This week marks the start of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Twenty years ago this spring, between 800,000 and 1.2 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans were murdered by extremist Hutus. While both genders were victimized, during my recent second visit to Rwanda, I specifically focused on women's unique stories of sexual assault, rape and mutilation. The "other" casualty of a horrific 100 days, and beyond.
While my first visit concentrated on academic information regarding the remarkable rebirth of that now thriving nation, last month I returned holding other questions as I accompanied a group of individuals from various backgrounds who were learning about peace-building efforts on the ground. We met with government officials, survivors, genocidaires who actually committed the crimes, and rescuers who risked their lives and the lives of their families to shelter or aid complete strangers. We also visited museums and remembrance sites. The numerous stories of sexual atrocities committed against women were not prevalent in the conversations or presentations, although duly acknowledged by the government and prosecuted through the "gacaca" restorative justice following the genocide.
While I found it much less common to hear about these assaults, I was drawn to the reports, so connected are they to the trauma recovery work I've done across 20 years for sexual assault survivors. As we commemorate what happened 20 years ago in Rwanda, these stories are essential to complete the narrative.
For at least four years prior to the well-publicized massacre, Hutu militia began raping hundreds of thousands of Tutsi women. During the 100 days of genocide, both Tutsi and moderate Hutu women were attacked, but most prevalent victims were Tutsi. While the Rwandan government officially reported a total of 15,700 rape victims, UN Special High Commission on Human Rights reported in 1996 that at least 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were violated, including children as young as two years old and elders in their seventies. However, Dutch researchers Catrien Bijleveld, Aafke Morssinkhof and Alette Smeulers,found "Rape was the rule. Almost all Tutsi women were raped." This was a country saturated with sexual assault.
Hutu militia intentionally infected many of the Tutsi women with the HIV virus, AIDS, and other STDs. In fact, the genocidaire organizers assembled AIDS-infected Hutu extremists, releasing them from hospitals specifically to form "rape squads." Their mission: cause a "slow and inexorable death" to enemy women and wipe out the Tutsi line of progeny. The exact percentage of rape survivors is unknown, as the stigma of rape runs deep within Rwandan society and many women waited for years, if ever, to report. However, of known rape survivors, 67 percent are HIV positive, and subsequently many of their children have been infected.
Surely the unique trauma these rape victims endured, the horrors, impacts them to this day. There are many long-term effects of rape, including vaginal injuries, nightmares, phobias and an inability to maintain a normal routine. While a massacre affects all survivors, consequences for Rwandan women is compounded through lasting impact of sexual violence, sometimes repeated for long periods of time in situations of gang rape, sexual enslavement or forced marriage.
Further, rape impacted not only the women ravaged, but also their children and other family members who were forced to witness the acts themselves and, in many cases, the mutilation done afterward using machetes, boiling water and penetration with sticks. These attacks were meant to further injure and shame the women and harm their loved ones. Children were also conceived through the rapes, many of whom were abandoned. One woman reportedly turned over her baby to the Ministry of Family and Promotion of Women, saying, "This is a child of the State." Currently, 75 percent of Rwandans are under the age of 30, including those young adults who witnessed the atrocities and those conceived by rape.
While rape has been used as a weapon of war for centuries, historically there has been a lack of recognition and attention given to it. Only in 2008 did the United Nations Security Council officially recognize rape as "a systematic weapon of war." This makes it all the more important for us to talk about the rapes in Rwanda, to understand their long-term effects, and to discover how to help survivors heal. These lessons are especially needed as we currently witness rape being used as a weapon of war in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.
At a more personal level, I hope that these horrendous acts done to women and children are fully acknowledged as part of the public healing in Rwanda, especially as the country conducts the elaborate commemoration with intention to move to the next stages of rebuilding.
Talking about sexual violence is difficult -- I know, as survivor myself -- but silence and shame helps no one. What better time than now, as the 20th anniversary coincides with Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S., for these stories to be told? We as an international community are ready to listen, to honor, to heal with them and learn from them to help prevent a repetition of that tragedy elsewhere.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.