Survivors’ quality of life has greatly improved, says Ibuka

It is 23 years since the Genocide against the Tutsi. Survivors say they have made significant strides but the journey toward healing is still a long way to go. The New Times’ Nasra Bishumba talked to Ibuka executive secretary, Naphtal Ahishakiye, on why there is need to fix the housing issue once and for all and why ICTY judge Theodor Meron should be relieved of his duties.
Youth position the Remembrance Flame in Mugina, Huye District, last year. / File
Youth position the Remembrance Flame in Mugina, Huye District, last year. / File

It is 23 years since the Genocide against the Tutsi. Survivors say they have made significant strides but the journey toward healing is still a long way to go. The New Times’ Nasra Bishumba talked to Ibuka executive secretary, Naphtal Ahishakiye, on why there is need to fix the housing issue once and for all and why ICTY judge Theodor Meron should be relieved of his duties.

This year, the world will join Rwanda in commemorating the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi for the 23rd time. Would you say that there has been transformation in regards to survivors’ welfare?

 

Looking back at the seriousness and the big number of the issues that had to be dealt with; from housing to medical, emotional wounds, education and many others that survivors had at the end of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, this particular commemoration has come at a time when significant strides have been made.

 
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Ahishakiye during the interview with this paper. / Timothy Kisambira

For instance, although there are still a few cases that are yet to be sorted out like those whose houses are in dire need of renovation, most survivors who had nowhere to live, were built houses.

 

There is a lot of work to do but where we stand today, we can say that the situation is much better, especially when you compare to the situation immediately after the Genocide.

You just talked about some survivors still being homeless, how can that be so after more than two decades?

There are two categories; the first is that of survivors who got houses immediately after the Genocide. These houses were built as emergency shelter, but today, they are inhabitable but they are being renovated.

Then there are others who to this day have never been built houses and are still living in rented homes or are being accommodated by friends and relatives.

Countrywide, they are about 2,000. Among these, there are people who felt that there are others like the elderly who needed to be given priority because, for instance, they were employed.

Then there are those that were very young and were raised by friends and family but, years down the road, things change and they find themselves with nowhere to go. The numbers continue to change but, fortunately, they eventually get their names put back on the list of those to benefit from housing facility.

More than Rwf190 billion has been spent on survivors’ welfare, mainly on education, health, and housing. What can you say is the biggest challenge for survivors today?

Trying to pinpoint a challenge that is bigger than the rest has always been a problem for us and the Government because it’s a web of sorts. For instance, you wouldn’t tell someone who had nowhere to live that they need education first.

Then there was one who had a place to live but needed school fees or someone has a place to live but they need medical attention from injuries that they sustained during the Genocide. Then there is someone who urgently needed all the above.

That said, education has been sorted. However, trauma remains a serious challenge because it destroys everything else because they can’t study, they can’t work and if it’s not dealt with, in the end they are permanently poor since they can’t fully function.

Luckily, whether it is the Government or the survivors themselves, the issue is being dealt with, and so far, there are therapists in all hospitals and survivors’ organisations continue to train counsellors to help deal with this.

There is an issue of children who were young by the end of the Genocide whose property was grabbed by other people, what are you doing to fix this issue?

It’s true that there is a land issue of children who were scattered in orphanages or living with families and in the process, their family land went unclaimed or was illegally taken over by relatives and other persons.

Some of this land has been given back without a problem while others ended up in court cases and, unfortunately, some of these youngsters have had to continue pursuing these cases for five or even 10 years with no end in sight.

In other cases, land was used for developmental issues like schools, hospitals etc. There are areas where the Government gave these children pieces of land in exchange and there are others where it yet to be done either in land or even cash.

Laws that punish genocide ideology are now in place, but most culprits have devised ways to commit the crime without being detected. How much of a threat is this to survivors?

Genocide ideology is still a challenge both locally and internationally. You would think that with every Rwandan being given equal opportunities on how they are led or the services they receive, it should be something of the past, but even though it has reduced, it still exists.

