Today ActionAid's Rwandan Country Director Josephine Uwamariya joins staff at ActionAid UK in London to talk about the 20-year anniversary of the genocide.
We invited supporters to ask Josephine questions about what happened — and about life in Rwanda 20 years after the earth-shattering events of 1994.
Could you tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Rwanda in 1956. In 1959 the first genocide happened and some of my relatives were killed. Others were banished. We were forced to flee to Uganda. My parents went first – I followed, in 1960, after living with my grandma for a year. So I grew up in Uganda. I lived in a refugee camp with my parents, four sisters and two brothers.
My father was a teacher. He could not get a job [teaching] in Uganda so he had to do other odd jobs, and that meant he couldn’t provide for us in the same way that he would if he’d been able to earn a living in Rwanda. As the firstborn in my family, I decided I had to care for them when I was 13 years old. I would save my own pocket money, which my uncle gave me, to provide basics for my family.
When I was 16 my father tried to pull my out of school to get married. I stood up to him. I told him that I’d won my scholarship to attend high school and nothing was going to stop me. It was then I decided that I would never get married.
When I finished university I continued working so I could care for my brothers and sisters. I paid for them all to be put through school and university. My commitment led all my brothers and sisters to graduate. I never married but I put all my siblings through school.
What was it like returning to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide?
I remember seeing the genocide in the 1990s on the TV and seeing bodies being thrown in rivers. When I got back to Rwanda in 1995 that was my vivid memory: of a country that was full of bodies. It was a sombre moment, when it felt like there was no hope at all.
When I visited the community where my family lived I found that from my family of almost 20, there were only two survivors. My auntie’s family had fled to a church where they thought they were safe, but they was almost all killed. Only my two nieces survived, by hiding under the dead bodies of our family. So I felt very, very sad.
To this day, we have not been able to locate my relatives who were killed, so we have never been able to bury them. This is really hard to bear. But I am Rwandan and while Rwandans remember, we have to say it happened and move on.
What impact have the gacaca courts had on the reconciliation process?
The gacaca [community courts] were adopted from the traditional justice system in Rwanda that has been used for centuries, so they are not new. They have enabled community members to hold each other to account, to share what they saw and how they feel about the genocide and it created a situation where some of the perpetrators — having realised their community members were aware of what they had done — asked for forgiveness.
They were asked to return what they had destroyed, and repay stolen property. Others were convicted and some were released to support those they had wronged, either through public work or even going back to support the widows of husbands they had killed.
The gacaca courts also helped people rebuild or start sharing what they had lost. It reduced the pressure on the existing justice system, which couldn’t have managed to handle the volume of cases. Without these courts, the genocide cases would have taken more than 300 years to settle.
Do Rwandan people feel that the majority of the perpetrators have been brought to justice yet?
What is underway in Rwanda is a story of reconciliation that encompasses the whole country and is based on traditional justice systems – the gacaca courts — through which the majority of perpetrators have been tried.
However, some of the very high level perpetrators of the genocide, those who gave the orders from the extreme Hutu government of the time, have still not been brought to justice. Many of them fled to DRC and even Europe and have remained there since.
Rwandan parliament is the first to have a majority of women MPs. Has it made a difference? How?
Yes, it’s made a difference: we now have gender-responsive laws, policies and strategies have been put in place. For example, the law against gender based violence, family and property laws, and the women’s development fund.
The Rwandan government has established a gender-monitoring office, which oversees gender-responsive programmes and policies. It’s effective because it’s well structured, well resourced and accountable – it’s helping to make sure the gender budget responds to women’s needs.
The Rwandan parliament is also responsible for implementing change at community level. It listened to women in their communities about land registration and has enabled women to own 50% of family land. Ownership of land is 50/50 so it’s delivering real results on the ground.
Women don’t earn 50% of land in Rwanda but married women and married men have equal rights on their land. So married women own 50% of their land.
Women have power in parliament because all are equally elected in parliament. However, the current labour law needs amending to address the issues of maternity. It’s been reduced from three months to just eight weeks.
There are new stories from Rwanda of Hutu killing Tutsi. How often does this happen and what warnings do these give?
I’m not aware of Hutus killing Tutsis. We all consider ourselves Rwandans today, but I’ve heard of killings due to land disputes and other domestic violence, which goes back to my point about the need to invest in fighting poverty. Poverty was one of the underlying factors that led to the genocide, so its important that we continue to invest in eradicating it.
How does the genocide 20 years after the fact impact your work?
Twenty years on, the genocide continues to dominate Rwandan and regional politics and also the Rwandan people’s psyche. The country was brought to its knees, the entire socio-economic and political fabric was destroyed, with women and children in particular left to bear the burden of a devastated society. It’s these women and children we work with.
All the communities we work in have been affected by the genocide, because genocide was nationwide. So when we work with communities we are cautious of that. Everything we do is geared towards unity and coexistence and because we know that poverty was one of the leading causes of the genocide, we are fighting that.
What inspired you to join ActionAid?
I joined ActionAid because of its focus on children’s and women’s rights. My dad tried to take me out of school to marry me off – twice.
First when I was admitted to secondary school he said: “No — there’s no need to continue your studies”. My uncle stepped in to support me so for four years I was OK.
I passed my senior 4 exams and was admitted to high school, and my father again threatened to stop me going to school, but I had got a scholarship so I stood up to him. I told him, “You wanted me to drop out at secondary level but I’ve managed and you won’t stop me continuing”.
Also when my father didnt suceed in marrying me off, he pulled my sister out of school and arranged a marriage for her instead. Her treatment and mine made me realise I had to fight for the rights of girls like us everywhere.
So that created in me a great resistance to negative attitudes towards girls. I succeeded despite all the odds to get an education and partly that has been my motivation to fight for the rights of women. When I saw ActionAid’s mission and vision I thought: “Wow, this is MY organisation”.
Do you have any message for global leaders or institutions to ensure nothing like Rwandan genocide happens again?
People must honour their commitments to upholding human rights and most importantly the basic right to life.
Global leaders and the UN should have a stronger mandate to respond adequately and immediately to any situation like the Rwandan genocide — if they had responded at the time perhaps almost a million people wouldn’t have been butchered.
We must invest in the young people and children of Rwanda, because the future generation must uphold the unity prevailing today. Many of their parents perpetrated, or were part of the genocide.
One of the issues that led to the genocide was poverty. The perpetrators were promising those who engaged in killings that they could take the property of the Tutsis’.
If people are not economically empowered they can find themselves sleepwalking back into a situation where they don’t care for their people and neighbours because they want land.
We must learn from what happened in Rwanda not to be complacent again.
ActionAid works in Rwanda with survivors of the genocide, supporting women to earn an income, educate their children, and foster long-term peace.