Rwandan Women: How the Victims of the Genocide are Rebuilding the Peace in Their Country.

The Rwandan Genocide will always remain as a dark spot in the history of humanity. The world watched in horror as the ethnic majority, Hutus, killed the elite minority, Tutsis, in a 100-day spree of brutal violence, resulting in between 800,000 and 1,000,000 casualties; as simultaneously the most powerful international bodies stood aside, not interfering with the terror that unrolled before their eyes.

The Start of the Conflict

What drove citizens to brutally murder their neighbors, friends and sometimes even family members? On April 6th, 1994, Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was attacked, resulting in his death. This fact fused the following three-month horror, but cannot be considered the cause of the genocide. Historically, tensions between Hutus and Tutsis were emphasized during the colonization of Africa. Belgium believed that Tutsis were superior over Hutus, and therefore put Tutsis in charge of Rwanda. However, by the end of the colonial period, Belgium started to prioritize Hutus, thus fueling an emerging conflict.

Hate propaganda, spread via newspapers, but mostly the radio, was responsible for copious amounts of mass destruction in Rwanda [1]. Such propaganda had a special focus on gender-based violence, transforming Tutsi women into the key inciters of Hutu oppression. For instance, Tutsi women were portrayed as enemies of the state as well as sexual objects because they were considered to be part of an elite group. Tutsi women were perceived as inaccessible, and that they would “look down” on Hutu men [2]. Thus, when the conflict erupted, many Hutu soldiers chose to sexually violate women and girls, instead of slaughtering them as they did with men.

“A 1994 cartoon in Kangura that says in Kinyarwanda: “General Dallaire and his army have fallen into the trap of Tutsi femme fatales.” It refers to Gen. Romeo Dallaire, head of UN peacekeeping forces.” — on https://www.womensmediacenter.com

Widespread of Violence Against Women During the Genocide:

In accordance to the testimonies presented by survivors, provided via the Outreach Programme on the Rwandan Genocide at the United Nations, the mass murders would take form in a similar dynamic. Usually, men were separated from women and children, then the Hutu militia would assassinate the men and sexually violate women and girls. The order of the day was to eliminate the Tutsi race and humiliate Tutsi women.

“During the genocide I learned what it meant to be a Tutsi. I saw too much during that time. I saw my father killed. I saw my mother raped. I saw my mother killed too. Thankfully, my siblings survived. Though I was raped too, countless times. I was beaten and slashed with machetes when I was found in hiding. Though I survived, sometimes I think myself less fortunate for having done so.” -Alphonsine’s survivor statement [3].

An estimate, given by Dutch researchers Catrien Bijleveld, Aafke Morssinkhof and Alette Smeulers, accounts for 354,440 victims of rape and sexual violence during the genocide. Besides, attackers who carried the HIV virus would purposely rape women to transmit the disease. Further testimonies also narrate genital and body mutilations [4].

The majority of survivors of this genocide are women, who most likely were raped and now live with the HIV virus. Yet, in order to reconstruct Rwanda, to reinstall peace and to prevent such atrocities from happening again, there needs to be a shift in the perception of the inhabitants of Rwanda. They should no longer identify themselves as Tutsis or Hutus, but as Rwandan citizens and that can only be achieved through forgiveness.

Reconciliation of the Nation:

Consequently, these women who underwent the worst violence, are now being able to forgive and to co-inhabit with their persecutors, and for that they are the main agents of peace in Rwanda.

Immaculée Ilibagiza became a New York Times best seller author when she turned her recollections of the genocide into a book, “Left to Tell — Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust”. In her book, she shares her story of 3 months, hiding in a pastor’s bathroom, no longer than 3 feet by 4 feet, along with seven other women. Even though she survived, Immaculée lost most of her family to the attacks. However, Immaculée’s faith gave her the strength to forgive her family’s assassin only months after the genocide, going as far as visiting him in prison, holding his hand and letting him know he had her compassion [5].

Fortunately, Immaculée is not alone in her act of bravery. The Rwandan Government, together with local and international organizations, has made an effort to form support and training groups between survivors and perpetrators in order to recreate harmony and a new Rwandan identity.

Maria and Juvenal. Photo by Helena Hermosa on https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/rwanda-genocide-maria-and-juvenal/

One of these groups houses survivor Maria and perpetrator Juvenal. Maria lost her husband and two children during the Cyanika massacre, in which Juvenal took part. Maria recollects the day::

“They would shoot wherever they saw people were still alive… I was sitting there in the bloodbath waiting for something to kill me… The children were upset. They were crying at me. So then I put my youngest child on my lap. I started breastfeeding her. I took my other child and put her beside me as well, and I put her head in my lap as well. I took a bedsheet and covered all of us, I was just waiting for us to die. Then I was hit on the head…then I fell over and fainted. That was the very last time I saw my children alive. It is my last memory that I have with my children” [6].

Now, twenty years after this gruesome event, Maria sits side by side with Juvenal, and holds his hand, affirming that together, they have “planted a tree of unity and reconciliation together.” [7] Similarly, Maria is certain that hatred will not change the past, and that life could only go on through reconciliation [8]. She believes that since Juvenal has confessed his crimes, it is her place to forgive and accept him [9].

Thereupon, these amazing women and men, that survived one of the most horrific episodes of history, are setting the paradigm as world peace agents through the simple act of being able to hold the hands of the ones that killed their parents, children, siblings and friends.

Help survivors of genocide by clicking on the link below:

http://endgenocide.org/take-action/

References:

[1] Green, Llezlie L., Propaganda and Sexual Violence in the Rwandan Genocide: an Argument for Intersectionality in International Law, 33 Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 2002.

http://academic.udayton.edu/race/06hrights/georegions/africa/Rwanda01.htm

[2] Green, Llezlie L., Propaganda and Sexual Violence in the Rwandan Genocide: an Argument for Intersectionality in International Law, 33 Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 2002.

http://academic.udayton.edu/race/06hrights/georegions/africa/Rwanda01.htm

[3] “Survivors Testimonies”, Outreach Programme on the Rwandan Genocide at the United Nations, accessed on August 16, 2018.

http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/education/survivortestimonies.shtml

[4] Sai, Nancy, “Conflict Profile: Rwanda”, last modified in February 8, 2012.

https://www.womensmediacenter.com/women-under-siege/conflicts/rwanda

[5] Bharath, Deepa, “He Killed her mother and brother. Then, she forgave him”, The Orange County Register, (2014)

https://www.ocregister.com/2014/10/25/he-killed-her-mother-and-brother-then-she-forgave-him/

[6] Whelan, Alana, Rice, Eoghan and Elena Hermosa, “Let the Devil Sleep: Rwanda 20 Years After the Genocide”, Filmed on location in Gikongoro and Kigali, Rwanda, January and February 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl50BeeNLAQ

[7] Whelan, Alana, Rice, Eoghan and Elena Hermosa, “Let the Devil Sleep: Rwanda 20 Years After the Genocide”, Filmed on location in Gikongoro and Kigali, Rwanda, January and February 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl50BeeNLAQ

[8] Whelan, Alana, Rice, Eoghan and Elena Hermosa, “Let the Devil Sleep: Rwanda 20 Years After the Genocide”, Filmed on location in Gikongoro and Kigali, Rwanda, January and February 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl50BeeNLAQ

[9] Whelan, Alana, Rice, Eoghan and Elena Hermosa, “Let the Devil Sleep: Rwanda 20 Years After the Genocide”, Filmed on location in Gikongoro and Kigali, Rwanda, January and February 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl50BeeNLAQ