Genocide survivors' testimony [Journey to Rwanda]
Sue Horton, Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion editor of The Times, is in Rwanda on a two-week Gatekeeper Editor fact-finding trip organized by the International Reporting Project. She is chronicling her trip on the Opinion L.A. blog.
Thursday, Nov. 10: It's late at night here, but I wanted to send a post today -- an amazing and overwhelming day.
The 1994 genocide is never far from anyone's mind in Rwanda. But for some Rwandans it's a constant horror. This morning we talked with several survivors of the massacres, who told their stories through a translator.
It's estimated that 250,000 genocide survivors are also rape victims, though that number may be low because some women won't admit what happened to them. Sevota, an organization set up in 1994 by Rwandan social worker Godelieve Mukasarasi to help rape survivors of the genocide, brought half a dozen women together to speak with us. I won't name them, in keeping with The Times' policy about rape victims. Be warned: Their stories contain graphic descriptions.
The first woman who spoke to us was 18 in 1994, married but still living with her family. The killing began in her neighborhood at 9 a.m. She ran away and was hidden by a Hutu family. At one point, she thought she would be safer if she got to where other Tutsis were, so she left. Outside, she discovered that her mother and brother were dead. She went to a church where her Tutsi neighbors were hiding. They thought they were safe, but then the Hutus came. The priest allowed them to come inside, where they picked Tutsis to kill. They took her to be raped. When they finished, they found sticks and stones and raped her again with them.
A second woman said that when the genocide started, her family thought the Hutus might come and kill their cows or other animals. But they never thought that humans would be killed. She and her brother fled into the forest, but her parents were too old to run fast. They were killed. She and her brother stayed in the forest for a week. Then they heard about a camp of Tutsis in the mountains; they headed for it. But soon after they got there, the Hutus came. They ran to a Catholic church. Again the Hutus came and began butchering people.
The woman pretended to be dead. She stayed motionless, among dead bodies, for two days. Then she ran away again. She hid for two days before a Hutu soldier found her. After he raped her, he took her to his mother's house. She spent a week there. During the days, she was treated like a slave and forced to work in the fields. At night, soldiers raped her. Again she ran away, but she was soon caught by another Hutu and turned over to guards at a roadblock. One of them wanted to kill her, but another said, "No, rape her."
Again she got away and ran to another Catholic church. At first it was better. She believed the church would protect her, and she was reunited with her brother there. But then the Hutus came, and the priest allowed them to take Tutsis. They killed her brother. She spent one month at the church, and every day Hutus raped her. She soon realized she was pregnant. Finally, she was rescued when the Tutsi army came through.
She found four orphaned children and began taking care of them. When her own child was born, she found it difficult to accept him. But Sevota has helped her cope.
The third woman said that in her part of the country, the Hutu power movement began as early as 1990. Once, before the genocide, Hutu men came to her house to inspect her to see if she had the name of the Tutsi king written on her body. This was just an excuse to humiliate Tutsi women.
She fled when Hutus killed her family in 1994. A Hutu man who had worked for her family as a houseboy hid her in a water tank. But other Hutus found her. One man drew a long sword from his boot and was about to kill her when another one said, no, she had beautiful ankles and would be good for raping.
Hutu men who were pillaging raped her, again and again, saying they wanted a taste of Tutsi women. She ended up pregnant and with HIV. She loves her daughter, but she says that her daughter always asks her about her daddy. The girl, now 16, was told by neighbor children that she's really a child of rape. The mother still hasn't been able to admit that to the girl but says she is moving in that direction. She says she is shunned by the neighbors for having HIV.
As we listened to the stories, one of the women broke down, sobbing hysterically. But the others insisted they wanted to continue; they wanted their stories to be known, and they wanted us to tell people in the United States what they'd been through and how much Sevota had helped them.
Rwanda today is a remarkable country. But considering that just 17 years ago the country was in chaos, it's amazing.
Photo: During the 1994 genocide, there was a mass killing of thousands of people at Ecole Technique de Murambi in Rwanda. These are some of the victims clothes. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times