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To all the women who bore the heaviest burden of our history – by First Lady Jeannette Kagame

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Written in 2014 by Mrs Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda, on the occasion of the 20th Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi

As we close this special month dedicated to women in Rwanda, and prepare to mark the 20th commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi, I wish to pay particular tribute to the valiant Rwandan women who have borne the greatest burden of our history.

In 1994, our country stared deep into the depths of human cruelty that knew no bounds. Rwandan women who survived the genocide saw this horror and went through an immeasurable anguish. They witnessed a nation and its people robbed of dignity. The lights of too many of our mothers, daughters, sisters and wives were extinguished and amid the debris and despair. Theirs are stories too agonizing to tell, too painful to recount.

Suzanne, you were 58 years old then, when you fell victim to one of the most heinous weapons of war: rape. Yours was not a singular instance of pain and humiliation, as interahamwe militia systematically killed your family and neighbours. You were raped day in, day out until you lost consciousness. Suzanne, you were stripped bare of all humanity and dignity and incapacitated in every way. You could neither sit nor stand, or go about your daily chores. You could not even respond to nature’s call!

Josephine, you survived the waves of killings in ’59, ’63, ’73. But in 1994 your seven children and husband, who should have been a part of your future and not your past, were cold-bloodedly ripped from your loving arms.

Yolande, you were hunted down day and night, and made a choice no mother should have to: to separate with your children. In fear of all of your lives, you decided that, in order to increase your chances of survival, your niece should hide your three precious children. But when your niece returned towards the end of the genocide, all alone, the sight was too much to bear. Yolande, you were put in a dilemma too difficult for us to understand.

Rose, you cradled your teenage daughter, Hyacinthe, as she died in your arms at the St. Famille church. Her budding life snatched away at the behest of a notoriously brutal Roman Catholic priest who continues to preach unabated in different parishes in France. Rose you left before seeing justice exacted, but rest assured your death has not been in vain.

Sonia, every April you are haunted by the image of the man who was shot in front of your four year-old eyes. You could still feel his blood spilling on your face. After seventeen years of concealing your trauma, trying your best to be brave, you broke down and suffered from post-traumatic stress. Your loved ones stood firmly by you; they were willing to go to any lengths to see their little girl fight this disorder.

Dianne, you are now at university, but the same man who raped your mother, raped you when you were just five-years-old. Your body continues to suffer the consequences of that ill-fated day; you do not know if you will ever bear children of your own.

To those of you whose loved ones were mercilessly flung in the rivers, I cry with you as you lay tributes of petals in solemn recall of your dear departed ones. For those who may never find your beloved ones, nor have any place of remembrance or solace, my heart reaches out to you.

To those who have refused to release their pain and shed tears, standing instead with courage and resilience in support of your brothers and sisters. I pray that you will one day find peace and closure.

To those of you who still live, having lost so much: I appeal to you not be discouraged by the naysayers, the deniers of the genocide and revisers of our history. Do not allow them to define who we are. Do not allow them to reopen your wounds. Do not allow them to recreate our heroes. Do not allow them to rewrite our history.

To the true patriots of this nation let us remember those whose lives were robbed; let us unite for a better future; let us renew our faith in humanity.

To the unsung heroines, I salute you for bearing, with such incredible grace and admirable strength, the burden of our horrific history.

As Rwandans prepare to Kwibuka for the 20th time, I thank you Suzanne, Josephine, Yolande, Hyacinthe, Rose, Sonia and Dianne for personifying generations of women who have shouldered the burden of tragedy and the unimaginable challenges that ensued. I salute you and all my Rwandan sisters, for standing strong in the face of adversity, for coming out hopeful, resilient and dignified.

If you have not given up, how can we?

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