless.
At the beginning, about 330 Genocide widows came together and decided to face the challenges, own up their future and live again.
Today, the association has over 3,000 Genocide survivors in Gisagara District alone, supporting them in their journey to healing and better life.
“In the first months, we would meet, share our history, cry and comfort each other,” explains Daphrose Mukarutamu, a widow and brain behind the setting up of the association.
The period turned out to be a very critical period in the lives of the survivors as it became a source of mutual consolation and comfort between them, thus the name ‘Duhozanye’ literary meaning ‘Let’s console/comfort each other’.
“The first days were difficult but we later realised the benefits of our efforts,” Mukarutamu, who is also the association coordinator, notes.
Last week, the association based in the southern district of Gisagara marked its 20th anniversary–a period members say has seen them emerge from darkness and embark on a successful journey of reconciliation and healing.
“Our major achievement was the ability to heal our wounds and embrace a life full of hope,” Mukarutamu says.
“Without hope, we wouldn’t have been able to work for our socio-economic development,” notes Mukarwigema, a resident of Gatoki Cell in Save Sector and member of the association.
“Without support from others, I would have been left under the shadow of death and it would have remained impossible for me to gain the strength to pick myself up,” says Mukarwigema, who fondly refers to the association as ‘my new family’.
The emotional healing brought about by unity allowed the widows and orphans of the association to engage with another front– the struggle for better livelihood.
“When you are alone, you sink into despair. That only serves to increase the pain and breaks your spirit. But with others you gain the courage to accept what happened and move on,” Mukarwigema says.
Among the key achievements the association has attained over the past two decades include ability to help all its members get decent housing and the distribution of over 400 cows to its members.
Over 1,000 members were also grouped in smaller self-help groups, a kind of informal savings and credit associations dedicated to championing better living conditions for members.
The association has also been advocating for financial support for its members, something which led to the financing and funding of a number of income-generating activities, leading to better living conditions of members.
The association’s assets are currently estimated to be in millions of francs. Duhozanye owns multi-million modern offices, a training centre and a dozen of distribution shops for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages which are managed by its for-profit company, Duhozanye Ltd, among other properties.
Under its training centre, the association has supported about 138 Genocide orphans who had lost chance of continuing with their formal education to pursue technical courses that include hairdressing, tailoring and knitting, among others.
Marie Anne Uwimana, 30, undertook both hairdressing and knitting courses and currently works at a knitting workshop that operates within the Association’s office.
The orphan, who lost both parents and three siblings during the Genocide, says the course has transformed her life.
“We now lead a better life,” she says as she knits a blue sweater as part of an order from a local secondary school.
“Thanks to the association and support from its members, we are now able to put food on the table, pay medical bills, and meet our other basic needs,” Uwimana says, noting that she owns a house and a number of livestock.
“Without their (members of the association) support, I would have died of grief and trauma caused by the Genocide. But now I am well, sound and healthy and I am working hard to improve my life,” she adds.
The association has also supported dozens of vulnerable Genocide orphans to pursue formal education and currently 35 of them have completed their university studies.
One of such is Gilbert Bigirimana, 30, an orphan who was supported throughout his secondary and university studies.
After the completion of his secondary education, Bigirimana was offered a job by the association and the wages he received allowed him to pursue a degree in Commercial Engineering from the Catholic University of Rwanda (CUR).
The young orphan still works for the association and plans to enrol for a master’s programme soon.
“From providing scholastic materials to parental advice and financial support, the association has also assumed the role of my parents. They have been there for me whenever I needed them,” Bigirimana says from the comfort of his office.
“I am a young man with hope for a better life,” he says, noting that he is planning to build a modern residential house on a plot of land he recently bought using his savings.
For the association’s president, the improving living conditions of members proves that unity brings healing and opens doors to many life-changing opportunities.
For Mukarutamu, despite the many challenges they still have, members of Duhozanye have reason to celebrate the successful journey they started 20 years ago after the loss of their loved ones.