DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom

STEPH K.

As part of understanding peace-building efforts in Rwanda, we visited two sites where two very different organisations are attempting to combat some of the major challenges facing pot-genocide Rwanda today. AVEGA, established by 50 widows of genocide, addresses all kinds of issues facing women whose husbands were killed in the genocide, including health issues and injuries, counselling, providing shelter, seeking justice, and social and economic empowerment. Agahozo-Shalom, on the other hand, is an internationally established and funded organisation that acts as a ‘village’ for around 500 vulnerable teenagers, providing them with stable ‘families’, psychological support, education, and life skills.

While both organisations are doing their best to help build a positive future for their members and clients, I found AVEGA to be particularly inspiring, compared with Agahozo-Shalom. AVEGA’s facilities may not have been as impressive as the village at Agahozo-Shalom (which seemed like a slice of paradise); nevertheless, AVEGA really inspired hope for Rwanda’s future because it is an organisation established by Rwandans for Rwandans. To begin with, AVEGA was relying mostly on donations from overseas donors to carry out its work. Now, AVEGA has become much more sustainable as it now funds member’s projects with the profits from AVEGA’s own projects. It seems remarkable that a locally-based organisation with relatively fewer resources has managed to become self-reliant while Agahozo-Shalom requires more than US$3 million in internationally-sourced funds to operate.

In addition, AVEGA presented a very courageous mission, taking on many diverse, complex and challenging problems that are affecting the lives of widows of the genocide and indeed other vulnerable Rwandans. Rather than just trying to provide one kind of service, like health care or counselling, I found AVEGA to be very admirable in the way it tries to improve all aspects of the lives of its members. I felt that perhaps the most important and useful way in which AVEGA is helping to rebuild their lives post-genocide are the social and economic empowerment projects such as handicraft projects, livestock projects and crop-husbandry, because it provides AVEGA members to escape the cycle of poverty and become more self-reliant, which ultimately frees up AVEGA’s resources, enabling them to help other Rwandan’s who are in need of support.

I left AVEGA feeling a real sense of optimism for Rwanda’s future. I found the work being done at AVEGA to be courageous and incredibly inspirational. I sincerely hope that AVEGA continues to grow and meet the ongoing challenges facing the organisation, such as how to help elderly community members who are in need of daily assistance but have no family to support them, and providing better shelter to its members whose accommodation is in a poor state. All in all I felt that AVEGA was truly an organisation that brings hope and pride to Rwandans across the country.

VIV B.

On Thursday, we visited Avega, a non-profit established in 1995 by female genocide survivors, that today serves over 4,000 genocide widows and over 17,000 orphans. I asked Odette at Avega: What do survivors need in order to heal?

 The response was bleak. Odette explained that for women who have been widowed, raped, impregnated, traumatised, infected with HIV, permanently disabled, mentally ill, bed-ridden by sickness, or left as sole survivors, “they don’t see light at the end of the tunnel”. For these kinds of survivors, she said, “there can be no healing”.

 She said that some survivors have lost up to 20 people but cannot find even one body, meaning they “live in much confusion” as they endlessly question what happened. Therefore, survivors need help to find their loved ones’ remains. Avega runs a Remembering Program aimed at finding and burying bodies.

 Later that day, we met Xavier Ngarambe. Tall and dignified with a gap-toothed smile, Xavier spoke to us on Thursday night to share his testimony as a survivor after genocide.

 Xavier said he was born near the legendary Rwandan volcanoes and gorillas. As a child, he knew of no problems between Hutu and Tutsi neighbours. Xavier didn’t even realise he was Tutsi until one day when a teacher asked him. Students had to stand up in front of the class and recite their name and category: Hutu or Tutsi. The school started teaching a history of division and Tutsi oppression of Hutus. Students began bullying and inciting hatred towards Tutsi kids.

 After the RPF began fighting in 1990, people were already saying Tutsis would die. Xavier said, “My father was the first victim” of genocide against the Tutsis.

 Xavier was studying high school in Congo and he only learned about his father’s murder three weeks after the event. The killers were his neighbours, and they weren’t punished but instead were congratulated and promoted to prominent positions. It was deeply traumatising for Xavier as a teenager. He had so many questions. He just needed to know what happened.

 During that period of war in the early 1990s, Xavier couldn’t visit Rwanda for his usual trips home. The North-West of Rwanda was extremely dangerous. But Xavier desperately needed to find out about his father’s death, so he decided to sneak home.

 At night time, Xavier crossed the Congo-Rwanda border on foot, slipping through the jungle and avoiding detection. But when he reached home, his family were distressed to see him, as the militias were taking Tutsi men, and they pleaded with him to return to Congo. Reluctantly, Xavier obeyed their wishes and left his mother and siblings behind in Rwanda, believing that only men were targets.

 His entire family were killed.

 After the genocide, Xavier moved to South Africa life but could not move on from the grief. Xavier said he did not want revenge, but only wanted to find and bury his father’s bones.

