27th November, 2002 // Other
Week 11 - AVEGA
After visiting the massacre site outside Kigali, I went to drop off the people who I was touring with at a meeting scheduled with AVEGA. These visitors were from the New York City Bar Association—Robert Vanlierop, who heads up the international outreach for the Bar Association; Tom Strunk, a Professor of Law at West Point Military Law School; and Mary Daly, a Professor of Law at Fordham University. Now, you might make the same mistake I did about Mary Daly. You see, I was told earlier that day by the Deputy Prosecutor of the ICTR that I was going to tour around with some distinguished guests to some of the sites in Kigali during that week. Then, I met with Richard who told me that Mary Daly was among those persons. When I heard this, I said, “you mean the Mary Daly?” He replied,
yes, of course.” Incredulously, I inquired further, “you mean the Mary Daly, the pre-eminent feminist scholar?” He replied, “well, yes.” I went through the roof! I was emailing friends telling them of the news, gloating on the phone to Lulwah in Arusha, and trying to compile a list of questions that I would ask Professor Daley over the course of the afternoon.
Then, the UN entourage (me, Bosco the driver, and two other security officers) went to Novotel Hotel to pick these folks up. And, as I shake Richard’s hand in greeting, I’m looking over his shoulder, stretching my neck, and straining desperately to get a glimpse of Professor Daley. Instead, a petite woman of 5’ wearing a navy dress with white polka-dots, white stockings, and a prominent diamond ring on her finger extends her hand to shake mine and introduces herself as Mary Daly. My head came out of the clouds and promptly sunk 10 feet under the concrete sidewalk on which I stood. I mustered a “pleased to meet you,” and kicked myself all the way back to the car. Of course, the Mary Daly with whom I spent the afternoon was lovely. And, I couldn’t resist asking, “have you been mistaken for Mary Daly, the feminist scholar before?” Professor Daly laughed knowingly. “Yes, I have,” and she proceeded to fill in the other two American lawyers about the life story of the other more notorious Mary, whose pursuits she had obviously followed either out of personal interest or because she was constantly forced to hear about this person in whose shadow she always apparently stood.
Anyway, we traveled together to the massacre site and then to AVEGA for the meeting. When we arrived, Robert invited me in. I suddenly got shy and balked, mumbling excuses about work that needed to get done at the office. Robert insisted that I come. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Of course,” he reassured me, “even if they have problems with your employer, I’m sure they won’t mind you.”
AVEGA is an association of genocide widows. This organization has done some wonderful work, including helping survivors testify at various courts, including the ICTR. Unfortunately, the ICTR has not always matched their efforts and has created much resentment with the institutional failings in providing security, or even keeping semblances of appearances to the effect that it cares about witness security. And, then, there is the ‘laughing judges’ incident. (About 6 months to a year ago, a rape victim was testifying before one of the ICTR trial chambers, and a thick-sculled defense attorney repeatedly asked insensitive and irrelevant questions. And, unfortunately, in the middle of the victim telling the tale at the behest of this attorney, the judges started laughing. This was the last straw for AVEGA and other victim’s rights organizations in Rwanda. And, I can understand the frustration. However, in defense of the judges who allegedly laughed at the witness, I watched the segment of the trial video myself, and they were clearly laughing at the attorney, not the witness. Nevertheless, it was completely inappropriate under the circumstances, not to mention remarkably unprofessional.)
Knowing all this, I felt uncomfortable walking into a meeting with a group that had all but boycotted the institution that I represented. Still, I had heard such good things about this group, so I wanted to interact or at least hear what they were doing. So, I went to the meeting.
AVEGA is an organization that has been put together by women who were widowed during the 1994 genocide. The number of registered members is shocking: there are 250,000 members of AVEGA. Still, it makes sense in light of the larger demographic numbers. After the genocide, 60-70% of the population is women, and 50% of these women are widows. Many of these women witnessed the torture and killing of their families, the destruction of their homes and farms, and were often themselves victims of sexual violence or mutilation. What’s more is that up to 70% of the women who were raped (and that runs in the tens of thousands at least) are HIV positive.
AVEGA plays a number of roles for these women. It helps provide job training because many of the women didn’t know how to support themselves after their husbands died and couldn’t find a job. It also provides counseling because something like 80% of the widows have displayed trauma symptoms or other emotional/mental/social problems. There is even counseling for the family because often the children won’t listen to mom when she tells them to go to school, as dad was the one with all the sway and respect within the home. AVEGA also helps provide medical help and legal aid. It is even getting a program off the ground to provide small loans to women to start businesses.
Sitting in the room with these women, you cannot help but to be inspired. And, they are so proud, they know that the work they do is essential, and it helps them in their own struggles as widows themselves. But, they spoke honestly to us about the many needs they had. And, Robert assured them that they would help in any way possible. Then, the President of AVEGA told us, “All we need is to know that you think of us so far away. It gives us comfort that we have friends that support us in what we do.” I find this over and over, the Rwandans that I met talked about needs, but most of all, they don’t want to be abandoned. It is as if our memory will serve as the security that the pain was not for vain and that their legacy of sorrow is the only protection against falling into the abyss of zero.
[By the way, if you want more info on AVEGA, their website is: www.avega.org.rw]
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