The story of Rwanda is a remarkable one. The world has rarely witnessed such an orgy of violence and killing as that during the Rwandan genocide, which began 17 years ago today. Over one million Tutsis and a number of their Hutu sympathisers were killed during 100 days of the horrors in 1994: the survivors are still very much dealing with the consequences.
How the country has rebuilt itself since the genocide is astounding. Travel to Kigali today and you will see high rise office blocks, international hotels, spotless streets, and zero tolerance of even the most minor misdemeanour. It is almost impossible to believe that the streets were littered with bodies and running with rivers of blood so relatively recently.
The situation though for many of the 400,000 genocide survivors – whether young or old, widow or orphan – remains extremely challenging. The legacy of genocide touches almost every aspect of their lives. Many are impoverished and face complex health problems, such as HIV and recurring trauma. Many others are still without shelter or without access to education and in need of support to bury relatives. Survivors are still threatened with violence, attacked or even killed by former perpetrators, and a climate of fear often persists in their lives.
Survivors receive only a fraction of the support most require. The Government of Rwanda Assistance Fund for Survivors (FARG), which collects five percent of domestic tax revenue from Rwandans each year, is overstretched. This year it can only support 1,500 of more than 10,000 young survivors who applied for university funding . With many such young survivors caring for other orphans, the likelihood of them ever being able to secure a decent job becomes ever more remote as each year passes.
This is just one example of many where survivors’ needs are still unmet. Of the £330 million which the British Government has committed to Rwanda over the next four years, none will be targeted at supporting survivors.
Closer to home, 39 suspected ‘genocidaires’ are still living freely in the UK today – most notably Dr Vincent Bajinya, accused of organising the interahamwe, the Hutu militia which committed the genocide. An extradition request for him, and three other Rwandans who alleged organised killings in their local areas, to face justice in Rwanda was refused by the High Court in 2009. Despite new legislation in the Coroners and Justice Act to enable trials of war crimes committed overseas after 1991 to be heard in the UK, their cases have still not been referred on to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Thankfully there are success stories: survivors who have overcome the greatest obstacles to rebuild their lives. Their strength is astounding. They have helped not only themselves to a better life, but those less fortunate than themselves as well. At the end of last year, one such survivor, Odette Kayirere, Coordinator of AVEGA Agahozo, the Association of Widows of the Genocide, was awarded the Guardian International Development Achievement Award for her work supporting thousands of widows and orphans in the country’s Eastern Province.
Odette and AVEGA are now working to open a new office to reach the 8,500 widows in the Southern Region of Rwanda still requiring support. As many widows are now ageing, and without the families that traditionally would support them, the need for AVEGA’s help is ever-more critical.
For them, the justice for which the survivors campaign will come too late, if ever it arrives. If reconciliation is ever truly to be possible in Rwanda, it will be built on a foundation of restorative justice. That can only be achieved by enabling survivors to rebuild their own lives: with a home, an education, healthcare, security. In so doing, we will truly honour the memory of the victims.
For today, it is time to reflect. One million Tutsis and a number of their Hutu sympathisers were killed in the 1994 genocide. As we remember them today, remember as well the 400,000 survivors still living and dying from the genocide 17 years on.