Rwandan Rape Survivors Find Solace in Shared History
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Many Rwandans who survived the 1994 genocide are still reluctant to tell their stories. The stigma of rape and AIDS has kept many women isolated and silent. Some victims have gravitated to others who live with similar memories. In one suburb of the Rwandan capital Kigali, reporter Jeanne Baron met young woman who says her neighborhood survivors association gave her back a future.
JEANNE BARON reporting:
At night, Rugarama's lush hillsides are full of the sounds of human life. But it is a rural place by any measure. There's no electricity, and people walk steep dirt roads to fetch their daily supply of water. When a faction of a supremacist regime launched its killing campaign in 1994, panic descended in Rugarama. Nehrama Jambare Alphonsein(ph) was nine years old.
NEHRAMA JAMBARE ALPHONSEIN: (Through Translator) People were running around, just going crazy because they didn't know what was going on.
BARON: Alphonsein says she was hiding outside with many others, when men armed with machetes found her and raped her, along with other women and girls around her.
Ms. ALPHONSEIN: (Through Translator) And women could cry and scream, and they used to say that we came to kill you, but before we kill you, we have to rape you, and they cut our clothes and hide our eyes. And then they could rape us, and with knife on our neck.
BARON: Survivor's organizations estimate that hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped during the three months of violence. And many of them contracted HIV. Now 20, Alphonsein tells her story without hesitation. She says the man who raped her infected her with HIV, but she's not seen him since. She supports the nation's reconciliation policies, and she tries to forgive the perpetrators.
Ms. ALPHONSEIN: (Through Translator) This is very new for me to leave my problems, accept who I am, and I've accepted all of this after knowing that I'm HIV positive.
BARON: Alphonsein learned her HIV status, and now receives treatment for the disease through a program offered by an organization called AVEAS(ph), short for the Association for Widows and Orphans and those Affected or Infected by HIV/AIDS. It's one of many such groups that have formed in Rwanda. Alphonsein makes the hour walk almost everyday to AVEAS' low swung concrete building, where she and other women gather in a small courtyard.
(Soundbite of people singing in foreign language)
BARON: On this day, Alphonsein and many others are weaving baskets on the shaded porch at AVEAS. This association began in 2002, and now has nearly 1,000 members. It's a shoestring operation started by a Rwandan family who came back to Rwanda after the genocide. Besides trauma counseling and skills training, AVEAS provides a critical link to other support agencies, which offer health care or income support--support Alphonsein says she desperately needs.
A few hills away from AVEAS, in the backyard of the family's mud home, Alphonsein and her mother are showing and AVEAS leader six goats which Alphonsein bread from a goat AVEAS obtained for her. Despite the success, Alphonsein and her family are nearly destitute. They depend on her aging mother to cultivate beans and potatoes on a rented plot. To keep her three young cousins fed, the adults go hungry at times, and the youngest of these children, all orphans, was born with HIV.
Trauma specialist Dr. Davis Karagea(ph) says poverty and disease haunt most genocide survivors almost as effectively as the armed men of 1994.
Dr. DAVIS KARAGEA (Trauma Specialist): The issue of poverty really also sets back the recovery phase. You cannot expect somebody to recover when she cannot feed herself before even she feeds the children she has.
BARON: Alphonsein says before joining AVEAS in 2003, she was isolated and frequently ill, though she didn't know why. At home, her family grieved for two brothers killed in the genocide, but they avoided talking about the rape. But Alphonsein says that at AVEAS, she is surrounded by women like herself, women she can trust.
Ms. ALPHONSEIN: (Through Translator) And many of women here don't have any income, like they're just like me. But we are friends. They're young women like me. I can meet people who have exactly the same problems.
BARON: Today, Alphonsein is thinking of the future, of how to make money and ensure and education for the children in her care. She doesn't have an answer, except for the one on the wall of her home--the same home she fled 12 years ago when neighbors were murdering neighbors in this Kigali suburb. In large, white letters she's painted, ask anything you want of God, he will give it. All he asks is that you love each other.
For NPR News, I'm Jeanne Baron.