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30 October 2014

Rwanda, a survivor reports: “My past is not an obstacle for my future life.”

20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, SEVOTA is still supporting women and their children. Riziki N. is one of the survivors. She had a baby girl and named her Salama. This mother and daughter had a long and difficult path to learn how to live with each other.

Riziki N. is of average height, wears a long dress and a yellow headscarf. Together with her daughter Salama, she lives in southern Rwanda. On the fireplace in front of her house, the 57-year-old is baking sambusa (filled pastries similar to samosa). First, a batter mixture is poured into a flat pan and skillfully fried over the fire, almost as if making pancakes. After a short time, Salima takes the pastry out of the pan, fills it with potato and folds it up. Working together, the two can sell over 300 sambusa every day, earning around 200 dollars a month. “It is better to think of the future than of the suffering in the past,” explains the mother.

Back then, in 1994, she went into the woods looking for medicinal herbs to treat her 3-year-old child who had a cough. There she met one of her neighbours. “You’re still here?” he called. Then he threw Riziki N. to the ground and raped her. As she tells us this, she gets up from her cross-legged sitting position to stretch her legs, her eyes filling with tears. Two months later the war came to an end. But she felt her body changing. At that time she was sheltering in a refugee camp with one of her sons. The whereabouts of her other four children were unknown and her husband had already been killed as the massacres began. “The first thing I could think of was to have an abortion.” But then she decided against that option and brought the baby into the world. After the birth, she gave the child up to her youngest sister, who was living in a neighbouring village, and rarely visited her. “My relationship to her was very difficult. If she did something wrong I hit her very hard,” said Riziki N. with eyes full of sadness.

The courage to tell the truth

Now her daughter is 19 years old. Salama is a happy young woman who likes music and dancing. During her childhood she could never understand why she was living with her aunt and not with her mother, like her brothers and sisters. For twelve years Salama knew nothing of the secrets surrounding her birth, but one day Riziki N. plucked up the courage to speak to her about it. “I told her all the details. She cast down her eyes as I told her that her father was put in prison because of the genocide and had recently died there.” Salima remembers that day very well: “I kept asking myself if I was dreaming it all. After all, I had always believed the father of my brothers and sisters was my father, too.”

Assistance in everyday life

The genocide in Rwanda left behind many orphans. For young people of 19 or 20 there, it is normal to have been brought up by only one parent. Nonetheless, to hear that her father had directly taken part in the genocide was a huge shock for Salama. She remained silent for a week and did not speak to her mother at first. In Rwandan culture, many keep their private thoughts to themselves. However, Riziki N., a farmer who never went to school, had found the courage to reveal the secret of the rape to her daughter – a rape that is part of her life. How was she able to do this? Because she had received support from SEVOTA, an organisation which supports women who were raped during the genocide.

The women working at this women’s rights organisation provide psychological support and also help them with their everyday lives. medica mondiale has been assisting this Rwandan initiative since 2008. Twice a month Riziki N. took part in group sessions for survivors of the genocide. She explains, “SEVOTA helped us learn how to live with our experiences and how to accept our children.” “Gradually I began to understand my history. That was the start of the healing path.” In addition, SEVOTA made a small amount of money available to Riziki N., which she used to set herself up as a sambusa seller. It is not just the mothers who benefit from the assistance of this women’s rights organisation: SEVOTA works with the children, too. “For me it was a great relief. I met other young people and realised that I was not alone with this problem,” says Salima, explaining this was how she learnt to accept her past.

Finding new ways

The young woman’s dream is to open her own hotel and now, in the fourth year at a hotel management school, she is well on her way to realising that dream. The tourism sector in Rwanda is growing and that is motivating young people, in particular. “I want to make it,” says Salama. Does she think that her past is an obstacle to her future? Laughing, she raises her left hand: “Not at all. My past may be complicated and painful, but it is not an obstacle for my future life.”

Background information about the genocide in Rwanda

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped in Rwanda during the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Many of the survivors were made pregnant and gave birth to the children of the rapists. Official estimates assume there are between 2,000 and 5,000 such children, the unreported numbers are higher.

About the author

This article was written by a young female journalist from Rwanda, Nadine Uwamahoro. The 27-year-old has written numerous articles for a variety of non-governmental organisations. She lives and works in Kigali, the country’s capital. The photos are from Betty Ndayisaba.