Rwanda Genocide Victims Speak Out

by Sandra Ka Hon Chu and Anne-Marie de Brouwer

In the 100 days of genocide that ravaged the small Central African nation of Rwanda from April until July 1994, about one million Tutsi and Hutu people were killed, and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped.

In the 100 days of genocide that ravaged the small Central African nation of Rwanda from April until July 1994, about one million Tutsi and Hutu people were killed, and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped.

According to a United Nations report, rape was the rule, its absence the exception. Sexual violence occurred
everywhere, and no one was spared. Grandmothers were raped in front of their grandchildren; girls witnessed their families being massacred before being taken as sex slaves; fathers were forced to have sex with their daughters. Many women were murdered following rape. Almost all of the women who did survive the genocide were victims of sexual violence or were profoundly affected by it.

Fifteen years later, the impact of the sexual violence endured by survivors continues to be monumental, threatening their daily survival. An astounding 70 per cent are HIV-positive. Recognizing this, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2004 affirming that survivors of sexual violence are among those who face the greatest hardship in post-conflict Rwanda. Gender inequality and gender-based violence existed in Rwanda prior to the genocide, but the events of 1994 provided a backdrop for rape to be perpetrated against Tutsi women and their sympathizers on a mass scale. The ideology of Hutu power was underscored through the dehumanization of Tutsi women.

Before the Genocide: A Brief History of Colonization in Rwanda
The genocide in Rwanda was one of the most ruthless and effective of all time. Ostensibly sparked by the death of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down by unknown assailants above Kigali airport on April 6, 1994, the event was preceded by a complicated and bloody history between Tutsi and Hutu.

When Belgian colonialists arrived in Rwanda in 1916, they favoured the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority. The Belgians viewed the Tutsi as more similar to Europeans and, therefore, deemed them to be more intelligent. The clergy in Rwanda were complicit in creating and maintaining divisions between Tutsi and Hutu. Tutsi were awarded better jobs and had greater educational opportunities, a distinction reinforced by the development of separate educational systems.

The Belgians classified them by their physical traits, too: they considered Tutsi to be tall, thin and light-skinned and Hutu to be short, stout and darker skinned. In the early 1930s, to solidify the division between Tutsi and Hutu, the Belgians produced identity cards classifying individuals according to their ethnic group: Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. These identity cards, still in use in the 1990s, led many Tutsi to their death by readily identifying them to the génocidaires.

Between 1959 and 1973, more than 700,000 Rwandan Tutsi were exiled to neighbouring countries. Tutsi refugees were barred from returning, despite many peaceful efforts to do so. Some joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front—the RPF, commonly referred to as the Inkotanyi—a political and military movement formed by Tutsi refugees in Uganda to demand Rwandan unity. On October 1, 1990, the RPF, seeking to pressure the ruling Rwandan government into a power-sharing agreement, invaded Rwanda from Uganda. They were repelled by troops from France and Zaire sent to reinforce the Rwandan government. Tutsi living in Rwanda were blamed for the RPF attack, and the Rwandan government massacred about two thousand Tutsi across the country in apparent retaliation. When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, he was returning to Rwanda from peace negotiations with the RPF in Tanzania. The president was killed instantly, and with him, all hope for peace.

