Africa, Headlines

RWANDA-HUMAN RIGHTS: Memories of a Grim Past Haunt Rape Victims

Jean Baptiste Kayigamba

KIGALI, Oct 16 1996 (IPS) - The lives of thousands of Tutsi girls and women were shattered by the sexual torture they endured at the hands of the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Two years on, most still struggle to overcome the trauma they went through, including 17-year old Jacqueline (not her real name), who now lives in Munema, a low-income suburb here.

When the mass killings started in April 1994, they caught Jacqueline in the Nyirambo suburb, where she had gone to visit relatives. She decided to stay there, rather than take the risk of going back to the family home in Mugambazi commune in rural Kigali. However, the interahamwe (Hutu militias) massacred her relatives.

She managed to escape. “After my relatives were wiped out, I and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter reached an empty house whose occupants were probably massacred,” she recalls. “The following day, a gang of a dozen militiamen dislodged us.”

The girls were dragged to Mount Kigali forest which overlooks the capital. There, the militiamen who claimed to have saved them, gang-raped both Jacqueline and the baby.

Today, Jacqueline is a total wreck. She started going to a school for young parents in Kigali but later gave it up. Then she tried a craft training school, but that did not work because she could not keep the memories of her suffering out of her mind.

“All this sad past keeps racing back in my head. I cannot stand it,” she told IPS.

No one knows for sure how many women went through similar experiences, but the number is thought to run into thousands.

“Although the exact number of women raped will never be known,” says Human Rights Watch, an international non- governmental organisation (NGO), “testimonies from survivors confirm that rape was extremely widespread.”

“… thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery (either collectively or through forced ‘marriage’) or sexually mutilated,” the NGO noted in a September 1996 report titled ‘Shattered Lives’.

“It was at that price that some who survived the holocaust had their lives spared,” explained Louise Sayinzoga of IBUKA, a local association that groups genocide survivors. “However, unlike the former Yugoslavia, this crime against humanity on a massive scale passed unnoticed.”

Jacqueline is one of the few rape victims here who agree to talk about the past. Others keep their inner suffering to themselves.

Local NGOs that champion women rights, such as the Reseau des Femmes — known in English as the Women’s Network for Development — have been urging the Rwandan government and donors to pay attention to their plight.

“Two years after genocide, women who survived sexual torture remain uncatered for,” charges Jeanne Munyurangabo, who is in charge of information at Reseau des Femmes. “Those who were inflicted with diseases were never treated and there are no structures allowing them to have hope in the future.”

It is partly the neglect that they have suffered that leads many of the raped women to keep silent on their ordeal, according to Sayinzoga. However, she says, “because of poverty and other problems, a few gather their courage and come to us hoping to get some assistance.

“Unfortunately, IBUKA is deprived of resources to meet their needs.”

Their silence is also linked to culture, explained Sayinzoga: “Sexuality and related matters are traditionally considered taboo. That is maybe one more reason to keep quiet.”

A few have been breaking their silence. Awareness campaigns by Reseau des Femmes led rape victims in Taba, a commune in the western region of Gitarama to form an association called Urunana (Togetherness) which aims to help its members to talk about their ordeal as part of a healing process.

“None of these women knew that others had the same problem,” Munyurangabo told IPS. “It was only later that they came to know that they were all raped.”

“Each would confide to our local agent, who would for instance go and see a doctor on their behalf and then get a medical prescription for the sexual disease inflicted on them,” Munyurangabo explained.

Reseau des Femmes has supported this association with small income-generating projects in areas like farming and animal husbandry. Munyurangabo says that is not enough, but hardly anyone else appears prepared to help.

URUNANA has been receiving scores of visitors and investigators, but today they are weary of giving accounts of their grim past.

That is hardly surprising, says Sayinzoga. “What they have told the world is enough. Why hasn’t anybody moved to help them?”

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