Twenty years on, a tale of survivors rise from ashes to life

Exactly 20 years ago, Rwanda descended into hell as neighbours turned to people they had lived side by side for generations and killed them for the single ‘crime’ of being Tutsi. Ibuka, the umbrella body for Genocide survivors continues to support members as they rise from ashes and strive to forge a living.
A housing estate for Genocide survivors in Kicukiro. Survivors have been helped to meet the basic needs of life. (John Mbanda)
A housing estate for Genocide survivors in Kicukiro. Survivors have been helped to meet the basic needs of life. (John Mbanda)

Exactly 20 years ago, Rwanda descended into hell as neighbours turned to people they had lived side by side for generations and killed them for the single ‘crime’ of being Tutsi. Ibuka, the umbrella body for Genocide survivors continues to support members as they rise from ashes and strive to forge a living.

The New Times’ Dean Karemera had an exclusive interview with Naphtal Ahishakiye, executive secretary of Ibuka, who spoke about the trials and tribulations survivors have gone through 20 years after the Genocide against the Tutsi.

It is 20 years after the Genocide. As Ibuka, you have been central in seeking solutions to issues that affected and still affect Genocide survivors. How has the journey been so far?  

When we started this umbrella body, there were many challenges but our biggest was to restore trust and hope among the survivors. Remember, these are people who had physical, emotional and psychological wounds that had to be dealt with immediately before embarking on any form of rehabilitation. 

They were mostly worried about their security at the time and didn’t know whom to trust and not to trust. They couldn’t even trust government programmes that had been put in place to transition them to a proper life. They were simply too scared. Progressively, they overcametheir fears which enabled us to start on other projects. 


After briefly working on the emotional rehabilitation of the survivors, we started working with the government and other partners to build houses. The challenge here was to get people to act fast because many actors made pledges but took long to fulfill them. The government, with all the problems it had inherited from the genocidal regime, took the lead to ensure Genocide survivors get a roof over their heads.

A problem faced at the time was getting where to even set up these houses; for justified reasons, most survivors never wanted to return to villages where they lived prior to the Genocide because memories of those were horrible. And the government communal settlement (Imidugudu) policy came in handy here because people were grouped together into settlements.

So far, over 25,000 houses have been built which accounts for more than 50% and we are still planning to build more. We now need to leverage the positive experience in areas of construction and become more involved in rehabilitation and construction of more houses. However, most of the houses that were built in the immediate aftermath of the Genocide are now rundown and need a facelift.

Here, the main challenge is raising funds and finding adequate land for these people. It is not enough to build for them houses; some need a small farm that can generate some income and where to graze their animals. It is difficult but we are putting heads together to overcome such challenges.


The challenges in education have been minimised tremendously because of concerted efforts between FARG (a government fund for the support of Genocide survivors) and AERG (the association of students who survived the Genocide). 

Most challenges were encountered between 1995 and 1999 when FARG paid school fees for students only up to secondary school level. After several meetings and consultations, FARG started paying university tuition for these students. 

I think it is something that is very commendable because many survivors now have university education and we have many who are doing better and actually contributing significantly to nation building. 

When government introduced the 9-year basic education, it took off a heavy load from us. Unless, a person doesn’t want to study, the government has provided an opportunity from which they can benefit. 

Over 6,000 FARG-sponsored students have so far graduated from different institutions of higher learning.. 

We are currently trying to identify more people who had dropped out of school to encourage them to get back to school.

The problems we had previously encountered involved people who were not bona fide beneficiaries but on the FARG list, while those who were supposed to benefit were omitted from the list. However, these have largely been rectified.


Healthcare was a major problem because before we could offer education, shelter, or any other support, people had to be treated first, mainly because many had wounds from the Genocide.

Trauma was at its highest point, people had wounds and diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS were claiming many lives. We got them urgent medical attention from the few hospitals that were operational at the time as we tried to find ways of flying out those with critical wounds to get specialised medical attention abroad.However, due to limited financial resources, only a few were taken abroad. 

Currently, Genocide survivors have joined healthcare insurance schemes and those with trauma seizures have continued to receive psycho-social support. Survivors with incurable diseases caused by the Genocide have access to healthcare. 

However, as I mentioned earlier, it is difficult for us to take them abroad for further treatment. We therefore appeal to donors and the government to support our efforts to gain access to sophisticated health care abroad. 

Furthermore, we are joining forces with caregivers to people living with HIV/AIDS to help these survivors. 

During this year’s 20th commemoration period, we are going to work with Rwanda Military Hospital (RMH) and other hospitals to screen survivors with long term injuries so that they can be assisted.

IBUKA has many members; some of them could be better off financially, 20 years after the Genocide. Are there any members who chip in to support the needy survivors? 

Yes, some of our members have been very helpful and we appreciate their efforts. It is not an obligation to remain part of Ibuka and we do not compel anyone to assist just because we assisted them; it is entirely voluntary. 

If an individual feels that it is right for them to help us, we welcome the assistance. 

For example, some have decided to take on family members and this reduces the number of people we look after and we use the resources to help others in need.