The Atrocities Begin
Within hours of Habyarimana’s death, Hutu began killing and raping Tutsi, with the aim of complete annihilation.
With the prospects for peace extinguished, the RPF invaded Rwanda. After ensuring that nationals of Western
governments had safe access out of the country, the world stood by silently and watched one of the worst massacres in human history. The genocide ended only when the RPF overthrew the Hutu regime in July 1994.
The sexual violence in Rwanda during the genocide was extreme in its brutality and systematic in its orchestration. Victims were selected predominantly on the basis of their gender and their Tutsi ethnicity. Age did not play a role in who was attacked: Tutsi women and girls of all ages were raped. The targeting of Tutsi girls and women was spurred in part by anti-Tutsi propaganda preceding the 1994 genocide, which alleged that the minority Tutsi population was a threat to the Hutu community. Radio and newspapers, to which most Rwandans had access, both played a major role in the genocide. To desensitize the Hutu masses, hate radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines continuously referred to Tutsi as cockroaches and snakes.
Sexual violence was also directed at Hutu women considered moderates: women who were married to Tutsi men, protected Tutsi individuals or were politically affiliated with Tutsi. Though much less frequently, sexual violence was perpetrated against Hutu women and girls with no affiliation with the Tutsi population—crimes made possible by the prevailing chaos during the conflict. Men, primarily of Tutsi ethnicity, were also sexually assaulted, often by the mutilation of their genitals, which were sometimes displayed in public. In some
cases,Tutsi men and boys were forced to rape Tutsi women or were forced by Hutu women to have sex with them. Women and girls were subjected to the full range of sexual atrocities. This included rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, forced incest, forced marriage and amputation or mutilation of victims’ breasts, vaginas and buttocks, or of features considered to be Tutsi, such as small noses or long fingers. Even pregnant women were not spared.

Rape did occur inside victims’ or perpetrators’ houses, but more often it was committed in plain view of others, at sites such as schools, churches, roadblocks and government buildings. Many women were raped in the bushes where they had hidden to avoid being discovered. Frequently, rape victims’ corpses were left spread-eagled in public view, as a reminder of the brutality and power of the genocide’s perpetrators. In addition to the sexual violence they endured, many women witnessed crimes such as torture and murder committed against their loved ones. Many lost their houses and property.

The perpetrators of sexual violence were mostly members of the Hutu militia, the Interahamwe. But rapes were also committed by Presidential Guards, military soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the Rwandan police and civilians, as well as by international soldiers—most notably the French, who were stationed in the southwest of the country under a UN mandate to supposedly establish and maintain a continuing physical and psychological trauma from the indescribable brutality they suffered and witnessed.

In many cases, the grief and trauma afflicting these embattled women are further compounded by the burden of caring for the injured and the orphaned. And even before the memory of genocide had begun to fade, many women bore children conceived as a result of rape. Although some women resorted to self-induced abortions, an estimated 2,000 to15,000 “children of hate,” or enfants mauvais souvenir (children of bad memories) were born after the genocide.

Rape and other acts of violence carried out in the scope of war considerably increase women’s vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases. HIV and other sexually transmitted infections have been described as the legacy left to women raped during the genocide. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to HIV infection during periods of conflict, since families and communities are broken up and displaced. The injuries that often result from rape, such as tearing and abrasions, further increase victims’ risk of infection. In Rwanda, the HIV rate in rural areas increased dramatically, from one percent before the onset of the genocide to 11 percent in 1997.
Today, survivors continue to experience significant gaps in access to health care. Only an estimated 28 percent of Rwandan households affected by HIV/AIDS are able to afford basic health care, and many decide to forego it altogether. A 2008 UN report revealed that only 53 percent of adults in need of antiretroviral treatment are receiving it. Even where treatment and support are available, the stigma attached to HIV-positive status has impeded many Rwandans from using those services.
Ironically, while many survivors living with HIV lack access to medical treatment and a basic standard of wellbeing, those accused of high-level participation in the genocide awaiting or undergoing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda receive antiretroviral treatment and health care in prison. Though a policy was implemented in 2004 to provide antiretroviral treatment for witnesses and potential witnesses, treatment is available only to the few who testify. With access to antiretroviral treatment and health care already a problem, women and girls also bear the largest burden of care for family members.
Poverty is an additional constraint on women’s ability to reclaim their lives after rape. Of Rwandan families living in poverty, 60 percent are headed by women. Overall, 34 percent of women lead households in Rwanda, of which widows constitute 21 percent.Women’s experiences of poverty may be more acute than those of men because of a number of genderbased forms of exclusion. For instance, although women in Rwanda play a greater role in agriculture (93 percent of farmers are women), women continue to experience difficulty owning land and other farming assets, regardless of legal changes that technically permit women’s ownership.

