From Rwanda's Ashes, Women Are Building Anew

Six years after the genocide in Rwanda, women are getting stronger, learning new skills, taking on new roles as heads of household, builders, workers and traders. Slowly, hesitantly, Tutsi and Hutu women are talking about reconciliation.

Woman and child

NEW YORK-For six years, Aloisea Inyumba has managed the aftermath of the genocide in Central Africa that the world still can barely comprehend. She arranged burials and funerals and commemorations; she assisted in providing relief to survivors; she helped returning refugees. Perhaps most important, she encouraged Tutsi and Hutu women to start talking to each other and working toward a common goal of peace. It's only a beginning, but the seeds have been planted.

"If you look at where we've been and where we are today, there is a big sign of hope," said Inyumba, the head of Rwanda's Unity and Reconciliation Commission.

She recently attended the U.N. Millennium session along with Rwandan President, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, whose Rwandese Patriotic Front forces overthrew the government that launched the genocide in 1994.

In a quiet restaurant in New York City, she sat for an interview and spoke matter-of-factly of a horror that beggars the imagination: more than 800,000 people massacred within 100 days in the spring of 1994 in the tiny, lush Central African nation, known as "land of a thousand hills" for its beautiful landscape.

Tutsi and some politically moderate Hutu were systematically killed by Hutu. The wholesale slaughter was led by Hutu nationalist leaders and conducted village by village by machete-wielding militants.

"We saw mothers (forced into) killing their own children, husbands killing wives, children killing parents," Inyumba recalled. "It was madness."

Rwanda was once controlled by Belgium. For years Tutsi, mostly cattle owners, and Hutu, mostly farmers, lived side by side, but Belgian colonialists manipulated the two groups, favoring and elevating the minority Tutsi, while fueling resentments by the majority Hutu who found many avenues of advancement closed to them. While the colonialists are gone, their legacy of unequal treatment continued, and from time to time the tensions exploded in bloodletting, as they did six years ago.

The social structure of the country of 8 million people was destroyed, 3 million fled as refugees, including many of the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide. Today 120,000 people, including some 1,200 women, remain in prison, the vast majority of them charged with genocide. The former minister of family and women's affairs is on trial for rape because she failed to prevent her subordinates from raping Tutsi women. The daunting task of dispensing justice lies ahead.

A slender woman with a warm manner, Inyumba was born into an earlier period of political strife and armed conflict. Her father was killed during the massacres of Tutsi by Hutu from 1959 through 1963, and her pregnant mother fled to Uganda, an English-speaking country where Inyumba was reared and educated. She returned to Rwanda at age 30 as finance minister, the only woman on the 10-member executive committee of the Rwandese Patriotic Front.

She later became minister of family and women's affairs, replacing the minister charged with rape. Today, Inyumba and her physician husband are rearing two children of her two slain brothers, along with their 4-year-old daughter, Nicole.

Inyumba has seen the worst. From 1994 to 1998, as Rwanda's minister for family and social affairs, she was responsible for burying the dead, bringing back refugees, both Tutsi who fled the initial massacre and Hutu, some innocent and some guilty, who fled fearing reprisals. Her task was to help the living find a way to begin again.

"The level of destruction, of hatred, of badness was a new thing for us," she said.

The killers specifically targeted Tutsi women who were raped, tortured, mutilated and killed, according to a report issued this summer by the Organization of African Unity. The report also said that many women were raped by men who knew they were HIV-positive and sadistically transmitted the virus to Tutsi women and their families.

Virtually every surviving female over the age of 12 had been raped, it said. Raped women gave birth to between 2,000 and 5,000 "children of hate," according to the National Population Office.

In a patrilineal society, the children would be considered Hutu-another motive of rapists. Many women and girls were taken as sexual hostages by militias that fled into neighboring Tanzania.

After the genocide, in every community, the Rwandans needed the basics-food, shelter, health care. The women bore and still bear much of the burden of reconstruction. Half a million had been widowed. As subsistence farmers, most of them had to put their lives and families back together without men to help.

With funds from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. State Department, Inyumba started the Rwanda Women's Initiative, a national women's network at the grassroots level, formed in an effort to bring Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, or pygmy, women, together to talk about their common needs. The network was modeled after the 1996 Bosnia Women's Initiative.

"The first meetings were very difficult," Inyumba said. At first, Hutu and Tutsi women were divided by trauma and hatred. "I organized week-long workshops for reconciliation. At the first sessions the women sat in separate corners, but they had to share sleeping mats, soap, food. Finally, they had to acknowledge that they needed each other." By the end of the week, Hutu and Tutsi women finally opened up to the possibility of working together to solve their common problems.

One of their first questions: What to do about the children orphaned and lost in the genocide?

"We had half a million orphans in 100 orphanages," Inyumba said. "Women had lost children, children had lost mothers. We did a national campaign. We said, ‘Every home a child, every child a home.' Women went to the orphanages and took children home. Hutu and Tutsi women have all taken children, regardless of ethnic background. It was the first step in reconciliation." Today, she said, 70 orphanages have been closed, but thousands of orphans and abandoned children remain.

The traditional Rwandan family structure has been transformed through necessity. Today, 34 percent of the households are headed by women, and 28,000 households are headed by children-girls between 12 and 18.

The women of Rwanda have had to develop new skills, building and painting houses, driving and starting small businesses, like concession stands in tourist areas where the mountain gorillas live.

Now, breaking with tradition, Rwanda's women have access to banks, known as "ikegega," meaning a storehouse for seeds.

"Every woman, after every harvest, saves seeds for the next season. Now the money is being saved," Inyumba said. The revolving seed fund is intended for all Tutsi and Hutu women in Rwanda's 154 counties. "So, despite all we have been through, there are positive notes," said Inyumba.

Inyumba has an American champion in Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria and founder of Women Waging Peace, a loose-knit network of women, including Inyumba, who are working toward resolution in the world's conflict areas.

"She may seem shy and soft spoken, but she's an organizational whiz," said Hunt. President Kagame, at Hunt's urging, this summer appointed Inyumba and two other women to the negotiating team dealing with the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armies and militias of various countries and factions, including Rwanda, are fighting for power and diamonds.

"Classically, these have been all-male negotiations," said Ambassador Hunt. "The war makers tend to be concerned that women would be too soft and would compromise, which is the whole point of negotiation. The women, however, do not define their success in terms of territory; they define it in terms of stability," she said.

"That's a very big difference in terms of the outcome and the process. The participation of women introduces a new variable in peacemaking in some very troubled regions."

Today Rwanda's women are serving for the first time in key government positions, in charge of justice, agriculture, the national development bank and reconciliation-Inyumba's portfolio.

"Reconciliation is the only future for our country," Inyumba said. "Historically, we've been divided into groups-Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. We have one language, one country, one common history. It's a homogenous culture. Our biggest challenge today is to talk about the way forward. We must make sure another generation does not suffer. We have suffered too much."

Next week: Reinventing Justice in Rwanda

Jane Ciabattari, a Parade Magazine contributing editor, is on the advisory board of Women's Enews.