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Women and Children First


Liisa K. Hyvarinen

"My baby reminds me of bad things but I love her. She is all I have." Olive Uwera, who lives in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, says she thinks women who are raped in the United States are lucky because usually they don't get AIDS and can still have more children.

"I can't have another child because I'm infected," she says softly, adding that no man would want her because of her disease. She says she hopes to live long enough to see her 7-year-old daughter Isimbi through high school.

"I too am lucky. I was only raped by one person. Other women here have bigger problems. Their husbands and children were killed; the women themselves were gang raped and mutilated and their homes destroyed."

Olive is one of the thousands of women in Rwanda who were raped, sodomized, mutilated and tortured during the country's bloody genocide, which left close to 1-million people dead.

Government officials here estimate that 250,000 women were raped between 1990 and 1994 in Rwanda and that 30,000 pregnancies occurred from these rapes. Social services and women's groups in this Central African nation the size of Maryland say the majority of these women are HIV-positive or fighting full-blown AIDS as a result of the rapes.

"We need medicine for these victims -- effective AIDS medicine," says Sylvie Barakagwira, one of the founders of Avega, a nonprofit Rwandan women's group that assists the genocide widows and their children. Mostly funded by foreign charities and private donors, Avega provides counseling and some medical, legal and financial assistance to its 25,000 members.

"Without medicine, these women will die and die soon. Who then will care for their children?" Sylvie asks.

In our part of the world, however, there seems little interest in Avega's members.

Weekly Planet asked three members of Florida's congressional delegation, who serve on Capitol Hill committees with international responsibilities, for comment on the plight of these Rwandan women. Only one of them responded.

Requests for an interview with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were rebuffed by the Democrat's aides.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami), who chairs a House international human rights subcommittee, could not be reached.

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis (D-Tampa), who serves on the House International Relations Committee, said he hopes the American government can help in 2003.

"It is tragic enough that these women were so horrifically brutalized by their attackers, but it is completely heartbreaking to see them victimized a second time by HIV and AIDS," Davis told the Planet. "As a society, we should not turn a blind eye to their suffering."

Congress has been working to authorize more than $1-billion in HIV/AIDS initiatives worldwide, according to Davis. "This coming year, we cannot afford to let those efforts fail again," the congressman said.

Sylvie says no one is willing to donate any advanced AIDS and HIV treatments to Avega. The only free medical treatments reaching the group are for other secondary symptoms AIDS patients succumb to as their immune systems fail. Sylvie says her clients are so desperate for treatment they would volunteer for human drug trials, if only the Western drug makers would accept them as test subjects.

Forty-one-year-old Marie Jose says she thought her case would be different.

She was promised medical care in exchange for her testimony against the men who attacked her. She says she too was infected with HIV when she was gang raped by four men. (Her last name is not being used in this story to comply with the witness protection orders of the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Rwanda.)

"Look at it," she says during an interview, opening her gray business suit to pull out her right breast. Next to the nipple is a round and ugly scar, ragged edged, presumably from a bayonet. Her hands tremble as she buttons up the jacket to cover up her chest again. Her hands then move down onto her lower abdomen pushing violently downwards.

"After they raped me," she continues, as her voice gets louder and angrier, "they held me down and the fourth one stabbed me and pushed sharp objects inside my private areas, mutilating me. And two of my children saw it all."

Unlike many other victims of the gang rapes, Marie Jose thought she would get at least partial justice when one of her attackers was captured and brought before the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. This court is trying the leaders of the genocide, just like the Nazis were prosecuted in Nuremberg after World War II for the Holocaust.

The man Marie Jose says was one of her rapists is Juvenal Kajelijeli, the former mayor of Mukingo Commune in Ruhengeri Prefecture in northern Rwanda -- Marie Jose's hometown. Kajelijeli is charged with genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and crimes against humanity, including rape and extermination.

Both Marie Jose and Avega's Sylvie Barakagwira say victims who agreed to testify at the tribunal were promised confidentiality, security and medical care, including HIV/AIDS treatments.

But Marie Jose says all medical assistance to her ended right after her testimony. "And when I got back, the prisoners at the local prison in my hometown knew the details of my rape [from my testimony] and were discussing them and that was very humiliating for me," she says.

The ICTR in Arusha did not respond for almost a month to inquiries about Marie Jose's case or the claims that victims who agree to testify were promised treatments for HIV and AIDS.

Finally, an e-mail statement from the tribunal would not confirm or deny Marie Jose's status as a witness or whether she was promised or subsequently received any medical treatment because "such matters are covered by medical confidentiality."

A tribunal spokesperson also wrote: "No ICTR official is authorized to promise or offer medical treatment or any other inducement to a potential witness in exchange for testimony. Such an offer would of course taint the testimony, casting doubt upon its credibility."

