Answering a 19-year-old question in Rwanda
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“Who’s my father? Where’s my father?” Marie-Claire Mukanyamwasa had asked her mother since she could talk. She could not understand her mother’s vague replies to such a simple question. Apolline, her mother, was hiding more than her sorrow as she would run to her room and cry behind the closed door.
Seven months ago, after seeking emotional support and counselling from the Hope and Peace Foundation in Kigali, Apolline sat her daughter down and told her the truth. Not everything, but as much as her heart could tell.
Apolline had been raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and Marie-Claire was the result of the rape. Marie-Claire turns 19 in May.
In this time of peace and reconciliation, espoused by the Rwandan government, some have fallen through the cracks. It has been 20 years since 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered throughout the country within nearly 100 days. The Rwandan genocide is considered the most efficient mass killing of its time in modern history.
“We stand and comfort the survivors of the 1994 genocide, but we have a problem here even after 20 years. Some of the survivors have nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, no access to education, even though there have been programs here,” says Frank Habineza, the president of the Green Party, Rwanda’s only registered opposition. “We call on the government to look into this problem and provide the solutions.”
The president of Hope and Peace, Honorine Uwababyeyi, says that the problem of dealing with the marginalised is so great, the government cannot deal with the issues on a national level. That is where grassroots NGOs like Hope and Peace come in.
Apolline recounts her story in Kinyarwanda, explaining that she was able to open up to her daughter after speaking at length to Uwababyeyi. She is answering questions through a translator in front of about 20 other members sitting with me outside at the foundation’s headquarters. Pain is evident on their faces and the air feels heavy as if sorrow hangs over the group. Apolline says it is thanks to Uwababyeyi that she was finally able to break through and tell her daughter what happened.
The whole room erupts in a collective sob. One woman, sitting in a brown hijab, has to be escorted out. She is still crying half an hour later. The group composes themselves and Apolline carries on.
“I don’t have any more problems with my daughter. Thanks to President Honorine and the association, I feel so much better,” Apolline says, then points at a young woman across the room. “This is my daughter.”
Marie-Claire looks like a typical Rwandan teenager: she is wearing a peach top, brown miniskirt and a matching leopard headband holding back her mini braids. She is cute, and she resembles her mother, although she does not have her mother’s profoundly sad eyes.
“Right now, I feel very very good, because I am a part of this association, which has helped me a lot,” she says. Uwababyeyi spoke to Marie-Claire after her mother revealed how her story fits into the history of Rwanda.
In between tears she says that her relationship is a lot better with her mother since she knows the truth. “Until that moment, I had never really saw that my mother loved me.”
Uwababyeyi started Hope and Peace in February 2013 as a refuge for those who still feel lost two decades later. She says that most of the 318 members nationwide are rescapees, the politically correct term for Tutsi survivors, children of killers (Hutus), orphans of the genocide, women who have been raped during the genocide, and the children born as the result of rape.
It is here Marie-Claire was able to meet children just like her. She also met Fabrice Iyawaremye, 23 years old, who lives alone. Both of his parents died of natural causes, a detail usually offered in conversation in Rwanda, without question. Fabrice’s story is different, but his feelings of alienation are the same.
“I’m the son of a man who committed genocide,” he says. He’s not the only one who suffered the sins of his father. “There are a lot of us who feel excluded after what our fathers did. Outsiders. I heard that this foundation puts people together, all the youth, to speak, to try to heal, to try to break the cycle. That’s why I came here.”
For many of the members of Hope and Peace, the group has become a family some of them never had.
“I was in a bad place before. I didn’t know where I stood in the world. I feel better being here with everyone. Here is like a family,” he says through a big smile. Fabrice is unemployed and does not have the money to go to university, but he says things are always getting better.