How Rwanda's genocide lingers on for women
A handful of programs are assisting women who were raped and infected with AIDS, but thousands more go without help
Chantal Uwamaliya wraps her rail-thin body in a blue knit shawl. She waits with a dozen other women to see a nurse at a small house in a ramshackle Kigali neighborhood.
The women who come here, more than 500 in all, are young mothers in their 20s and aging grandmothers who walk with canes. Yet they all share a similar story. Each was raped during Rwanda's 1994 genocide. And each of them has been diagnosed with AIDS.
In the summer of 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people were killed over a three-month period, when Rwanda's Hutu government set out to eliminate the country's ethnic Tutsi minority. Most were killed with guns and machetes.
But for many Tutsi women - accused by the Hutus of being too prideful - the Hutus used AIDS as part of their arsenal, raping them to infect them. Human rights and survivors organizations say that rape was orchestrated by organizers of the genocide.
"It was one of their weapons," says Consolée Mukanyirigira, coordinator of AVEGA, an organization of 25,000 genocide widows, which runs the small center. "They had two weapons. One was to use the guns and machetes; the other was to infect us with AIDS."
Rwanda's HIV-positive genocide widows are largely overlooked in a country trying hard to rebuild and recover eight years after the horror. Only a handful of these women, mostly in the capital Kigali, receive medical care and counseling from a small number of organizations.
Every morning, 15 to 20 women arrive at the center, called Agahozo - "the place where tears are dried." Two nurses dispense drugs and advice inside the small house, while others wait quietly on wooden benches outside.
No one knows exactly how many women were raped during the genocide, or how many now have AIDS. A recent study of 1,200 AVEGA members who were sexually assaulted in 1994 found that two-thirds were HIV-positive, and three-quarters were emotionally traumatized. AVEGA (www.avega.org.rw), funded by several international aid organizations, has only enough money to help a small number of women whom they know are infected. World Vision (www.wvi.org), a Christian relief organization, also runs a center for HIV-positive widows, but there are thousands, particularly in rural areas, who receive no help at all.
Mrs. Uwamaliya doesn't know how many men raped her during the 100 days of murder and chaos that engulfed Kigali. After the death of her husband and eldest daughter, who were hauled away from a roadblock during the first days of the genocide, Uwamaliya fled with her four remaining children, the youngest just a baby strapped to her back.
She and her children moved from place to place, staying with sympathetic neighbors or in buildings that had been taken over by fleeing Tutsis. Often, members of the military or Hutu militia, called the Interahamwe, would discover her. But instead of killing her, they raped her.
Eventually, Uwamaliya and her children made their way to a place they heard had become a safehouse for Tutsis. But even there, Hutu soldiers would come each night to take their pick of the women. The half-dozen men that remained with them were killed, and the safehouse became a brothel for the militia.
Today, Uwamaliya comes every week or so to Agahozo. The women here sit silently, shoulder to shoulder on the center's wooden benches. They do not speak to one another about the trauma they endured. But they say they take comfort that they are not alone.
The hardest part for most of them is knowing that their children will soon be without them. The center helps children who have already lost their parents by paying their school fees and helping them find a place to live. But the genocide left many orphans, and the burden of caring for them is too great for this fragile society to bear.
"When [the women] start getting sick, they start worrying about what will happen to their children," says Rose Moukamusana, director of the Agahozo center. "Most of them have no relatives, and their friends and neighbors have been killed or scattered. They also fear that if this happened to them, and that it happened to them because they were Tutsi, that it could happen to their children. They believe they are leaving their children in an uncertain world."
Uwamaliya, too, is worried for her children, the youngest who is now 9. She tries to be strong. "I am sick, my friends are sick," says Uwamaliya, her voice cracking. "What will happen to them when I die? I must keep living as long as I can for them."