 Many times, over many years, Xavier visited Rwanda to search for his father’s remains. But the killers refused to tell him where the body was buried, not even during Gacaca. They told Xavier various places and each time his hope soared, and he would dig for days, but did not find his father’s bones.

 Then in 2009, Xavier got a call from a prisoner, asking him to come home and find his father. It was almost 19 years since his father died. The killer was free and, after everything, wanted to apologise to Xavier and help him finally find his father’s bones. Describing his return to Rwanda, Xavier said, “I was very strong – I decided to show no emotion.”

 Once they found his father’s remains under a house, Xavier washed the bones, and buried them. He soon found his mother too, the skeleton still clutching her recognisable rosary beads. After burying them, Xavier said he felt great relief. A heavy burden had been lightened. He could begin to move on.

 Across Rwanda, many survivors expressed this need to find and bury the bones of those they had lost. Even decades later, this ritual of burial and paying respect continues to be vital for genocide survivors in seeking closure and healing. 

JESS B.

Bus rides across Rwanda have been filled with a chorus of ooh’s, ahh’s and camera shutters as we pass the rolling green hills covered in small cottages, idyllic village life and waving children, teenagers and adults. Essentially, any person within viewing distance, would light up with a smile, and wave to us curiously, which is something that fills me with a very particular joy that comes with being an oddity in a foreign land – a mix between feeling like a celebrity and an alien.

This beautiful side of Rwanda is at odds with the purpose of our study tour, to learn more about the 1994 genocide. Its difficult to reconcile the Land of a Thousand Hills and Land of Eternal Spring with the horrifying footage of Interhamwe road blocks, anti-Tutsi chants and the constant refrain to stamp out the cockroaches that dominate the studies of ethnicity and genocide. To reconcile these conceptions I find it easier to think of Rwanda as existing in two sphere’s, the Rwanda of the hills, and the Rwanda of the hatred. However, the more time I spend here, it becomes apparent that there is only one Rwanda, and that hatred continues to live in these hills, but rather than being expressed through violence, it is instead channeled into trauma, grief and the search for forgiveness.

Our visit to Agahozo Shalom Youth Village fitted within that grey zone, in that it was formed in the aftermath of that hatred, but its location is within those hills, both literally and figuratively. The village is a safe place for vulnerable Rwandan orphans who engage in both formal and informal learning to deal with their own trauma and instability. The first cohort of the initiative were orphans of the 1994 genocide, but as those children grew up, there remained a profound need for orphans who were vulnerable for other reasons, and as such the Village evolved to a broader audience.

 The village was ensconced amongst some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, and the grounds continued with this theme, with a stunning farm, school mural and other facilities. While the children only spend four years there, their final four years of secondary education, the initiative appears to equip the students with independent living skills and coping mechanisms – in many ways seeking to ‘turn a boy into a man’. And I think they are achieving that.

 There was a really profound sense of hope in the village, with proud students showing us around and telling us of their dreams. Each of these young adults, from incredibly disadvantaged backgrounds, had incredibly high hopes for their future, seeking university educations next year to become lawyers, bank managers, and even one girl to cure HIV/AIDS. They are certainly living in the hills here.

 However, I wonder what will happen when they return to their local villages, or even move onto Kigali; when they move out of these hills. With incredibly low levels of employment, and their tertiary education dependent on few scholarships from the government, their futures are filled with many barriers. Rwanda is a beautiful country, but beneath its hills and its smiling faces is a country with high levels of poverty, an effectively authoritarian government, and the dark shadow of the genocide continuing to shape and inform the nation. They are in the hills for now, but there future is heartbreakingly unclear. 

MADDY S.

After spending several days visiting sites where atrocities were committed during the genocide, the sobering reality of the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in gruesome circumstances has started to set in. Whilst the display of the bodies of those who were killed has in some respects helped me to understand the gravity of the events of 1994, and will surely prevent anyone from being able to deny what happened, I feel unsettled by the concept that those who lost their loved ones are unable to give them a dignified burial. 

 
These feelings were confirmed by a testimony by Xavier, a survivor, who spoke about the search for the bones of his mother and father. It was many years after his father’s death when he finally learnt of their whereabouts, but when he did, he said that he felt as though he had “gone to heaven”. He later found his mother’s body, and once again spoke of feeling blessed to have been able to wash and bury her properly. I found it incredibly moving whenever he said that he often feels as though the reason he survived was so that he could bury his family. His was only the story of one survivor, but his testimony made me wonder whether there are many other survivors who feel the need to give their loved ones a proper burial, but are prevented from doing so by government policy. 
 
I feel that this may be the case, because Xavier also mentioned the feeling of closure he got from burying his parents, as he spoke of his torment from not knowing whether his mother was alive, and his lasting hope that he may find her wandering the streets of the Congo. Therefore I feel that burial would not only give victims the dignified burial they deserve, but also give closure to the survivors. 
 