The law tries to find evidence to make sure that both parties are covered but the problem is that it requires this to have been in public, for you to have witnesses. Unfortunately, those with the ideology don’t necessarily have to wait to exhibit it in public so it makes it complicated.

What I can tell those with this ideology is that it festers and eventually, it shall come to light. What can be done is that the punishment for those found guilty should be heavy so that they set an example for anyone else who may have the same thoughts.

We can also make sensitisation a permanent;agenda, by consistently teaching people that there is much more to lose than gain from this ideology.

There is the issue of memorial sites whose management was split between CNLG and district authorities. Some of these sites are in bad shape, some are leaking while in others, remains are getting damaged. Is this something that you are aware of?

Yes, we are aware of those issues. The Ntarama, Bisesero, Gisozi, Murambi, Nyarubuye, Nyamata memorial sites that are on the national level and are under CNLG, but there are others that are under districts though any district is in charge of any memorial site located within its area, that means security, cleanliness and others.

There are districts that have done well but there are those that are not doing a good job where you find the sites leaking, the cleanliness lacking. Some only remember to tidy up memorial sites only during the commemoration week.

A plan is being completed on how to make sure that whoever has the responsibility of taking care of these sites does exactly what they are supposed to do.

One of the resolutions of the 2015 Umushyikirano was to encourage more people to write about the events before and during the Genocide against the Tutsi so that history can be preserved. How far has that gone?

It is being done step by step, but it is not yet at a level that we all wish it to be. Besides that, there is also a challenge of lack of enough publicity of what has so far been written because it mostly goes unnoticed.

There is no collective place where this information is kept. For instance, every year, only about 50 students are the ones who get to write their thesis about the Genocide, but even then, no one gets to know who these students are and where their books can be found.

Only a few districts have tried to write about the Genocide in their areas and you still find that the information is incomplete. There is need for institutions to consider write about these events so that if someone wants to add something, then they can.

So far, we are signing agreements with researchers, both local and international, to give us a copy of their books as compared to the past when some people used to take information from us and sometimes even completely distort it.

Your relationship with the former International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was always been a salty one due to various issues, what would you want to see being done differently and what are you doing to achieve that?

Some of the decisions of that court left a lot to be desired. There are Genocide masterminds that are infamous in Rwanda because of what they did in 1994 but were on several occasions found innocent by that court. Others were given very light sentences compared to the crimes they committed.

When it had just opened, that court was employing people who were known to have actively participated in the killings, some of whom were given tasks of investigating the cases and you can imagine the kind of results you would get for such cases.

However, despite all these issues and the fact that it was slow in delivering justice, there are things that we really appreciate about that court. We cannot ignore that it followed up and brought to justice more than 80 per cent of the cases of people who we can call the ‘big fish’.

Sometimes the court itself cannot be blamed but individuals like Judge Theodor Meron, who did not give the genocide crime the seriousness that it deserves and we have always felt that he is not supposed to be at that court.

We have written to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council and we continue to write, seeking that he be replaced because we have not seen impressive results during his tenure.

Let’s talk about the recent papal meeting with President Paul Kagame at the Vatican City. Some people have argued that it wasn’t an apology but ‘smart words’ put together by his eminence. What did you make of it?

As Ibuka, we welcomed the apology. It is a big step because his apology was very different from others, for example the Catholic Episcopal one from the priests in Kabgayi.

For the Catholic Church to admit that they reneged on their responsibilities and to apologise for their participation is something big. This is the first step to other things.

What is that one thing that you would want dealt with once and for all to improve the quality of life for survivors?

What I would wish is for Rwandans to avoid saying or doing things that encourage genocide ideology. Let this year and the next ones be different from the ones in the past. Let that be one of the ways that we support survivors and let’s try to get closer to them and encourage them, and give them a shoulder to lean on.

Also, let the issue of housing be fixed. Construction may take long but let’s get it off the ground and give these people reason not to lose hope.

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