However, the tribunal's own Web site states: "All witnesses have access to medical care during their stay in Arusha in order to ensure their physical and mental well-being. For witnesses who have been victims of rape or other sexual assault, counseling and psychological rehabilitation is provided" through the tribunal's "Witnesses and Victims Support Section."

The Web site makes no mention of continued care after a witness returns home.

The tribunal Web site goes on to state that the "Witnesses and Victims Support Section has been successful in maintaining the anonymity of witnesses and providing them with support after their testimony. This has encouraged other witnesses to agree to travel to Arusha and more willingly participate in the search for justice at the ICTR."

Sylvie says the handling of Marie Jose's case was one of the reasons Avega suspended its cooperation with the international tribunal. The group had encouraged and helped its members to travel to Arusha to give their testimony.

But many victims complained that they were only questioned by men during the procedures and asked to recount tremendously humiliating details, which the victims wouldn't normally share even with their closest female friends. Public knowledge that a woman has been raped in Rwanda leaves the victim even further victimized, as she is now considered damaged and "impure."

Representatives of victims' groups were further incensed when it was revealed in the news media last year that three tribunal judges had laughed during the testimony of a rape victim.

On the day in question, a witness, known only as "TA," described her repeated rape by one of the accused. While TA was answering defense attorney's questions, the three judges suddenly burst out laughing.

The incident resulted in negative headlines even though court officials tried their best to explain that "during the incident in court, the judges had not actually laughed at the witness, but rather in front of the witness," at a particularly sensitive moment of her testimony. Because of the incident, Avega publicly called for sanctions against the three judges and a defense lawyer in the case.

"The court is wasting our time," says Sylvie. "The accused awaiting trial in Arusha are getting treated for AIDS and HIV."

According to the International Red Cross, which helps monitor the prison conditions in Arusha, "the U.N. pays for and treats those detainees who have HIV/AIDS." However, the Red Cross had no specific information of the type of treatment offered or of its effectiveness.

A statement from the ICTR press office would only confirm that "the detainees held in the tribunal's facility are kept under regular medical supervision. They ... receive such treatment as is necessary for their respective medical conditions as prescribed by the ICTR medical officer."

To make sure the individual stories of its members are not forgotten, Avega is collecting first-person accounts from as many of the female victims as possible.

Each case is then typed up in both Rwanda's native language, Kinyarwanda, and English. The gruesome details of individual pain and suffering fill page after page; some narratives go on for hundreds of pages. They are accompanied by a small photo album of evidentiary pictures that show the scars that machetes and bayonets have left on faces, necks, breasts, buttocks and thighs.

The most intimate evidence is not in the book a visitor is allowed to flip through but the images of women holding up their skirts for a close up of the many wounds and scars on the inside of their thighs paint a vivid picture of their agony and humiliation.

All the material is stacked neatly behind Sylvie's desk along the wall in Avega's main office in Kigali. The women's group hopes to turn the material into a book by 2004 in time for the 10th anniversary of the genocide.

The group wants to preserve the victims' history while they are still alive to tell their stories. Sylvie says without medication to fight HIV and AIDS the victims got from the rapes, Avega is losing at least one member every day as the ravages of the illness become too much for the women. Avega tested 1,200 of its members in 2001 and found that two-thirds were HIV-positive.

Besides collecting these personal stories, Avega offers much-needed counseling to the victims. Marie Jose is one of many who first came to Avega for that very reason.

"My sister was raped and her sexual organs mutilated in 1994 and she went mad. I was very depressed myself and often spoke with my children about how we all should take rat poison since life was not worth living," she says. "I didn't want to talk about what happened to me within the family; my oldest daughter was already so traumatized [from what she witnessed] that she couldn't attend school. I only talk [about it] at Avega."

Marie Jose says she feels relief when she talks about her experiences at Avega. In fact, she credits the women's group with saving her life. She says she decided against suicide after she came in contact with the group.

But Avega's resources are limited. It has managed to build some housing for the widows. Many lost their homes after the genocide, as the inheritance laws in Rwanda at the time transferred the marital property to the dead husband's family. However, a relatively recent change in the law has allowed more women to hang on to their property.

Esperanze Kankundiye is one of those women. A member of Rwanda's majority tribe, the Hutus, she married a Tutsi man, a representative of the country's minority.

During the genocide, militant Hutus attempted to wipe out the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus who opposed the mass killings. Before the genocide, Esperanze and her husband had two children, a girl and a boy, who are now ages 9 and 10.

"My own father [the children's maternal grandfather] who was a Hutu bribed our captors so my children could live," she recounts. Esperanze says her father sacrificed all his property to save the children. Unfortunately, children born from a Hutu-Tutsi union were automatically considered Tutsi and were hunted like animals by the militants.

