Last year, the story of Grace Umutoni took over local newspapers and social media when a DNA test ended her 27-year search for a family member. Umutoni who was one-year-old during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, lost her entire family and did not remember any detail that would help her look for a relative.
After several YouTube interviews and stories in local media, Umutoni was reunited with her maternal uncle. Her uncle said he read about her in a newspaper and saw her photo that looked like his sister. He reached out to, her and proposed a DNA test. The results indicated that they were related to 85 percent.
It was an emotional reunion. A YouTube video of the reunion gained over 150,000 views in days. The public had been following Umutoni’s search for three years. Her successful search inspired more orphans to turn to social media and local newspapers to search for family members.
Although it has been 28 years, the searches continue with the hope that an uncle, cousin, stepsibling, or distant relative will show up one day. Social media came as a godsend for orphans who had given up searching for years.
Most of them have limited memory of their family or no memory at all. Searching or accessing archives requires references or at least evidence that one is a survivor.
According to the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide, which has been integrated into the Ministry of National Unity and Reconciliation, only 46 orphans who were looking for family members were registered in 2021.
Officials say there are others who have not approached the commission because they lack references. One of them is Dominique Kubwimana, a 29-year-old marketing agent in Kigali.
Kubwimana’s memories begin when he was four, living in an orphanage in Kigali. He does not remember how he got there, if his parents were killed or if they fled, or if he had any siblings. He knows he is a survivor because of a big scar of what appears to be a machete injury at the back of his head.
“I didn't even know where to start. I grew up in an orphanage and foster homes. I had no reference, not even a name because my names were given to me by nuns in the orphanage," he says.
For years, Kubwimana had given up searching for his family. Until he became a tweep and gained over 85,000 followers on Twitter. When he told his story, people reached out to him suggesting a DNA test. Although he has not found any relatives, he hopes his online presence will one day bring him a relative if any is still alive.
There is no official data on the number of orphans reunited with family members via social media, but according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), since 1995, nearly 20,000 people have been reunited with their families.
Since 2020, ICRC has reunited 99 people who had not seen their families for more than two decades. Freddy Mutangana, the vice president of Ibuka, told Rwanda Today that social media is becoming a more effective tool in aiding survivors' family reunions, reducing pressure on the institution.
“We are working on ways to capitalise on this trend. Social media and local media reach almost every Rwandan inside and outside the country. We are looking to establish a joint platform for this specific purpose,” Mutangana explained.
Not all searches end in success, however. Judence Kayitesi, a teacher and author, spent years believing that her parents and two siblings were alive until neighbours told her that her family was killed.
“I have not given my family a decent burial after all these years. I hope that I will one day,” says Kayitesi, who works as a teacher in Germany.