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Africa

Nightmares in April: Rape victims remember the Rwandan genocide

media Woman at the AVEGA centre in Kigali, Rwanda

April is a hard time for Speciose Kangwera, as it is for many Rwandans. She remembers her family who were killed in front of her by neighbours who were extremely close to the family; they had shared milk and exchanged cows, a Rwandan tradition.

“Every April I have nightmares,” she says. Sitting on the plastic chair at the Association of Widows of the Genocide, Avega, quietly answering questions and brushing away a tear here and there, she is resolute. 

On 7 April 1994 Hutus started killing Tutsis throughout the country. With the help and encouragement of the Hutu  Interahamwe militias and the police and army, ordinary Hutus took up machetes and killed their neighbours, resulting in 800,000 dead within 100 days. An estimated half a million women were raped during the genocide.
 

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), then a rebel movement, stopped the genocide on 18 July when it gained control of the country.

Speciose’s perfectly coiffed braids brush against her black blazer and she fidgets with her bracelets, looking down at the hem of her long brown skirt as she answers questions about her ordeal.

A man she knew promised to hide her after she ran away from her family home in Nyanza, Southern Province.

Instead of hiding her, he raped her. Tears running down her face, she says that not only did he rape her, but he brought others to rape her.

“He chose a different man every day,” she says.

The ordeal lasted throughout the 100 days of genocide and then the man forced her to go with him to the bordering Democratic Republic of Congo to escape from the FPR. She managed to get away from him in September 1994 and would soon find out she was pregnant.

In Kigali, the capital, former shopkeeper Maria Bahizi said she saw the signs before the genocide kicked off on 7 April. The 67-year-old looks me straight in the eyes as she tells her story.

The Interahamwe came to her store on a regular basis, attacking her, ransacking the store and stealing all the money out of the till.

“They told me this money was going to the FPR. I didn’t even know what the FPR was at the time,” she says.

After President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane went down on 6 April, many Tutsis started to flee. Her three children left Kigali but Maria did not know where to go or even how to hide herself. Men from the army barracks next door came into her shop and raped her. Every day. Although many women were raped, then murdered, during the 100 days, Maria lived to tell her tale.

“I think that I am still alive, that the Interahamwe didn’t kill me, because the high-level army officials came to rape me every day. Because I was ‘their’ woman," she says. "And for me, it was like I was more than dead.”
 

Dossier: Rwanda remembers genocide 20 years later

Both Maria and Speciose later found out they were HIV positive.

In the aftermath, Maria did not want to talk about what happened; it was too painful. It seems that no one else wanted to, either. In 2011, Avega, recognised the need for women to deal with their trauma and hired psychologists and counsellors to help these women deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through group therapy.

Maria says that she came to Avega and listened to the women telling their stories.

“You see you are not the only one," she comments. "I didn’t want to talk before. It was very hard for me to begin to talk. Everyone came together and you could see everybody and you hear everybody’s problems. I began to open up.”

In fact, she has progressed so well in group therapy that she now works as a counsellor for those still having trouble.

By speaking about their feelings and what happened to them, the women help each other and themselves. Françoise Murekatete, an Avega psychologist, maintains it’s a long process and each person gradually improves at their own pace.

The Rwandan government has put in place a number of initiatives to bring the country together. While some women seemingly agree with reconciliation and unity on the surface, there are some who cannot apply that idea to themselves, on an individual level.

“There are some cases where women cannot understand this, they don’t want to have a relationship with a Hutu,” says Murekatete. "Some women whose entire family was killed during the genocide remain single. They do not want to have a relationship with a Hutu, or have a Hutu boyfriend, get married. Reconciliation is a big job and there is still more work to do here,” she says.

Despite all that she’s been through, Speciose thinks positively about the future. She had a second child 12 years ago, a girl, who is also HIV positive. Her older girl is now 19 and HIV-free. She wants to see her children grow up and do something meaningful with their lives.

She has even accepted the apologies of those genocidaires who have repented their crimes.

“I feel free, because that person acknowledges what he did, and because that person asked for forgiveness, even though the people who were killed will never return. Never.”

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