15 July 2014

SOS Mother provides hope after the Rwandan genocide

Twenty years ago, thousands of children became victims of the genocide in Rwanda. Many found a new home at SOS Children’s Villages. Motherly love helped them overcome the trauma.

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Growing up without hatred
 
When Marie Théogène Umuteteri, 53, visited her parents in a Kigali neighborhood one Saturday afternoon, the elderly couple was in for a surprise. The movie Shrek was screening on a tiny TV when Marie’s seven SOS children stormed into the living room.
 
Since 1994, Marie has been the SOS Mother of 29 children, including the seven she currently raises. It was in that first year of SOS motherhood that Marie lost her husband, a SOS Children’s Villages youth leader, in the genocide that cost the lives of more than 800,000 Rwandans. 
 
“I didn’t have children with my husband,” she said. “These kids in my care are the children I always wished to have.”
 
A purpose in life
 
A UNICEF study estimated that 5 out of 6 children who had been in Rwanda during the genocide had, at the very least, witnessed bloodshed. Thousands had lost their families.
 
When the genocide ended, Marie fled the capital, Kigali, and went to the northern city of Ngarama where SOS Children’s Villages had established an emergency relief program. An additional SOS Village was set up in nearby Byumba (today: Gicumbi) to provide vital support services for the countless orphans the genocide left behind. Marie, then 33 and recently widowed, soon became the SOS Mother of five young orphaned children. 
 
“My trauma was controllable compared to that of the children,” she remembers. “Those little ones gave me a purpose in life. It was as if a way was created for me to be with children”.
 
Many of the children that were under Marie’s care suffered from serious psychological problems due to the trauma they had experienced. “At the beginning, the children didn’t want to talk at all about what they had gone through,” she said. “I tried to put myself in their shoes. I took them out for picnics, for shopping, to change the environment.”
 
Life after the genocide
 
It took Marie’s children two to three years before they slowly started to open up about their experiences. “I told them my own story,” she recalls. “I showed them pictures of my family. What I completely avoided was talking about Hutu on one side and Tutsi on the other.”
 
Marie, like other SOS mothers, never brought up the genocide to the children. She did, however, answer questions if they had them. As the background of most of the children who live in SOS Children’s Villages is not known, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi among them is not even raised in the families. 
 
“Today, I have mostly young children in my family who were born long after the genocide, so we really don’t talk about it”, says Marie. “What I focus on is to help them avoid a mindset of hatred.”

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