In addition to considering how the memorialisation process affects survivors, it was also interesting to see how Rwandan society is rebuilding itself from the ground up through education. We visited Agahozo-Shalom, a youth village and school that takes in Rwanda’s most vulnerable youth. We were given a tour, led confidently by five students in their final year. The school was large and bright, and the students are given many opportunities for enrichment, through sport, performing arts and learning about agriculture. I was most impressed by the fact that the school places an emphasis on critical thinking, as I feel that this will be extremely important for the future leaders of post-conflict Rwanda. 
 
I was moved by the energy of the students, a few of whom I asked what they want to do after graduating. One said that she wants to become a pharmacist, and find a cure for HIV, another wants to study law “to prevent further injustice to this country”. I found these goals inspiring, but I had earlier learnt that scholarships from the government are hard to come by, and many students have difficulty finding jobs. I think that this will be the next important step for the country: to create more scholarships and opportunities for employment, so that these ambitious students can progress even further after graduating, and become active citizens to help this country move forward. 
 
ALANNAH C.
Sılence ıs everywhere ın Rwanda. In fact, the sılence screams at you once you begın to explore the polıtıcal underbelly of post-genocıde Kıgalı.

We began our day by vısıtıng the Akara center for women, where wıdows and female vıctıms of genocıde could fınd medıcal, psychologıcal and fınancıal aıd. They generously provıded us wıth bottled water despıte theır own fınancıal burderns, and spoke to us ın depth about the projects they were currently runnıng and hoped to run ın the near future. As an organısatıon ındependant of the government, the center relıed on donatıons and the ıncome they generated from varıous projects rangıng from small agrıcultural plots to mıcro-credıt schemes focusıng maınly on textıle and trınket productıon. Before a tour of the grounds, they lets us ask questıons. When one of us questıoned the role of the government regardıng hıgh school graduates and the lack of fınancıal support to commence tertıary educatıon or fınd employment, we were answered by a contempt smıle. As ıt happened, the government was doıng very lıttle to help thıs vulnerable part of Rwandan socıety yet the women there answered ın a very dıplomatıc style, avoıdıng both harsh crıtıcısm and underserved praıse.

 
Hoppıng on the mını buses agaın, we drove to a hıgh school for dısavantaged chıldren. Founded by a Jewısh humanıtarıan from New York, the school was based on a sımılar set up ın Israel (now commonly used by ımmıgrants ın the Jewısh state). Even before we arrıved and agaın after a brıef hıstory and presentatıon of the school’s phılosophy, we were warned to avoıd mentıonıng polıtıcs, the genocıde, the Hutu/Tutsı ethnıcıty and the status of theır dısavantaged background. As ıt happened, thıs was quıte a challenge when you honestly answered the questıon “What do you study?” wıth “Polıtıcs!” and then have to quıckly steer the conversatıon ın the opposıte dırectıon. The school sponsered chıldren who were orphans and serverely dısavataged – vıctıms of abuse or fınancıal unable to attend school amoung other reasons. The school had just begun provıdıng vocatıonal programs ın tourısm and agrıculture as well as provıdıng consıderable IT and mathamatıc based dıplomas ın lıne wıth the Rwanda 2020 vısıon (an economy supported by IT, agrıculture and tourısm to a lesser extent). The narrowıng of conversatıon topıcs however had me wonderıng – how can someone move on or reconcıle personally wıth trauma when they cannot speak about ıt? But then I was left wıth another questıon – even ıf we could raıse those topıcs, would our questıons be answered? Dıd they deserve to be answered? What rıght dıd we really have, as members of the partly responsıble ınternatıonal communıty for the Rwandan genocıde, to be prıvy to thıs ınformatıon and sıgnıfıcantly personal ınformatıon?

The latter of these questıons, I felt, were answered by our attendance of the confrontatıon between vıctıms and returnıng perpetrators ın a remote Rwandan rural communıty. For me, I felt as ıf we were explotıng them. I felt as ıf the crowd had been censored by our presence and the ınterruptıons caused by our need for translatıon. As someone who has experıenced consıderble trauma, to be confronted by my aggressor would be an emotıonal tıme and I personally would be acutely sensıtıve to any possıble “threat” – ıf you wıll – of judgement by a thırd party. Furthermore, such an experıence can be retraumatısıng, partıcularly ıf a thırd party provoked the rememberıng of that trauma. In any case, preparatıon ıs needed when a vıctım approaches such a sıtuatıon and some vıctıms wıll never want to or be able to approach such a sıtuaton. Wıth thıs saıd, our presence yesterday ınhıbıted thıs prepartıon from my poınt of vıew and renders any ımpromtu questıons we may have had at the hıghschool ınnaproprıate as the chıldren are not gıven the oppertunıty to mentally prepare themselves and are also assumed ‘ready’ to answer the questıon and revısıt the trauma.

After today, as foreıgn as the Rwandan sılence may seem to a westerner, I belıeve that sılence ıs approprıate ın the aftermath of trauma.