Rwanda’s genocide survivors find reconciliation, income in women’s cooperatives

By Nita Bhalla

NYANZA, Rwanda, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Immaculee Mukantabana, 57, and Constancia Uwimana, 39, may not seem any different to the dozen or so other women gathered at the cooperative meeting in southern Rwanda’s Nyanza district.

The two women sat beside one another – discussing how much money they have saved since the collective was established four months ago, and how long it will take them before they can rent a plot of land to grow beans to sell in the local market.

The scene is not uncommon in villages and towns across developing nations where women’s’ cooperatives – or self-help groups – are being promoted as a means to empower poor, illiterate women to band together to start small businesses.

But this cooperative story is far from the norm – not just for being one of women seeking economic opportunity in a country where almost 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day, but for the reconciliation it is fostering after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

“Her (Uwimana) husband killed my father. Many witnesses came forward and testified against him in the community court and he admitted it,” Mukantabana, a Tutsi, said in Nyanza town, 80 km (50 miles) from Rwanda’s capital Kigali.

“But I have learned to forgive – even after losing my father, husband and others. It’s been a difficult process, but whatever happened has happened. We have to live with those that remain. The cooperative is a good way to help us do that.”

Rwanda is this week commemorating the 25th anniversary of a dark chapter of human history: a time when extremist ethnic Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus – one tenth of the population – over 100 days.

Amongst the estimated 300,000 genocide survivors, tens of thousands were widows – who not only saw their husbands and families shot, clubbed, burned or hacked to death, but were left to fend for themselves in the aftermath.

A quarter of a century on, while the spectre of the genocide continues to cast a dark shadow across this small, mountainous nation, many survivors have learnt to bury the past and live alongside families of those who murdered, forming cooperatives.

“After the genocide, there were women who had lost their families. Some were raped. Some had HIV/AIDS. There were also women whose husbands were perpetrators and been sent to jail,” said James Butare, head of programs for the charity ActionAid.

“Both groups live in the same community and needed help to heal as well as earn a living. Through establishing cooperatives and bringing them together, women have been able to share their experiences and this helps in strengthening social cohesion.”

The charity has supported 345 cooperatives with 1,000 survivors since 1997 – helping them to work together to save regularly, providing them with grants to help start up their businesses, and giving training in skills such as accounting.

Genocide survivors and other women from low-income backgrounds discuss their business plans for their new cooperative outside the charity ActionAid office in southern Rwanda’s Nyanza district on April 8, 2019. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Nita Bhalla

“KILL LISTS”

The genocide began on the night of April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying Rwanda’s then-President Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – was shot down.

The attack sparked a rampage by Hutu government soldiers and allied extremist militia, with the aim of exterminating the Tutsi minority whom they blamed for killing Habyarimana.

Across the lush, hilly, densely populated east African nation, Hutu leaders set up road blocks and handed out “kill lists” to militias who went from house to house, killing Tutsi men, women and children.

Neighbors killed neighbors and Hutu husbands even murdered their Tutsi wives out of fear for their own lives.

As many as 10,000 people were killed per day, with 70 percent of the Tutsi population wiped out by the time the fighting ended in July 1994.

“The genocide left many survivors traumatised by their experiences and it has been extremely difficult for some people to move on with their lives,” said Yvonne Kayiteshonga, mental health division manager at the Ministry of Health.

“But we have learned the lessons of the past and the government has taken numerous steps to not only ensure justice, but also promote unity and reconciliation after the genocide,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COMMUNITY COURTS TO COOPERATIVES

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in Tanzania in November 1994 by the United Nations to prosecute those behind the genocide.

More than 90 people were indicted and, after lengthy trials, dozens of senior officials in the former Rwandan regime were convicted of genocide, all of them Hutus.

Rwanda also set up community courts known as “Gacaca courts” to prosecute low level suspects.

Between 2001 and 2012, more than two million cases were tried in 12,000 community courts, where locals were encouraged to gather under trees and beneath aluminum roofing to discuss what happened.

It was during these meetings that Uwimana learnt the man that she had married in the years after the genocide – and whom she had three children with – was a mass murderer.

“They said he used to stand at the check-points and kill the Tutsis. Even though I didn’t know this when I married him, I felt ashamed for what he had done,” said Uwimana, a Hutu, adding that her husband was given a jail-term of 16 years.

“She (Mukantabana) was my neigbour and so I would try to avoid her on the road. I would even send my children further away to collect water, so they didn’t cross paths with her.”

Even though their relationship improved in the years after, she added, it was really only after they started meeting through the cooperative that things have really changed.

Civil society organisations like ActionAid say bringing women together after the genocide has not only helped heal deep wounds within the community, but provided survivors with income.

“Some women want to start an agribusiness, others want to engage in making and selling handicrafts, others want to run a small shop,” said Butare.

“We help to organise and support them, help them get loans and provide them with the necessary skills and training to make their business sustainable.”

While Mukantabana and Uwimana’s cooperative is still to take off, they are already reaping the rewards with the bond that they have formed by working together on their new business.

“In my heart, I have forgiven him (Uwimana’s husband). I have even accompanied her to see to the jail to see him,” she said. “They were once enemies, but now they are more like family to me.”

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)