Twenty years on, Rwandan women and youth bear scars of genocide rape

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide sparked rape on a massive scale, the country struggles with a legacy of traumatized women, unwanted children and high HIV rates.

Two days after the Rwandan genocide began on April 6, 1994, Hutu militiamen murdered Tutsi businessman Celestine Murekezi and his family.

Murekezi's 15-year-old daughter, Chantal Uwamariya, was the only one to escape. But another group of militiamen soon caught up with her.

Uwamariya says she does not remember the face of the man who raped her. "I tried twice to kill myself," she says.

The rape changed Uwamariya's life forever. She is HIV positive, has a son conceived during the rape who is also HIV positive, and feels like a social outcast.

The genocide - rooted in centuries of inter-ethnic hostilities and after a four-year civil war - killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Tutsi and some Hutu women were subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale, perpetrated by Hutu militiamen, civilians and soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Political and military leaders encouraged rape to further the destruction of the Tutsi ethnic group. Genocide propaganda portrayed Tutsi women as seductresses and spies bent on dominating the Hutu.

Between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped, according to Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Many of the rape victims were also tortured and killed.

Whenever Uwamariya's son, Claude, asks her about his father, she evades his questions. "I don't know why my mother hates me," the 19-year-old says. "I have tried my best to show her love and to work hard at school, but it has not helped much."

Rwanda's National Commission for the Fight against Genocide estimates that 25,000 children were born from rape committed at that time. But since sexual assault carries a social stigma in the country, the real figure could be higher.

"As the victims are afraid to tell the origins of their children's birth ... we will never know the real number," said Jean de Dieu Mucyo, executive secretary of the commission, which seeks to reconcile the country's ethnic groups.

Those children who are told about their origins often face trauma and mental health problems, says Carina Tertsakian, a Rwanda researcher with HRW. "They grow up thinking their father was a horrible person who participated in the genocide," she said.

It is not known how many women contracted HIV from rapists. Rwandan women had an HIV prevalence rate of 3.7 per cent in 2013, while the rate among men was 2.2 per cent, according to the Health Ministry.

Some of the women impregnated by rapists aborted, some abandoned their babies and some even killed them, according to HRW.

Uwamariya says friends persuaded her to keep the child.

She feels the decision turned her into an outcast in her Kigali neighbourhood, where people gossip about Claude's conception and say the son of a Hutu father could one day turn against the Tutsi.

"My life was ruined in 1994. I just don't want to live any more," Uwamariya says.

Another Kigali resident, Esperance Mukamugurwa, was raped by several men in separate incidents. "No amount of apology could make me forgive them," says the 42-year-old.

Many prison inmates sentenced or suspected of genocide crimes say their superiors forced them to commit rape at gunpoint.

"What we did was not right, but we had no option," says Alphonse Dwabuhihi, who has awaited trial in a Kigali prison for 18 years. Charges against him include murder, several counts of rape, and incitement to ethnic hatred.

The memory of those "helpless" women now haunts Dwabuhihi. Despite insisting he was forced to rape them, he has fantasies about how he might have "protected and saved them."

Rape cases have been dealt with by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, which established a precedent that widespread and systematic rape can be considered an act of genocide.

In the case the precedent is based on, Jean-Paul Akayesu was sentenced to 15 years for encouraging sexual violence while he was mayor. The tribunal has also convicted 12 others of instigating or committing such acts and acquitted 23 so far.

Genocide-related rape cases have also been handled by conventional courts in Rwanda, and - between 2001 and 2012 - by traditional community-based courts.

The community courts dealt with thousands of cases of genocide-related sexual violence. But they often suffered from problems such as a failure to protect the privacy of the victims and insufficient training, according to HRW.

"Women's groups helped to raise awareness, and rape cases were taken more seriously by courts at a later stage, both in Rwanda and Arusha," Tertsakian said.

"And because there were so many such cases, with many men having had their mother or sister raped, there is now at least some recognition that the women were not at fault," the researcher said.

 

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