1325 PeaceWomen
BEATRIZ CASTILLA
Design creator
YOLANDE MUKAGASANA
CHARLOTTE VAN DEN ABEELE
Text writer
“I accept my legacy of the Rwandan genocide because, if I am alive, it is so that I may carry out a mission”
RWANDA, 1954

A nurse anaesthetist until the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Author of several books on the genocide and survivors’ testimonials. She is the co-author of the play Rwanda 94, written in 2002. Her work has been recognized through a number of prizes, including the Alexander Langer Foundation’s Testimonial and Solidarity Award in Italy in July 1998; the European College of Jena University’s Award for International Understanding between Nations for Human Rights in November 1999; the Archivo Disarmo Association of Rome’s Golden Dove Award for Peace in July 2002 for her work as a journalist; the Women’s Association of the Cultural Center of Schaerbeek’s Woman of the 21st Century for Resistance Award, in Belgium in March 2003; an Honourable Mention for UNESCO’s Peace Education prize in September 2003; and the American Jewish Committee’s Moral Courage Award in Washington D.C. in May 2008.

After making an appointment by telephone to meet that same day, I tell her that my son will be coming with me because I don’t have anyone to leave him with. She laughs and answers, “It’s just as well because if you don’t bring your son, I don’t want to see you around here!” As soon as I cross the threshold of her house, she introduces me to one of her adopted daughters, Jeanne, and her newborn five-day-old grandson. Yolande is a grandmother, which is no small feat…

Yolande’s life as an activist for peace and world justice starts when, that which is most important to her, is taken away. Let us go back to April 1994 in Rwanda: Yolande’s three children, husband and siblings have been killed by Hutu militia in the genocide, that would take the lives of one million Tutsis and “moderate”  Hutus. Since then, Yolande, driven by her immense suffering, has fought to bring to light the truth behind the genocide, to denounce those who supplied the militias with arms and those who, due to their silence, are also guilty of the genocide.

“I don’t know if I chose life, but I found myself living.” This is how Yolande expresses herself after surviving months of genocidal horror. Since then, Yolande has taken up her pen and, devastated by what she has seen, writes,  
unsure that anyone will believe her.  She does it to survive, to ensure that her loved ones didn’t die in vain. She feels that if death hasn’t chosen her, it is because she has a mission to fulfil.

Several months later, she goes into exile in Belgium, where she is overwhelmed by a feeling of having abandoned her children. It fills her with despair and she realizes that the object of her mission awaits her in her native land: Rwanda. Yolande returns to her homeland, to talk to the orphans and widows, and to rebuild a home in the same place where the militias destroyed hers. She visits the communal grave where her children lie and she applies for permission to care for other orphans of the genocide. At first there are three. Soon there will be twenty-one children in her orphanage, among them, three nieces who will be officially adopted. When the children call her  “mom”, Yolande replies, “I can’t replace your mother but together we are a reconstituted family.”

Yolande currently lives in Belgium. Nearly all the boys and girls who were taken into the orphanage are now adults. They have been educated and hold academic and university degrees. Some are married, some have children. Yolande describes the mutual love between these children and her as the support system that allowed them to keep moving forward and to escape death.

In 1999, Yolande founded the Association Nyamirambo Point d’Appui (Foundation to Remember the Genocide and Assist the Reconstruction of the Country). Nyamirambo is the name of the neighbourhood where Yolande lived in Kigali, Rwanda. Since then, the Foundation has carried out various projects both in Rwanda (where it offers support to local groups) and in Belgium.

In Rwanda, Nyamirambo Point d’Appui endorsed the creation of the Genocide Survivors Students’ Association (Association des Étudiants et Élèves Rescapés du Génocide, AERG), which is now present in every university and in many secondary schools in the country. Yolande talks enthusiastically about one project in particular undertaken in many of the country’s boarding schools. She emphasizes the fact that the orphan boys and girls at these schools are not generally visited by family members on the weekends. As such, they have organised a mentoring system in which a university student visits the children once a month and similarly meets with their teachers. These students are like older brothers and sisters to the children.

Nyamirambo Point d’Appui also offers assistance to groups of women who were raped or widowed during the Rwandan genocide. For those who live in isolated areas of the city, it has created a bicycle taxi group which helps with transportation and mobility. Nyamirambo Point d’Appui has purchased sewing machines and offered training courses for another women’s group, the members of which, are now professional seamstresses. In fact, the clothes that they make are sold on the local market. In another part of the country, the Foundation has helped a group of widows to buy eighteen cows, meant to improve the productivity of the land, with maize and potato crops, whose surplus will be sold on the local market. These initiatives allow the women to survive both from a psychological and socio-economic standpoint, bringing stability to their lives.

Yolande appears both incredibly fragile and incredibly strong when she tells me her story and recounts her struggle. Yolande has a serene manner when she expresses herself, and seems to emanate peace. Her wise words are like incisive truths. There is neither hatred nor vengeance in her message. In fact, she has been able to talk face to face with those who killed her loved ones. At one time, they were her neighbours and friends, people whom she once took care of when she was a nurse in their neighbourhood. She senses their regret at what they have done and this convinces her that reconciliation is possible.

Over the years, Yolande’s struggle has evolved into a fight for tolerance and a search for justice. However, she is overcome with fear when she realizes that the Rwandan genocide has not been the last of its kind, that others have and will follow. In spite of this, she never loses hope. Her struggle and her mission are the “driving forces in her life.”  The only weapons she has are her voice, her writing and her desire to share her experience with all those who are willing to listen. Yolande never stops. She travels all over the world, spreading her story, crying out her suffering, and speaking about the “unspeakable” to students, historical societies, universities, etc. When she speaks about her life and her mission as a survivor of the genocide, she says, “My life is a tool which the world can use to become a better place.”

Yolande’s greatest dream is to be able to mobilize all the women on this planet to rise up against war, because they are the first victims. “Peace cannot be achieved by killing each other; this is not the solution”. However, with her feet planted firmly on the ground what she most desires for her country, is the initiation of a reparation process for the victims of the genocide. “They can’t give us back our lives but they can give us a decent life”.

Yolande ends our meeting by leaving me with these final words: “My spirit is invincible, it’s shining. My body might not be able to continue because it weakens and ages, but my spirit will still be here…”