Women break their silence over the rape of Rwanda

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A Rwandan official is being accused of horrific sexual crimes in the tribunal set up to try the perpetrators of the genocide. Women who have been terrified to testify to the appalling scenes they witnessed are now risking their lives to come forward.

Amelia French reports from Arusha in Tanzania on another crack in the wall of silence surrounding the slaughter of 800,000 people.

For the first time, a man is being charged with rape as an instrument of genocide. Jean-Paul Akayesu was the mayor of Taba district west of the Rwandan capital of Kigali during the 1994 genocide. He has pleaded not guilty to charges which include genocide and crimes against humanity at the specially established International Crimes Tribunal.

It is widely known that huge numbers of women were raped during the two- month-long slaughter of about 800,000 Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers in Rwanda. Although Mr Akayesu's trial began in January, the charges against him have only recently been amended to include rape.

Until then, no rape charges had been brought in the Rwandan genocide courts or in Arusha.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, who is the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, said this only happened after "enormous pressure" from women's groups.

Ms Coomaraswamy said that although the issue of rape had come up in testimony, tribunal investigators appeared to have been "insensitive" to it.

Initially, victims of rape were also reluctant to discuss the issue. "After the genocide, all women had in mind was survival. They just wanted food, they wanted to get their children in order to get their lives in order and they had no time for the concept of going somewhere far off and giving testimony. They just wanted to survive," Ms Coomaraswamy said during a trip which took in both Arusha and Rwanda.

"Now that three years have passed, many of them continually use the word justice. Wherever we went, we heard the word justice. And they can't stand the fact that a lot of the perpetrators [of sexual crimes] are wandering around," she said.

The prosecutor's office of the tribunal has set up a task force to concentrate on sexual crimes and is training special investigators.

Ms Coomaraswamy acknowledged that it was hard for some women to speak about their experiences. "The Rwandese language doesn't even have the words to describe some of the things that went on," she said.

But she said the main reason why women have kept quiet is fear. One woman who had testified at a preliminary trial in Arusha received death threats on her return. Her Hutu landlord then evicted her and she was left homeless. She now does not want to return to Arusha for the main trial.

Witnesses giving evidence at the trial of Mr Akayesu speak of the horrific sexual violence which went on after a group of Tutsis, most of them women and children, sought refuge in Mr Akayesu's local administration offices in Taba just after the genocide started in April 1994.

One woman from Taba, identified as PP, said she witnessed the rape and killing of a pregnant woman acquaintance, called Alexia, by policemen and local militiamen, known as Interhamwe, acting on orders from the defendant.

"She was holding the Bible. She gave it to the Interhamwe called Pierre as he was about to rape her. She said, `Take this Bible ... because you do not know what you're doing'," PP told the court. She said Alexia was then gang-raped until she miscarried. After that, she was beaten to death. PP, a Tutsi who managed to pass as a Hutu during the genocide, said she had been one of a group of onlookers.

Another witness, called NN, told the court how she had been gang-raped by Interhamwe. She said Mr Akayesu was responsible for repeated killings and acts of rape and sexual torture. "He didn't stop it, he had the means to stop it but he didn't. He wanted to be sure no Tutsis escaped," she said.

The prosecution has now rested its case in the Akayesu trial and the trial has been adjourned until a week today.

At the end of her testimony, the presiding judge thanked witness PP for her "act of courage" in going to Arusha and wished her a safe journey home. While witnesses are protected by the tribunal from when they leave home to when they return, once they are back in Rwanda, the Rwandan authorities are responsible for their security. Back in the villages, everyone knows who the witnesses are. However, many of the women have lost almost all their relatives. One source at the tribunal said they were prepared to speak out in court because they had nothing else to lose.