There are other members who face legal challenges especially concerning succession. Usually, we would hire a lawyer to represent these people in court but we have members who are lawyers and sometimes they volunteer to take on such cases pro bono. 

We really appreciate it when such people reach out to help fellow survivors.

Speaking about property, how far is the process in resolving conflicts that arose from children who lost their estates that had been bequeathed to them by their parents? 

We can’t solve all problems but we are trying. There is a committee that was put in place by President Paul Kagame and works under the supervision of the Office of Prime Minister which is currently following up on that issue.

Nonetheless, the main challenge here is when children survivors come of age and want to take over their parents’ estate; they find the property has been taken over by unscrupulous relatives. 

It becomes even more difficult if the said property is already legally registered under these dishonest people. 

This presents a problem because in a court of law, these people own the property especially since the Genocide never allowed parents to draw wills and all that. In most cases it requires a political decision.

There are children who were born as a result of rape during the Genocide, where do they fit in your organisation? 

This issue is still subject to discussion because according to FARG guidelines, they are only supposed to help children who were born up to December 1994. 

We felt that this was very wrong. There are women who were raped in May, June, even July of 1994. Unless they gave birth to premature babies, these women gave birth in 1995. People should understand that these children need help because they are innocent. 

FARG has for years been adamant about this but we have been telling them that if they can’t help these children because their fathers are perpetrators, then they should be helped because their mothers are victims. FARG is now reviewing that issue. 

The issue of reparations/ indemnification to survivors is still in balance. What is Ibuka’s take on having perpetrators pay; at least those who are capable? 

The issue of reparations shouldn’t be bound together with lack of capacity to pay. Reparation is a right, it is justice and people are supposed to pay for the damages and losses caused. 

If these perpetrators have the capability to pay, they should pay but we also have to put into consideration those who are not capable of paying before we impose unrealistic demands on them.   

The biggest mistake we made is not putting in place a law about compensating victims and the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) didn’t tackle this issue yet the people convicted by the tribunal are seen to be more in position to pay these reparations.

On the other hand, the UN, in setting up the court, should have figured a way of instituting a fund to cater for the reparations of survivors.  

We should be able to come up with systematic mechanisms on how to compensate these people. For example, a person who lost a cousin can’t be compensated the same way as someone who lost a parent.

There are two ways in which survivors of the Genocide can be compensated; individually and collectively. 

However, it is important that we approach this problem carefully because we have Genocide survivors who don’t need compensation and there are convicts who can’t afford to pay because they are poor. 

We are currently dealing with collective compensation where the government is contributing 5 per cent of the national  annual income towards supporting survivors through FARG. 

Complaints have arisen over what seems to be less effort by African states in apprehending Genocide fugitives if you are to compare with European countries…

European countries are trying but you cannot say they have performed exceptionally well in that regard going by the number of those apprehended or extradited and those that remain at large.

However, African countries haven’t been very cooperative in bringing suspects in their midst to justice. 

Most of those in African countries were tried and convicted by Gacaca courts in absentia but the law allows for a person convicted in their absence to seek retrial.

They should be arrested and handed to proper authorities for due legal process. People think that since Gacaca ended, the follow up on Genocide suspects also ended, but that is not true. Whoever took part in the Genocide should have their day in court. 

Our courts are still operational and capable of handling these cases. I therefore urge African countries harbouring Genocide suspects to bring them to justice because there is no benefit in cohabiting with genocidaires.  

We have different memorial sites in neighbouring countries like Uganda, what is Ibuka’s stand on these sites? Should remains buried there be brought back or left there? 

However much it feels good to have a loved one close to you, these sites should be left there as a way of appreciating those people’s kindness and humaness. All we ask is that they are taken good care of to preserve their memory. 

Besides, we have diplomatic missions in those countries that look after them and always visit them to ensure they are not destroyed. 

Secondly, some cultural norms in those countries do not allow exhuming bodies.

This would be going against their cultural norms. Some people in neighbouring countries were also affected — some lost friends or were traumatised from the sight of bodies floating on the rivers in their midst. 

Lastly, it paints a real picture of the atrocities that happened in Rwanda and I believe many generations will be told about the horrors that befell Rwanda not only within the country but its borders as well. 

Unless a country asks us to remove the site, it is fine with us. 

What does the future hold for Genocide survivors?

The journey has been a tough one but we have also had impressive results over the past 20 years. Looking at the recovery of the country and Genocide survivors, a lot needs to be applauded. 

Survivors have a brighter future ahead of them and a better country to believe in. Problems such as the reparation issue still abound but that shouldn’t be a barrier to progress. This country was in darkness but it is now a beckon of hope. 

The two major challenges we face now are the aged and the disabled survivors. We have many people who are very old, and have no one to take care of them. The same applies to those permanently disabled by the Genocide who are not able to work to sustain themselves.

It is hard to convince these people about having a brighter future and it is up to us to find ways to look after them. 

Other survivors seem capable to handle on their own. We have dealt with the bigger issues, the rest is up to them. People tell us how they miss their families but there’s only too much that we can handle.


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