Rape as spectacle, rape as genocide: Notes from Rwanda, 1995

Rape as spectacle, rape as genocide: Notes from Rwanda, 1995

Kigali, 1995. It’s been a year and Rwanda’s wounds are still gaping. The pain runs deep and the carnage is spread far and wide. GREG MARINOVICH was there.

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details of sexual violence. Sensitive readers or those who have experienced similar abuses may find the content traumatic to read. In the interests of honouring the survivors of the genocide, and their courage, we have not whitewashed their suffering by censoring the material. However, we advise our readers to use discretion in proceeding.

NB: Town’s name and other details withheld on request to enable children to avoid identification.

Sister Marie expertly flicked a fly net over two sleeping infants with her free hand while cradling a third in the crook of her arm. “These two were found naked and abandoned in a field.”

She bent to coo cheerfully at one that woke crying. These infants in an orphanage in western Rwanda were testimony to the grim harvest in this small central African country’s genocide that killed up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Their mothers were either raped by extremist Hutu militia and soldiers during the carnage or were taken as sex hostages, often by the same men who killed their relatives and neighbours.

Back then, the information that the Rwandans had was shocking enough. The Ministry of the Family and for the Promotion of Women (Minister de la Familie et de la Promotion Feminine) had compiled partial figures that hinted at the extent of the tragedy. The then still incomplete survey claimed that from April 1994 to 10 April 1995 there were 15,732 rapes, giving rise to 10,288 pregnancies; 5,217 mothers elected to abort.

Yet the full extent was far worse. What we now know is that 500,000 women were raped, and that patients positively diagnosed with Aids were released from hospitals and told to rape the then-government’s enemies. Rwanda then had the highest infection rate of Aids in Africa.

As researcher Lisa Sharlach put it, “It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back. It is rape to be seen and heard and watched and told to others: rape as spectacle. It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people. It is rape as genocide.”

Of those who did give birth, one Kigali hospital recorded that “[s]even out of ten simply abandoned their new-born children,” said Ministry of the Family and for Promotion Women director Odette Mulala. Others chose suicide. There were orphanages all over Rwanda that were home to abandoned children, spawned of rape. They lived alongside orphans whose parents had been killed, and would be told that their parents, too, were killed, so as to avoid the stigma that would probably be attached to them should the truth be known.

One war orphan’s real story might be what the others’ fabricated life histories were modelled on: an infant was found in a field, still sucking on his dead mother’s breast, and taken in for care. Of the 153 children in Sister Marie’s orphanage, more than 70 were orphaned during the war in 1994.

Even if the mothers, some as young as thirteen, decided to keep their children, surviving family members mostly rejected the idea of having a constant reminder of the genocidal horror in their homes. The ministry’s questionnaire found that on hearing that they were pregnant, most first contemplated suicide, often fearing that they and the fetus had been infected with Aids.

One teenager, who survived months of living as a sex hostage to a militia leader, managed to escape from the refugee camps in then-eastern Zaire to Burundi before finally turning up at Odette Mulala’s doorstep in Kigali.

Marie Chantal was seventeen on April 20, 1994, when the killings began in Gikongoro, where she was staying with her married sister. She was forced from her high school by the Interhamwe (extremist Hutu militia) to join about 20,000 others, mostly Tutsis, in a church compound.

The next morning before dawn, grenades were repeatedly thrown inside, until all were dead. Marie Chantal had been outside and managed to escape to a field. Her sister was inside the church compound. Her brother-in-law had been killed inside his home. A grenade thrown into the house had mangled his legs beyond use and he was left in agony all day, until a militiaman shot him to death that night.

“I was running in the fields, trying to hide, when I saw the man who ordered it all, Cyrus Munianeza. I asked him to help me. “He took my hand and took me to the school, leaving me there for the day. I was crying. “He came that night and said ‘Did you see what happened? You must forget it, I will console you.’ But all I could do was cry.”

He hit her when she said she did not want him. That night he did not rape her, but the next day she could no longer resist. “He kept me like a wife.”

“Sometimes when the Interamwe came to the house, they would say `We have to exterminate the Tutsi, she will tell our secrets.’ And the man’s first wife would also keep saying, ‘Why can’t we kill this Tutsi, like the rest?’ Then he would hit her. That is why I think he loved me, but I did not love him. I knew he was the one who helped kill my family and everyone else. He was the chief (who) ordered it, how could I love him?”

Marie Chantal twice tried, and failed, to escape. Her first attempt was while they were still in Rwanda, and the second was from a refugee camp in neighbouring eastern Zaire, where the militia, soldiers and Hutu civilians had fled ahead of the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s advance. Her kidnapper/husband said that if she tried to escape again, he would kill her.

She was undeterred and the third time, she succeeded in making it across the border into Burundi. She walked for thirty days to reach the capital Bujumbura. She survived on the kindness of strangers, evading Hutu death squads.

Marie Chantal plans to keep her child, and unlike most other unwilling mothers, she plans to tell her child the truth one day. “We need everyone to know the truth of what happened in Rwanda. If they catch him, I will tell [that] he raped me and killed people. I saw him do that. I condemn him, mon marie.”

Major Brent Beardsley, assistant to the United Nations officer in charge of the peacekeepers in Rwanda, gave testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). When asked about the sexual violence he witnessed, he stated that the killing blows tended to be aimed at the reproductive organs, and that the victims had been deliberately slashed on the breasts and vagina. Beardsley also testified to having seen the bodies of girls as young as six and seven who had been raped so brutally that their vaginas were split and swollen from what had obviously been gang rapes.

He concluded by saying: “Massacres kill the body. Rape kills the soul. And there was a lot of rape. It seemed that everywhere we went, from the period of 19 April until the time we left, there was rape everywhere near these killing sites.” DM

Read more:

  • Nowrojee, Binaifer (2007). “A Lost Opportunity for Justice: Why Did the ICTR Not Prosecute Gender Propaganda?”. In Allan Thompson. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Pluto Press. pp. 362–374. ISBN 978-0-7453-2625-2.
  • Sharlach, Lisa (2000). “Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda”. New Political Science 1 (22). doi:10.1080/713687893.

Photo: Kigali Prison, where those accused of genocide were held. May 11, 1995 Greg Marinovich.


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