Nearly 3 decades after the horrors of genocide in Rwanda, the tears still flow

Saturday July 01 2023

A Rwandese genocide survivor stands inside a church, where some 5000 people were killed during the genocide of 1994, on March 27, 2004. PHOTO | RICARDO GANGALE | NM

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In a few days, the observance of Kwibuka, 100 days of remembrance for the nearly one million victims of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, will come to a close. Next year will mark the third decade of the mass killings and will throw up some of the biggest questions yet about the kind of country "post-genocide" country Rwanda has become.

In the capital Kigali, one can't help but notice that among many young Rwandans born after 1994, who are living the good life in the city vaunted as the cleanest in Africa, the horrors of the genocide are becoming remote, a nightmare for their parents to live.
However, it's a nightmare that, 29 years later, is still too real for, especially Rwandan women.

On a warm Sunday mid-morning a few days ago, we drove to Remera-Rukoma, Kamonyi district in Rwanda's Southern Province. It was supposed to be a straightforward endeavour; to write about the children born out of rape during the genocide or abandoned after one parent killed the other because they were Tutsi.

Read: Rwanda remembers genocide against Tutsi

Life has been difficult for thousands of these children – to understate it. Their parents rejected many: they were evil seed and reminders of traumatic experiences. Society struggled to accept them.

Post-genocide Rwanda has fixed many things, but this has been one of the most challenging.


After a bumpy drive off the main highway, we arrived at the Sevota Peace Institute, an organisation that set itself up to "work to rebuild the human relationships that were destroyed during the genocide in Rwanda, with a focus on women and children."

We were met by its regal and remarkably calm head (and co-founder with her husband), Godelieve Mukasarasi.

At hand were children, now grown women and men, born out of genocide-era rape. But Mukasarasi had thrown in a giant curved ball; she had invited their mothers too.

The next two-and-a-half hours were the most emotionally difficult for me in nearly ten years.

We spoke to the mothers separately from the children. Of the three (surnames withheld for privacy reasons), Devota is blind due to the trauma. She was raped, on average, by five men a day. What she endured is too graphic to print here.

With her sister, she fled to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where she fell into the clutches of her tormentors again.

She hated her son. After she returned to Rwanda, on every genocide anniversary, she would beat him. His grandparents would beat him. She escaped into alcohol, became mentally ill, and took to living in the bush when the nightmares got too much for her.

Read: Rwandan genocide survivors film premieres on Netflix in June

Speaking with her head slanted, she cries almost throughout. Mukasarasi has been to this rodeo before; she has brought a packet of napkins and passes out one for Devota to wipe her tears. It's hard to listen and, as she feels out for her walking cane or to pick her soft drink, the tragedy is amplified.

Concolle is the tough one. She is more outspoken. She endured the same horrors as Devota, and worse.

She was among the thousands of women infected with HIV by the genocidaires. It is estimated that 40 percent of the women who were raped became HIV-positive.

She is a testament to the fighting spirit of the women of these hilly lands, surviving on a religious regime of antiretroviral drugs and self-care. Her relationship with her daughter was so turbulent the girl reported her to the police.

The bespectacled Beatha is more serene. After the atrocities she endured, her later life was less troubled than Devota's. She met a good man who took in her daughter Aline as his own. She married and had two more children.

Outwardly, you wouldn't tell that Concolle's and Beatha's journey had been so difficult. Concolle went to Sevota and got on the road to something close to a normal life. She mellowed toward her son Jean-Claude and embraced him.

Read: NDERITU: Hate speech, ethnic stereotypes are the foundation of genocide

She hasn't married. Jean-Claude registered 13 different fictitious names of his father in school and other forms as he grew up. For the longest time, he had his father down as Mugunga. But he wasn't. His mother gave him the name of the infamous refugee camp in eastern DRC, where she and her sister huddled.

Concolle, too, made up with her daughter Gaudence.

Surprisingly, the children are mostly dry-eyed when talking about their painful past.

For children like them, school was delayed by the tumult in their lives, but a government programme put them in class. In the past year, all three have graduated from university, among the first of their generation to do so.

Concolle is wearing the crucifix around her neck, so it presents an opportunity to ask the women about what happened to their faith in a country where, especially the Catholic Church, was complicit in the genocide. They are women of faith, and talking about how she rediscovered Jesus, for the first time, Devota smiles.

They are three different catastrophes with happy endings.

But that is if one doesn't peel away the veil. There was a frightening gendered face to the genocide.

For women, rape and sexual violence is too intimate a violation. You probably don't heal from something like that. You push through the hell and hold your head when you come out at the other end. You don't let them see what remains broken inside.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3