RWANDA: Defying History
At over an hour’s drive from Kigali, in the town of Rwamagana sits the headquarters of AVEGA-Sud, the southern chapter of the organization. It’s an area where a lot of killing took place in 1994. Now, with the noonday sun bright, elderly widows and their few remaining children may be found sitting alone inside darkened homes. Some stay inside to avoid the possibility of running into “a ghost”—a returning neighbor, perhaps released from jail, who, everyone knows, killed members of the survivor’s family.
“The trauma continues,” admitted Umurungi. “So, yes, things have changed, but we still live with this difficult past every single day.”
There are other political factors that may also impact how much Rwandan women advance—or speak out. Although President Paul Kagame remains very popular among many Rwandans, he has strong opposition critics who label his rule an authoritarian regime that they say tolerates little dissent and a too-narrow democratic space. As it stands, the political picture in Rwanda remains complex, with an undercurrent of political tension invisible to the passing tourist. Given its recent history, unhealed “divisionism,” and the presence of armed genocidaires next door in the Congo, Kagame’s supporters justify his firm hand and limits on open speech.
Many first-time visitors to Rwanda these days have one thing foremost in their minds: the genocide. They have likely read one of the many popular books or watched the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. The scale and detail of horror of this African Shoah leave an indelible mark, even from a distance of 17 years and across oceans. In Rwanda, they find, the genocide has become a grim tourist lure—a subject endlessly presented in various forums. Locals often call it The War, an easier word to say than genocide.
For Rwandans, the events of 1994 still serve as a singular reference point and historic yardstick for nearly everything, be it the nation’s or women’s advances. It courses like an undercurrent through Rwanda’s present society yet remains a subject many wish to move past, wanting Rwanda—and themselves—to be known for something else. Still, one Sunday a month, for years, citizens are required to turn up at the outdoor tribunals called gacaca where the crimes of the genocide are reviewed. And every April 6, Rwandans are freshly reminded of the 100 horrific days from April-June 1994, when half of their citizens—ordinary Hutus—were ordered by extremist leaders to systematically hunt and murder their Tutsi neighbors: to kill or be killed. Unlike modern war, machetes were the weapon distributed to the masses.
In all, more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, and many more were crippled or scarred for life, either physically or mentally. Men and boys were killed first; women and girls were held in rape camps and tortured. When they finally escaped or were liberated, many had HIV, a legacy of this genocide. Of 250,000 women genocidal rape survivors, an estimated 67% contracted HIV, estimated AVEGA.
Today, the images from Rwanda’s genocide remain haunting, time-locked testimonies to horror. What remains of the dead are buried within mass plots outside the big genocide museum in Kigali, or in row upon row of skulls that line the walls of smaller memorial sites, or as parts of bone that poke up among the rubble inside churches that served as killing fields and remain untouched.
Blink then look again. Within the bright metropolis, the past lives and has a future. The young policewoman directing traffic: she is an orphan of the genocide, the only survivor of a once-large extended family, or the eldest of a child-headed household. There are so many war and AIDS orphans in Rwanda. The bank teller: She served in a militia—on one side or the other. She did or experienced things too terrible to recount to her own children or grandchildren and suffers silently as so many Rwandans do, from posttraumatic stress, from itching scars under her fine suit. The uneducated elderly widow: She sold her aging body to feed her grandchildren, since her own children were killed. Now she, too, has HIV.
Across Rwanda today, in private and public rooms, the healing—and failure to heal—goes on, often out of sight to tourists but painfully visible if one bothers to look or ask.
“In the first years of the genocide, nobody really helped us much,” said Consolata N., an AVEGA widow. “We were so poor and homeless and sick. We decided we had to help ourselves.” She’s explaining how the revolution began for ordinary women like her, who were triply stigmatized when the war ended. They not only lost family, but titles to their homes and animals, due to then-patriarchal inheritance laws. Some were chased away by family members because they had born a child from rape. Others who fell ill with HIV or who became disabled from war wounds resorted to begging. Still others went mad, committed suicide, or fell into profound depression. “Since all of us had suffered from this, we were able to support each other,” added Consolata. “That is what saved us.” . . .