[From the book The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence, © 2009, by Anne-Marie de Brouwer & Sandra Ka Hon Chu, with photographs by Samer Muscati, published by Douglas & McIntyre: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Photographs reprinted with permission of the publisher.]
Marie Louise, Marie Odette, Marie Jeanne, Jeanette, Adela, Marie Claire, Pascasie, Marie, Immaculée, Faustin, Françoise, Gloriose, Clementine, Hyacintha, Béatrice, Francoise and Ernestine are the names of 16 of the women and one man who spoke out against the sexual violence that was perpetrated on anywhere between 250,000 to 500,000 women and a smaller number of young boys and men between April and June of 1994, in the aftermath of Rwandan President Habyarimana’s death when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994. These women have names and they also have faces whose enduring beauty, still etched with pain and suffering, has been recorded by the sensitive lens of Samer Muscati.
“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict”.
They also have voices which fifteen years after the genocide aimed at “cleansing” Rwanda of its Tutsi population and the sexual torture and violence inflicted on the women and some of the men, have spoken out loud and clear against this ugly chapter in Rwandan history and the sins of omission of an international community that kept quiet. As Stephen Lewis, co-director of Aids Free World, stated in his foreword, “…the stories in this book, however painful, are exactly what is needed to jolt the world into sanity”.
“…so much pain still lives inside us.”
They have survived, but barely, because the have received no compensation for their monumental losses: they have lost their partners, their extended families, their homes, their livelihood, their children, their self-respect and most importantly, their health since most of them have contracted HIV and little is being done to help them.
“I do not love the person that I am.”
Yes, there are organizations trying to help like Solace Ministries, providing practical assistance, solidarity and the greatest gift of all: their self respect, for they, and their Tutsi men folk, have been called cockroaches by a propaganda machine aimed at turning Hutu against Tutsi thus making possible this massive process of dehumanization. One might wonder whose interests this bestiality serves. What we do know for sure is that this process of labeling people and turning them against each other started with Belgian colonialists in 1916 when they favored the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority. The Belgians viewed the Tutsi as more European and therefore deemed them to be more intelligent. The clergy were complicit in this process of maintaining this division by means of a separate educational system and better jobs for the Tutsi, an injustice which the Hutu came to resent later on.
“I want the world to know what happened here in Rwanda and what we had to endure and I want to heal myself by unburdening my heart.”
Each woman’s story is unique and yet the commonalities with other women’s stories are striking. Women witnessed their relatives’ deaths, they had to flee on foot with their babies strapped to their backs, they hid in outhouses and bushes where they were then raped, they were repudiated by their friends and relatives, mostly out of fear, they were assisted by their friends and relatives in spite of the fear, their genitals were destroyed, they contracted AIDS, they suffer from nightmares and paranoia, they have lost faith in humanity, they have forgiven, they can never forgive. Most of them have children, their own and orphans, under their care and do not have the means to look after them properly.
“I can’t forgive a man who thinks forgiveness can be bought. Why should I forgive him? I don’t want to be corrupted for forgiveness’ sake. I can forgive but not in exchange for money or a cow. I just want sincerity.”
A truth and reconciliation commission has been instituted, following the example of post-apartheid Africa. Its aim is to unclog the courts and to facilitate social integration and healing. Perhaps its aim is also to salve the conscience of the perpetrators and to allow the United Nations to continue doing what it does best: passing toothless resolutions. On June 19, 2008 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 to end sexual violence in conflict. However, as was pointed out by Catherine A. Mackinnon in “Rape, Genocide and Women’s Human Rights”:
“This is not rape out of control… . It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people. It is rape as genocide.”
Paradoxically, Rwanda’s population was 70% female immediately following the genocide and women now occupy 56% of seats in the Rwandan Parliament. Let us hope that Rwandan women, who have been robbed of so much, are able to radically change a society that has inflicted so much harm on them and therefore on itself as well. And that books such as this one, with artistic photography and heart-felt first-person accounts, can break the silence of the international community that would like to forget what these women can never erase from their minds and hearts.