In Search of Justice
Since the genocide, there have been a number of positive legislative changes in Rwanda, including laws that guarantee women and girls the same rights as men and boys to inherit property. The 2003 Rwandan Constitution provides equal protection under the law for all, as well as protection against discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sex or HIV status.
Although Rwanda’s existing penal code prohibits and punishes rape, prosecutions are rarely pursued. Inadequate police training in the effective investigation of sexual assault and the absence of a standard protocol for conducting such inquiries have reportedly led to inconsistent court verdicts, confusion among law enforcement and government officials, and inattention to sexual violence against women. 

In May 2005, a Gender Desk was created within the Rwandan National Police to deal with some of these problems. Police have been trained to address sexual and gender-based violence, and the Gender Desk offers a nationwide toll-free telephone service for reporting these crimes. According to UNIFEM, in 2006 the Gender Desk enabled the Rwandan Police to refer 1,777 rape cases for prosecution, resulting in 803 convictions. Nevertheless, national legislation that clearly identifies and provides redress for violence against
women has not been implemented.

Rwanda’s genocide law recognizes rape and sexual torture as acts of genocide and as crimes against humanity,
punishable by a maximum term of life imprisonment. Along with crimes committed by the planners and supervisors of the genocide, rape and sexual torture are recognized as category one crimes, or crimes deemed to be the most severe and the highest priority for prosecution. On June 19, 2008, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 to end sexual violence in conflict. The resolution demands, among other things, that parties involved in armed conflict cease committing acts of sexual violence against civilians and take appropriate measures to protect civilian women and girls from all forms of sexual violence.

The resolution notes that women and girls are particularly targeted by sexual violence, which is used in some cases as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

Under an amended genocide law of 2008, the semitraditional gacaca courts, presided over by individuals with “high integrity” elected from the community, began to try the alleged perpetrators of rapes committed during the 1994 genocide. Prior to this amendment, gacaca courts had jurisdiction to deal with all crimes related to the genocide except category one crimes, which were slated for prosecution before national courts. In light of the enormous number of individuals accused of category one crimes, however, and the amount of time required to process these cases before national courts, cases of sexual violence not yet prosecuted, involving some 6,808 persons, were redirected to gacaca courts.

One notable feature of the gacaca is the training provided to gacaca judges on how to interact with survivors of sexual violence in court. Trials involving sexual violence are also required to proceed in closed session to protect survivors from stigmatization and intimidation by community members supporting the accused. In addition, the genocide law of 2008 stipulates that trauma counsellors must be available for survivors of sexual violence, to help them cope with their past experiences and the trial process itself.

However, when survivors find the courage to come forward, the justice system too often fails to guarantee their physical security. Between 1995 and mid-May 2008, about 167 genocide survivors were murdered. Witnesses, judges and members of the gacaca courts have also been targeted. Accordingly, many survivors express fear of attending gacaca because of the threats of intimidation or death at the hands of those related to the accused génocidaires. Many also point out that the gacaca does not provide them with a sense of justice; many rapists receive short sentences and are already being released into the community in exchange for their confessions.

Women in Rwanda Today
Rwanda’s population was 70 percent female immediately following the genocide. Given this demographic imbalance, women have assumed previously inconceivable roles as heads of households, community leaders and financial providers.Women occupy 56 percent of the seats in Rwanda’s parliament—the highest proportion in the world—and they are well represented at various levels of government.Women also account for 55 percent of the workforce and own 41 percent of Rwandan businesses.
Women are building the future of Rwanda, but sexual violence is an issue that still urgently requires attention.
Enabling survivors to speak without fear or shame about their experiences is imperative. Survivors’ stories also remind us to remain vigilant against the sexual violence that threatens women both in and outside of conflict situations. Many survivors, however, must have their basic needs met before they can begin the process of healing and speaking out. The international community can contribute by raising awareness of sexual violence, mobilizing national governments into action and contributing to reparation initiatives and
justice projects. Survivors of sexual violence are a living testament to our collective abandonment of them, but they also represent the promise of transformative change. We cannot afford to turn our backs on them again.

© Excerpted from the book The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence © 2009, edited by Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu; photography by Samer Muscati. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, a division of D&M Publishers Inc.

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