Student association creates ‘families’ for genocide survivors

President Paul Kagame (middle) joins members of AERG and GAERG in Kigali for the Walk to Remember. Mourners head to Amahoro national stadium and proceed with a night vigil in 2018.
President Paul Kagame (middle) joins members of AERG and GAERG in Kigali for the Walk to Remember. Mourners head to Amahoro national stadium and proceed with a night vigil in 2018.

Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti, University World News

Gilbert Gasigwa was just 10 years old when the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which orphaned him, began.

As a consequence of the turmoil, he was uprooted and had to move from the Nyanza district in the Southern Province where he had been living with his family, to the home of his aunt, a farmer with two children, residing in the Ruhango district of the same province.

“I always felt lonely. I lost my parents and many relatives during the genocide. I felt no one had more problems than I,” Gasigwa says, recalling his painful childhood.

Gasigwa always wondered why he had survived.

He attended a nearby primary school and later on managed to enrol in secondary school, where he studied languages and literature with the financial support of the Genocide Survivors Assistance Fund (FARG).

However, as the years went by, the hopelessness Gasigwa was experiencing grew.

“I always worried about my future. I was confused. I lived with my aunt, who did not have much money and was also struggling to overcome the trauma and wounds of the genocide,” he says.

Like many other survivors, Gasigwa says he could hardly talk about the genocide and did not want to hear anyone else talking about it. It reminded him of the trauma he had experienced as a young boy.

A turning point

Gasigwa says that things changed for the better soon after he enrolled at the former National University of Rwanda (now the University of Rwanda) and became a member of the Association of Student Survivors of the Genocide or Association des Etudiants et Eleves Rescapés du Genocide (AERG).

The association was founded in 1996 by students who started studying at the university only two years after the genocide.

The aim of the association is to help the likes of Gasigwa to cope with the aftermath of the tragedy, promoting survivors’ welfare.

“After joining AERG at university, I could experience how it felt to be part of a family,” says Gasigwa. “I realised that many people had problems similar to mine. We supported each other, and studying became easier,” he recalls.

From AERG, small families developed, which could help to bring students together and where they could talk about shared issues and ways to deal with them.

These small families are set in a normal family setting and each has a father, a mother, and the rest are siblings.

Gasigwa explains that AERG families are headed by those who are wise enough to motivate the rest and show love so that the family attains its objective.

“The philosophy of forming families is good because, as orphans, we felt lonely and … with formed families, I had someone I called a father and someone I called mother and I also had siblings with whom I shared experiences and we supported each other,” Gasigwa explains.

“At the university, we were trained to work hard and uphold discipline. We were not allowed to fail and we had to meet and talk about our performance. Our motto was that a better future is fought for and we had to be exemplary,” he adds.

Gasigwa says that being an AERG member opened up his mind and he performed well at university.

Family ties

According to Father Dr Balthazar Ntivuguruzwa, the vice-chancellor of the Institut Catholique de Kabgayi, based in the Muhanga district of Southern Province, ‘families’ improve the social welfare of students and boost their performance and self-esteem.

Theresie Nyirahabimana, the director of student welfare at the University of Rwanda’s Huye district-based College of Arts and Social Sciences, agrees with Ntivuguruzwa.

She says students who survived the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi find solace when they are in AERG families.

“These students, the majority of whom were toddlers after the genocide, grew up without parents or relatives. When they joined the university, they found others with similar backgrounds and formed families, which helped them overcome trauma and sorrow associated with the genocide,” she says.

“AERG family members meet every week and discuss the issues affecting them and chat about ways to address them. We work closely with them and we provide hostels to any students who survived the genocide. They live in a tight-knit group and help each other.”

She adds that belonging to a ‘family’ helps to improve the students’ social welfare as well as boosting their study performance.

Creating a sense of belonging

Today, Gasigwa, 36, is the father of two and lives in Gasabo district in the capital city of Kigali. He is currently a public servant, holding a position as the public relations officer at the FARG.

“I am not sure I would have completed university without AERG,” he comments.

“The AERG families restored my home. The more I participated in the AERG meetings and informal talks with colleagues, the more relieved I felt,” he notes.

A total of 33,349 people have been supported to study at universities and other higher-learning institutions and they benefited from both tuition fees and allowance stipends, according to figures from FARG.

“FARG could not have achieved its objective of supporting students financially if AERG had not been there. The majority would have died as a result of the trauma of the events, and failed to complete their studies,” Gasigwa says.

AERG has not only helped university students to study but also to build resilience, he affirms.

Nicole Kabakesha is one of the beneficiaries.

“The AERG family helps me a lot as a university student. I meet colleagues and we talk about university life and how we can improve our performance,” says Kabakesha, a final year student in accounting at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

The bonds created by AERG and the AERG families have resulted in the creation of the Rwandan Graduates Genocide Survivors Organisation (GAERG).

According to Egide Gatari, the president of GAERG, the organisation works to support survivors of genocide through capacity building, socio-economic transformation and psychosocial education and advocacy.

Gatari says the association, created in 2003, has supported vulnerable genocide survivors to get shelter. Some 4,000 survivors have obtained decent housing, while the organisation also focuses on other challenges survivors are faced with, including genocide denial and conserving genocide facts.

Gatari, who is also a former AERG member, believes that the association has made the lives of many young genocide survivors a little easier.

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