In the small backyard of their Rwandan village home, a small group of children are enthusiastically playing a clapping game, singing at the tops of their voices.
It is a lovely scene, which only clouds when the words are translated. The opening lines of the song, being sung with such gusto, are, “I’m not afraid of anything, I’m not afraid of knives, I’m not afraid of being cut to pieces.” None of the children singing the song are old enough to remember the horrific days of the 1994 genocide. But nearby a mother sits cooking potatoes and beans for lunch over an open fire, and does not appear to hear the words, as the familiar song washes over her.
That morning, she harvested the beans from the small field behind her house with a machete. It is both an everyday act and an astonishing test of courage and resilience, as it was with a machete that her husband was murdered in front of her eyes.
A decade ago, Rwanda descended into genocide after years of tension between the majority Hutu ethnic group and the historically dominant Tutsis. Over a period of 100 days, a coordinated campaign slaughtered around one million Tutsis, together with the moderate Hutus who tried to stop the killing. Most were hacked to death with machetes, many by people whom they had lived alongside for years. The international community failed to intervene.
Now the country is at peace and working hard to ensure that future generations will not repeat the horrors of the past.
“If you don’t teach your children other ways, then they will carry on looking at other people’s noses,” says Jeanette, a widow of the genocide who lives in the Rwandan capital Kigali. Nose shape is thought to indicate ethnic group in Rwanda, with a long slender nose regarded as a Tutsi feature, while a shorter flatter nose denotes a Hutu. So the world wished for by Jeanette, where children do not look at other people’s noses, is one in which ethnic background is unimportant. In fact years of intermarriage between the two groups has eroded those physical differences and it is impossible to divide Hutus and Tutsis by appearance alone.
“I want to forgive [what happened to me] so that my children can grow up mixing with other people, because if you show them hatred there is no way they can learn to love other people,” says Jeanette. “If you don’t show them good manners they will be like children were before the war when they would look at other people’s noses.” Jeanette is now bringing up her nine year old daughter, Marie-Claire and 18 year-old son, Manwe, in a house built for her by Avega, Cafod’s partner and an organisation which works with widows of the genocide. It is a basic house in a village built solely for widows, but it is a permanent home for Jeanette, who spent many years moving from one friend to the next, after losing her house during the war.
Ten years ago she was a married mother of six, with another child on the way, living a comfortable life in rural Rwanda. As Jeanette tells her story, tears stream down her face, but her voice never wavers.
At the time, Jeanette’s husband was living in Kigali and working as a truck driver to support his family. On the second day of fighting, Jeanette was called to the local telephone to be told that he had been killed.
Fighting swept the country and soon came to her village, claiming many lives. After seeing her son thrown into a mass grave, Jeanette fled her home with her remaining five children in the desperate search for sanctuary.
But in their escape, Jeanette and her family encountered the brutal Interhabwe, groups of violent young Hutu men trained to kill. Desperately trying to protect her younger children, Jeanette watched helplessly as the men threatened to rape her 13 year-old daughter. After a brief scuffle, their commander issued orders to shoot her.
“When they turned to kill my daughter, I had one daughter pulling on my skirt from one side, a son pulling on my skirt from the other side and I was pregnant. I could not do anything to save her.
When the militia shot her, she didn’t die straight away, so she was crying out in pain,” says Jeanette. “That sound will stay with me forever and I hear it every day.” Days later, the family was ambushed in a valley. There, Jeanette’s remaining four children perished, beaten to death with rocks; her life was only saved by a whim of the militia leader that she was more use to him alive.
Dragged back to the militia camp, she was repeatedly raped until she lost consciousness. She does not know how long she was in the camp, but her freedom came with the invading Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Force which liberated the camp and in time restored peace in the country.
Jeanette tried to pull her life together again, giving birth the following August to the daughter she had carried throughout the war.
Then, two and a half years later, a miracle occurred. A neighbour working as a driver told Jeanette that on his travels, he had seen a little boy who looked like her son. Initially, Jeanette was reluctant to listen, fearing that her hopes would be raised in vain. But eventually the driver persuaded her to come with him.
The driver stopped by a house and Jeanette waited for half an hour before a boy came out.
“When I saw him, something inside held me back because I was so frightened that it would not be him. So I called out ‘Manwe’ and when he saw me he said: ‘Mother are you resurrected from the dead? When I left you, you were dead’.” The son that she had last seen being thrown into a mass grave had survived. He told her that while the soldiers were burying the bodies, it had started raining, so the soldiers had left to seek shelter. The little boy had crawled over bodies to escape and after the war had been taken in by a RPF soldier. Now Manwe is at school and hoping to become an electrician.
The journey back to happiness for Jeanette has been a long one. Firstly, she had to learn to love the daughter who arrived at such a dark time, to find a space in her broken heart for a new life.
Eventually, the shadows of the past overwhelmed her and she was taken to a psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, a sympathetic doctor recognised that her problems were not the result of mental illness but were caused by trauma and grief. He told her about Avega and its counselling service.
“There, I started talking to Jeanne, a counsellor,” recalls Jeanette. “At that time I was very forgetful. I would get up in the morning and decide to go out somewhere. But I would get to the end of the road and forget where I was going and just carry on walking.
“I came to the point where even in the night I would get up and get dressed and walk and walk. If I got tired then I would sit down on the road. When I came to my senses again I would be very cold, wearing only my undergarments and would wonder how I got there.” Slowly, through regular counselling and contact with other widows in a similar situation, Jeanette began to feel stronger. Avega helped her build a house and found a school for her daughter.
Then came yet another cruel blow. Concerned about Jeanette’s continual illhealth, medical staff at Avega persuaded her to take an HIV test. She tested positive, having contracted the virus through the repeated rapes she had survived.
Her daughter is also HIV positive, having contracted the virus while still in the womb, but Jeanette has not yet told her of her status. She fears that if she tells her son that his sister is HIV positive he will leave home, unable to cope with the prospect of losing all of his family.
“I found out that I was positive, before I found my son and that is when I started going to counselling at Avega. They helped me to stay alive. They told me ‘don’t worry that you are going to die because everyone is going to die someday. If you die then we will look after your daughter’.” Many other women have suffered the same fate as Jeanette. Avega estimates that half of Rwandan women are widows and of those Avega members who have been tested for HIV, 16 percent have tested positive.
Avega gives women back their lives. Not just through their healthcare projects, but also by providing friendship for women who might otherwise be completely alone. It helps support the amazing courage and determination of people like Jeanette who are making the slow, difficult journey out of grief.
Today is Cafod Fast Day, focusing on Rwanda. For further details please call 020 7733 7900.