Liberee survived the genocide and now helps others

Almost a quarter century after the genocide in Rwanda, Liberee Kayumba works to help refugees who sought shelter in her country

It has been 24 years since the genocide in Rwanda. Liberee Kayumba says it still feels like yesterday. Photo: WFP/ Jonathan Eng

Liberee was only 12 years old when genocide turned Rwanda into a country-wide killing ground — old enough to still remember everything she saw back then. These memories still haunt her and countless other Rwandans.

“I used to have a big family: parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins. Many of them died during those months,’’ Liberee says. “I saw with my own eyes how my parents and brothers got killed in front of me. Coming back from that has not been easy for my sisters and me.’’

‘’It gives you another heart when you have seen people kill other people’’ — Liberee Kayumba

Liberee lives in Kigali — the capital of Rwanda — and works for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). She has witnessed the progress and achievements since the slaughter that almost destroyed her country.

In the genocide in 1994, millions of people fled abroad. Many lost everything: their livelihoods, friends and families. But many have trickled back and some are still returning to the country, where they receive government assistance to settle and help from WFP if they are in food insecure parts of the country.

Mahama camp in Rwanda. What used to be a forest on the border of Tanzania now hosts over 60,000 Burundian refugees. Photo: WFP/ Jonathan Eng

And since the genocide, the tables have turned. Today refugees are seeking refuge in Rwanda from the same countries Rwandans escaped to 24 years ago. Many Rwandans, like Liberee, welcome the refugees with open hearts.

“I can put myself in their shoes because of what I have seen. I have a deeper understanding of what they are going through, surviving in the camps,’’ she says. “We can provide them with food and ensure that their basic needs are met. But life in the camps is still challenging and different from home.’’

Flexible funding from donors such as Nordic countries has helped refugees in Rwanda. WFP however currently has severe funding shortages. In November 2017, rations were cut by 10 percent and in January the cut increased to 25 percent.

Liberee works in the camps, talking to the people affected by the cuts and explaining what is happening, and she tries to understand what the refugees are going through. She says that she has a deeper understanding of the harsh situation they are in because of her experiences during the genocide.

“It gives you another heart when you have seen people kill other people and witnessed all the suffering. It is different for people who have never seen anything like what happened back then,’’ Liberee says.

Liberee checks that refugees receive food and it is of good quality. WFP provides food assistance, school meals and nutrition programmes for children under the age of 5. Photos: WFP/ Jonathan Eng

Rwanda is one the most densely populated countries in Africa and hosts over 160,000 refugees, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.

Liberee is a monitoring officer in Mahama camp, which has more than 60,000 Burundian refugees, and she checks monthly food distributions. She is also the WFP staffer working closest to the refugees and trying to solve problems they have.

“I like helping people and working as a humanitarian — especially when I can solve a problem for someone to make their life a little bit easier,’’ Liberee explains as she stands amid the bustle of a monthly food distribution.

“Since I was a child, I wanted to help people in need,” she says. “The memories from the genocide and all those people in need of help motivated me to work for WFP. Like most Rwandans, I got help from WFP and remember the high-energy biscuits that school children still receive today.’’

In the wake of the genocide, WFP distributed food assistance to people in need. WFP’s focus has shifted since then and now it is largely providing technical assistance to the government and building resilience. Refugees from neighbouring countries and Rwandan returnees still receive WFP assistance, mostly through cash transfers. But in Mahama, refugees receive food rations.

Liberee greets refugee children during a food distribution. Photo: WFP/ Jonathan Eng

Liberee and her team make sure that the refugees in Mahama receive food and it is of good quality. It was an obvious choice for Liberee to become a humanitarian worker as a way to give back — but her job at WFP means more than that.

“Food is life. Without food — there is no life. Talk to anyone here in the camp, everyone would say that food is the most important thing,” says Liberee. “Before they could feed themselves, and now they depend on us.”

Read more about WFP’s work in Rwanda here

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