"I don't belong anywhere," says Esperanze. "My Tutsi relatives who survived hate me because I'm Hutu; my Hutu relatives hate me because of my Tutsi husband and children. My husband's family will do nothing to help me and my children."

Esperanze says her husband's family tried to drive her and her children off their property in 1996 so they could take it over. But Esperanze reported them to the local authorities and was allowed to keep her land and home because she had been legally married to her husband instead of living in a common-law arrangement.

Women's rights advocates say Hutu widows had a particularly hard time inheriting in Rwanda in the years after the genocide. Mostly, they are seen as part of the militant Hutu movement, which the remaining Tutsis view as responsible for the mass violence. But a new inheritance law passed in 1998 is helping women to keep their properties after their spouse dies.

For Esperanze, the battle with her extended family continues even though the property is now safely hers. She says her 9-year-old daughter Clementine was raped three years ago by a cousin of Esperanze's. The alleged rapist is a Hutu and, Esperanze says, "I think she was raped because they [Esperanze's Hutu raletives] still hate the Tutsis."

For Esperanze, her daughter's rape is just a continuation of the genocide. As a mother in late stages of AIDS she got from a rape, she doesn't know for sure if Clementine is HIV positive as a result of her own attack.

Marie Jose hopes somehow to get a house so that her children can inherit it after her death. Her oldest daughter, who has been too traumatized to attend classes, is supposed to return to school as soon as Avega finds her a safe placement.

"I can't go home to Ruhengeri," Marie Jose explains. "Three of my attackers are still on the loose and my husband's family would kill me even today because I'm coming forward and testifying."

While two of Marie Jose's children have returned to Ruhengeri, a northern Rwandan town about two hours drive from Kigali, she herself relies on special protection offered by Avega every time she visits her old home.

"The men who killed my husband were my neighbors," she continues her story. She says they have been tried and sentenced to death. But the sentences are yet to be carried out.

Marie Jose vehemently claims that the men are bribing local prison officials because they are allowed to leave the prison grounds in their pink prisoner uniforms to go visit their wives and children.

While there is no way to substantiate Marie Jose's claims against the prison authorities, when two foreign journalists approached the Ruhengeri prison this summer to take photographs, three prisoners were sitting outside the prison gates in a private car. They later drove off, apparently without any supervision.

As far as getting justice in court, Marie Jose is still waiting. Juvenal Kajelijeli, the ex-mayor of her hometown against whom she says she testified, has been on trial at the tribunal since 2001. Kajelijeli's defense is currently presenting its case and is scheduled to have 30 witnesses testify. The former mayor has denied 11 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, Olive, the 22-year-old woman who became pregnant with her daughter Isimbi after a rape, is not afraid of her attacker. The man who attacked her and forced her to follow him to Tanzania disappeared soon after Isimbi was born. Olive thinks he either died in the genocide or AIDS claimed him a long time ago.

While questions about how her child was conceived make her burst out in deep sobs, Olive says: "I had a reason to give her a good name." Isimbi means precious. "She was my only companion when I thought my whole family was dead."

Olive lost her father and three brothers in the genocide but has been reunited with her mother and sister. She now lives with her mother in the mother's small mud brick house on the outskirts of Kigali, together with Isimbi and a few of Isimbi's orphan cousins.

The home is modest by western standards, with no electricity or running water. But electricity is coming soon. Utility poles have already been installed along the neighborhood streets.

In the fading evening sunlight, foreign guests are welcomed warmly into the family room, where a sofa and four puffy armchairs take up most of the space on the spotless concrete floor.

On the room's largest wall hang a picture of Jesus Christ and a crucifix. Olive says she became a born-again Christian after the genocide when she found out she was HIV positive.

"That used to be my only cross," she says gesturing to the crucifix on the wall. "But I always carry the cross in my heart at all times."

Olive says that it's her religion that gives her the strength to go on. Today, her priority is letting her daughter know she is loved.

She also wants to find out if Isimbi is HIV positive. So far, she hasn't been able to afford to have the child tested. "I admit that I'm scared to get the test results," she says softly, "but I need to know so I can get her the appropriate medical help."

She is optimistic, though, because Isimbi seems so healthy.

Running around the neighborhood in her pink cotton dress, Isimbi exudes life and curiosity. And, like any inquisitive 7-year-old, she has started to ask her mother: "Where is my father?"

It's a question Olive doesn't want to answer -- not yet.

Tampa journalist Liisa K. Hyvarinen traveled to Rwanda in June as a Dart Fellow for Journalism and Trauma with the University of Washington.

Copyright 2002, Used with permission from Liisa Hyvarinen. Versions of this story were published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Weekly Planet in Tampa, Florida.

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