52-year-old Devota Mukarurangwa was three years into her marriage when killings broke out during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Even though the disturbing memories are still fresh 24 years later, she says that she will not let the daunting past define her present.
The first impression of Mukarurangwa is a woman with a strong character. Despite the pain she has carried all these years, she is not a bitter woman.
She prides in having had the courage to deal with tragedy and not giving up in the face of evil.
“The night of April 6, 1994 had a dark and gloomy feel to it. The President’s plane had crashed and we knew something bad was about to happen.
“The harsh glances our neighbours gave us soon afterwards confirmed our suspicion, and we knew that our lives were in danger. No one wanted to talk to us, and whoever we tried to approach gave us a cold shoulder.
“It wasn’t long before death literally come to our neighbourhood. The killers wielded machetes and clubs and chanted in chorus ‘let us kill these snakes,” she recalls. “They had come for blood.”
In the middle of the night, her husband hid in a thick bush near their home, whereas the children and her sought refuge at their in-laws house in the same neighbourhood. This is how the early days of the slaughter shaped up for them. Sadly, the terror was just getting started.
The Interahamwe militia burned down houses and destroyed everything they set their hands on. They also slaughtered cows for the fun of it.
“They were thirsty for blood and we knew there and then that life as we knew it was over,” she says.
“We weren’t safe at the neighbours, as the killers would eventually find us, so we started running, but we had nowhere to hide, we just hoped that in some way we would survive because the killers were everywhere, their eyes were red and you could see their thirst for blood. We were hopeless and scared.”
In the end, Mukarurangwa lost her husband, other family members, her in-laws and many more relatives in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Fortunately, her two daughters survived as well.
But the fatherless family was homeless and barely had what to eat.
“After the Genocide, I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had to raise my children alone, we went hungry for days but God made a way,” she says.
Later, she joined an association of Genocide survivors called Humura (loosely translated to mean ‘Take Heart), through which she was gradually able to pull herself out of depression. Humura is a safe space coordinated by Never Again Rwanda, a peace-building and social justice organisation created as a response to the Genocide against the Tutsi.
“My life was a mess but after joining Humura, I became stronger and even resumed farming.
“My heart is at peace now. I forgave the killers. Yes, I lost my husband and family, but I thank God my children survived and they are now grown women with families of their own,” she says.
Mukarurangwa also joined cooperatives through which she bought livestock; she also manages to save money for the future or any other business prospects.
Every April 7-13, Rwanda commemorates the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, a dark period when the country descended into absolute barbarity in which over one million innocent lives were viciously taken.
For survivors, the journey to healing has not been easy, and bloodcurdling memories of that period continue to haunt them.
45-year-old Aline Mukangarambe recalls the events that led to the death of her loved ones — events that left her with a past that is only characterised by pain.
‘My family was burnt inside a house’
She lost her mother, siblings and other family members. Her mother was chopped with a machete from the back, the child she was carrying narrowly survived, and was later rescued by onlookers.
Friends would hide them but when the killers discovered their hiding place, they were back on the run again. Days and nights passed and all they felt was terror stemming from the possibility of being slaughtered by blood-thirsty killers with no mercy whatsoever.
“I saw a lot during the Genocide,” she says.
“Desperation took over and I was left with my grandmother. My father had passed away before the Genocide. They destroyed our plantations. At some point, I discovered that seven of my family members had been burnt inside a house. I saw their remains and that image has haunted and disturbed me for many years,” Mukarurangwa recalls.
After the Genocide, she tried to move on but had nothing, so she had to build her life from ash.
She started selling millet and, eventually, she picked up pace. She managed to save little money and constructed a small house.
Mukarurangwa is now a businesswoman who runs a small boutique.
“I am getting stronger because there was a time when I couldn’t narrate this story, and even though it still stirs emotions, I can cope. I have managed to raise my siblings who survived, but we had to be strong because we didn’t want the people who had battered us to see us desperate, and we couldn’t allow ourselves to ‘lose it’ in front of them. We had to be strong,” she says.
The Genocide left many women widowed. Like 56-year-old Angelique Nirere who was left with three little children to raise on her own.
With nothing left and no one to lean on, she had to survive and be a mother and father at the same time to her children.
“Life was hard after the Genocide. I started selling sweet bananas and struggled to see that we got what to eat and also a little something for the children to go to school. We were battling pain that was both physical and emotional,” she says.
Aside from farming, Nirere gets financial support from Genocide Survivors Assistance Fund (FARG) and it has kept her going.
Her children are now grown and even though they didn’t get the chance to complete school, they are alive — with some of them having gotten married and started families of their own.
A painful but promising journey
Theoneste Ndagijimana, the representative of Genocide survivors in Nduba Sector, Gasabo District, recalls a time when life was extremely hard for Genocide widows, especially when they had just started forming organisations.
“With the loss of loved ones it was so hard for many to cope. They had pain, both physical and psychological. The physical pain was easy to see and probably deal with, but the psychological one very tricky. Many would wonder what the next day would be like, or if they’d even make it there,” he says.
However, Ndagijimana notes that, 24 years down the road, survivors have picked up the pieces of their shattered lives and managed to move on with life regardless.
“The Government has done a lot and we can see tremendous change. Survivors have managed to construct houses; some are farmers, others own businesses that they started on their own,” Ndagijimana says.