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A Discussion with Two Founding Members of the Association of Genocide Widows Agahozo, AVEGA AGAHOZO, Rwanda

June 27, 2016

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship Project, undergraduate student Mariam Diefallah interviewed two of the founding members of the Association of Genocide Widows Agahozo (Association des Veuves du Génocide Agahozo, AVEGA AGAHOZO) in June 2016. The two interviewees explained their preference for keeping their identities anonymous, explaining that as genocide survivors, they feel safer that way. The two members bring a gender lens to the understanding of the history of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.
Can you please tell me more about how you got involved with the foundation of AVEGA?

The idea came after the genocide in 1994, when different widows starting meeting to discuss their mutual problems, concerns, and affairs. At the beginning, precisely in 1995, 50 women survivors started having regular, informal meetings to help each other with the healing process after their losses. With time, the meetings started becoming more formal, as along with other founding members, we started extending it to other women in different parts of Rwanda as a way of including and helping more women and children survivors. Now, AVEGA is an association of advocacy that is concerned with social affairs.

How is AVEGA promoting justice in Rwanda?

As an association for widows, we understand that after losing your beloved ones, it is essential to find justice in order to be capable of being a part of your community once again. As a result, and to find justice, we decided to help women know their rights through various projects. After the genocide, we started encouraging women to go and give their testimonies; we provided them with guidance and support to do so. We also started teaching women about their property rights, as many survivors found themselves homeless after 1994 due to the population displacement caused by the genocide. Also, one of our most important projects was to make helping rape victims a priority after the genocide. We also started caring for children born out of rape as their relations with their mothers are usually very strained. Through these projects and many others, we seek to promote justice, which will bring about reconciliation to our society.

Would you say that remembrance is essential for achieving reconciliation?

AVEGA believes that remembrance plays a very big role for survivors, as it is part of the healing process. Also, through remembering the victims, we give them the respect, dignity, and recognition they deserve, while teaching others about our history. What I mean is, remembering history is very important so people will not forget their past and in that way, we will also avoid future conflicts.

I want to go back to what you mentioned earlier regarding rape. Do you think the stigma is changing regarding how the society views victims?

At the beginning, when we started our work right after the genocide in 1995, there was a lot of stigma which made many women more intimidated and scared to speak up and tell their stories. Also, in many cases, people in the community—usually perpetrators—would tell the stories of the raped women without their consent and before they were ready to talk about it, causing them a lot of discomfort that worsened their trauma. For example, in some cases, neighbors would gossip and tell others that some women are HIV positive because of rape, which caused stigma and isolated many women from their families and communities.

Another problem many women faced is dealing with their children whom they beared as a result of rape. For those kids, it is extremely difficult to explain to them why they do not know their fathers, and in some cases, why their mothers are very aggressive with them. This is where we do our best to educate those children about their histories before others stigmatize them. For example, we teach children that rape was a weapon used during the genocide to humiliate and torture Tutsi women. We also teach them that being born out of rape was not their fault, nor their mothers’ fault, of course.

Would you say healing comes before education for those children?

Education can be healing in itself, this is why we think it is very important to consider how to teach children about their stories, what words to choose, and what history to tell them. For example, at AVEGA, we bring survivors together and divide them into small groups of similar age. We teach those groups about the history of the genocide and about what happened to their families. It is very important to do that from an early age to teach them before the kids learn about their experiences from other places that could be extremely traumatizing, with future negative consequences. This is why education can be healing; education gives children hope for a different and a better future.

What are the most difficult challenges AVEGA faces?

Genocide ideology is one of the most difficult challenges we face. What I mean is that the concept of a genocide cannot be overcome in a few years. The genocide’s consequences included poverty, displacements, trauma, HIV, and many other issues that still affect Rwandans till today. The challenges we face are particularly difficult on old people who lost literally everything, especially where many of them are homeless. This is why people have to understand that it will take generations to solve our problems. In 1994, we lost our talented people, including many of our intellectuals; we lost our property, hospitals, schools and many other things. AVEGA started from zero, along with Rwanda, which is still a very young country facing terrible genocide effects that are worsened by people’s denial and genocide ideology. But we are working hard and trying to solve many problems. For example, we have built houses for old survivors where they can live together and create new relationships and a new community.

How do you see the future of AVEGA and Rwanda?

We are very optimistic about the future. We have been trying and working hard to build a strong community among survivors, helping them to heal and become reintegrated once again in the society. Empowering future generations is dependent on the work Rwandans are doing right now to help future generations escape trauma and become capable of working for the country’s development. We want to help the government and the country to promote unity and to bring everyone together. We know this is the only way to achieve development.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Preventing future conflicts is dependent on fighting genocide ideology through all possible ways. This is why you should think of your university’s publication for the fellowship project as an act of advocacy in itself.

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