20 years of transformation for individuals, communities and the country

Published: 5 April 2014 15:18 CET

Today, 7 April, Rwandans pause to remember a dark time in their history. For it was on this day, 20 years ago, that the genocide began. The Rwanda Red Cross Society has played a large role in the rebuilding of the country over the past two decades, assisting countless thousands of children, orphaned by the 100 days of horror.

By Anita Vizsy for IFRC

Jacqueline’s cheerful disposition is infectious. Her genuine smile and bright personality defy the horrors she lived through as a young girl.

In 1994, Rwanda witnessed 100 days of unimaginable atrocities. Starting on 7 April, the unfolding genocide left the nation in great turmoil and resulted in the loss of an estimated 800,000 lives, the rampant sexual abuse of thousands of women, and the orphaning of one million children. Although united in their efforts to keep their hard earned peace, the wounds of 20 years ago heal slowly, making forgiveness a battle within the heart of every survivor.

At the age of seven, Jacqueline Gatari Uwamariya was visiting relatives as the killings started. It was a visit that – in a peculiar twist of fate – would become the key to her survival. Later, she was taken in by the compassionate wife of a man accused of many atrocities. “I could hear people bragging about their killings every night, but I didn’t think it could affect my family,” remembers Shoushou – as everybody calls her. She was too young to understand the gravity of the events and was looking forward to seeing her parents, “I was trying to remember the details, so the next time I met my family I could tell them about it,” she says. She would never get the chance. Jacqueline remained the sole survivor of her entire village.

Today, she is standing strong to demonstrate that what happened 20 years ago will not deprive her of a happy life. “It was in vain, it cannot break me,” Jacqueline says with unequivocal conviction for a better future. Living at an orphanage after the genocide, she completed high school with the help of government funding. With no family to go home to, she spent many of her summers at vacant school campuses. And after graduation, Jacqueline had nowhere else to go but back to the village where she grew up. “I had hope that the people I approached would help me,” she admits.

Returning home

The mayor of her now resettled village made a successful appeal that Jacqueline be included in a support programme initiated by the Rwanda Red Cross Society. She was 20 years old then, and was among the many young individuals who were assisted by the National Society, receiving housing, and membership in an income-generating livestock cooperative. “The Red Cross gave me the foundations for living and I wanted to give back,” she explains. “So I became a volunteer.”

Now, she manages a Red Cross store on the site where the National Society is building 14 houses for some of the most vulnerable genocide survivors.

Re-established after the events of 1994, the Rwanda Red Cross Society was one of many organizations striving to help the nation recover. Over the years, it has assisted 14,000 orphans and other vulnerable children in areas of shelter, education, nutrition, health, psychosocial counseling and social-economic development.

“We helped (the children) reintegrate into society,” explains Apollinaire Karamaga, Secretary General, Rwanda Red Cross Society. “These children have now grown up, some have completed secondary school, others are at university, while still others have married,” he says. The progress, for individuals, communities and the National Society, has been undeniable. “You can see the effects and the positive impact thanks to this supports.”

Over the last 20 years, Rwanda has done a remarkable job tending its wounds while at the same time looking towards the future with a large measure of optimism, as embodied by Jacqueline’s dynamic spirit and that of thousands of young people like her.

But difficulties still remain. Chronic poverty hampers development, and daily struggles of a subsistence lifestyle are prevalent. Humanitarian issues are now primarily economic struggles rather than ethnic conflict. National cohesion is incontestable. “What gives us more power today is the interest in living together,” says Karamaga. “We cannot allow what happened to happen again. We need to be united.” He says the seven Fundamental Principles which guide the Red Cross are vital to the strength of the society. “We are directed by values such as mutual respect and tolerance. All these help us to reinforce our unity.”

Eyes on the future

The Secretary General admits that the key to the future needs to be constant improvement. Complacency is not an option. “If we do not develop ourselves, we are vulnerable,” he says. This concept is instilled in all Red Cross programmes, aiming to ensure that people who receive assistance are given the opportunity to take care of themselves. “Now when you visit our communities from the grassroots’ level, they are very open because their motto is development. They fix their eyes on the future.”

It is a lesson Jacqueline has taken to heart. She has used the support she received from the Red Cross wisely. From her earnings she managed to build a new home for herself. The residence allotted to her through the assistance programme she now uses as an income property which provides her with supplemental revenue. Shoushou is a true role model for her community and her generation. “I have hope for my future,” she says. “I wish to have my own family one day to help me forget what happened.”


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies . As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright