11 April 2019

Rwanda's Genocide Widows - 'I Never Thought of Replacing My Husband'

Photo: Isaac Mugabi/Deutsche Welle
Veridian Mukamunana says she never thought of 'replacing' her husband.

A village on the outskirts of Kigali has become home to 140 widows. They are still grappling with the loss of their husbands in Rwanda's genocide 25 years ago. DW's Isaac Mugabi spoke to the women.

Florentine Mukakamari's husband was on a list of people who were supposed to be killed. He was a Tutsi and died during the Rwandan genocide 25 years ago. After he was gone, Mukakamari found herself alone and suddenly the breadwinner, caring for their three-month-old baby.

That period of her life was "hell on earth."

"After the genocide, I was left many scars like someone widowed at a young age. My husband and I had just been married for a year when he was killed," Florentine told DW.

Like many widows of those killed, Mukakamari had been living alone in a partly demolished house before moving into a village especially built for the widows. On the outskirts of Kigali, the village houses 140 women whose homes and hearts were destroyed in the genocide.

Rebuilding trust

The organization behind this village is the Association of Genocide Widows in Rwanda (AVEGA-AGAHOZO). Promoting strength through unity, the non-profit was established the year following the genocide to help widows "successfully deal with their common challenges."

For Mukakamari, the community-based approach to rebuilding their lives was just as much about rebuilding trust with neighbors as it was about dealing with grief and depression.

"I couldn't trust anyone. You can imagine a neighbor that you trusted, that you worked with, turning against you, accusing you of being a Tutsi - they are the very people who even demolished my house," said Florentine.

Tensions between Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups date back decades if not centuries. As late as the 15th century, Tutsis were historically the aristocratic minority in the regions now belonging to modern-day Rwanda and Burundi; German and Belgian colonizers later reinforced this power divide by touting them as racially superior to Hutus.

By the end of colonial rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tutsis began fleeing ethnic tensions. Attempts by Tutsi militias to wrest power away from the Hutu government over several decades failed.

When the Rwandan president was shot down over Kigali on April 6, 1994, Hutu extremists used the moment to take revenge: They called on citizens to murder their Tutsi neighbors. What followed was a 100-day massacre of mainly Tutsis.

Choosing the single life

Even though it's been 25 years, Chantal Umuhoza, an activist and feminist, explains that the women who turn to AVEGA-AGAHOZO need help in order to move forward.

"It is living a nightmare, that's why they need a continuous system where they can be supported mentally, where they can go and get support," Umuhoza said.

Many genocide widows continue to rebuild the broken bonds that once held communities together. When it comes to matters of the heart, some have found love again, while others have chosen to remain single.

Mukamunana Veridian, mother of four, still hasn't come to terms with losing her husband in such a brutal manner.

"I was still young after the genocide. But like many women who had lost their husbands, I never thought of replacing my husband with another man," she told DW.

Not Hutu or Tutsi, but Rwandan

Florentine has forgiven her husband's killers. She no longer sees Hutus or Tutsis. For her "everyone is Rwandan."

Her words echo the official government line. In reaction to the genocide, the government adopted a mantra of reconciliation and unity through one Rwandan identity. Trumpeting or exalting one's ethnicity can be seen as an assault on the country's very existence.

Despite the official line genocide widows are still battling with trauma as explained by Kassim Kayiira, a veteran journalist and social commentator.

"Human memory works in a way that things don't just go away like that. So while they will look fine in normal circumstances, particular episodes will come and then they will end up regressing," Kayiira told DW.

Even though widows like Florentine have come a long way, she says, "there's still a long way to reconciliation."

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