Aids still haunts survivors of the Rwanda genocide

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The Independent Online

Thousands of the Rwandan women who were raped and infected with the Aids virus during the genocide of 1994 have since died, but such are the mysteries of the disease that thousands more continue to hang on to life.

Of these, 15 are being treated with the antiretroviral drugs that are standard for HIV-positive patients in the rich countries of the world. Thanks to the widows' organisation Avega (Association des Veuves du Génocide, www.avega.org.rw), the survivors have managed to scrape together from foreign donors the money they need for the life-saving drugs.

"They are all living full lives now," Avega's Annonciata Nzamukosha says. "Some had lost their nails, lost their hair. They were on the edge of death. Now they not only have their hair and their nails back, they are working, successfully running their families."

Emerita Nakabonye is not one of the lucky ones. True: she has survived HIV during the near-decade since the Hutu population, incited by a sinister and deranged regime, set out to exterminate their Tutsi compatriots. But Ms Nakabonye is often sickly. Apart from the fear of succumbing to full-blown Aids, she is long overdue an operation to remove her womb, mutilated by persistent gang rapes she endured from the start of the genocide in April, 1994, till the end, three months later when the liberating rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized power.

A sister who suffered a similar ordeal has died. Ms Nakabonye's husband, was killed with machetes as she watched. "There were three of them. First they cut off one arm, then another. Then the legs. Cut, cut, cut until they killed him."

Every Tutsi family has a horror story. Ms Nzamukosha, in the bare mud hut that is her home with another woman from Avega, listen in respectful silence. They do not cry; they do not sigh. They hardly raise an eyebrow. Both are widows who have witnessed the worst excesses of man's inhumanity.

Ms Nakabonye, slim and graceful, with beautiful dark-olive features, seems calm at first but the more vividly she retells her nightmare, the harder she rubs her hands, the lower her voice, the more her eyes fill with tears that do not spill on her cheeks. She is probably not strong enough to cry. Too weary, too drained by her failing health and the blows that life has heaped upon her.

Those Hutu neighbours who murdered her husband and repeatedly attacked her were so deranged they even raped the corpses of women they had killed. Ms Nakabonye saw that, too. Then the Hutus also wrecked her home. She does not have the money to repair the holes in the roof and walls. Or the energy.

"After all that has happened I am not afraid of dying," she says. "Not at all. I am afraid only of leaving my children alone to fend for themselves. I am worried about how they will survive without me." She has four children, the oldest of whom was seven at the time of the genocide, and her dead sister's child.

Ms Nakabonye knows about the existence of antiretrovirals, drugs that subdue the disease, allowing HIV-positive people to live largely normal lives. She does not know that barely a week ago agreement was reached in Geneva with big pharmaceutical companies to provide affordable life-saving drugs for the world's poorest countries. But already a row is brewing over trade restrictions in the small print and the viability of successfully administering the drugs to the people who need them. It could take months, even years to resolve.

Ms Nakabonye does know, however, that neither she nor Avega, which provides her with other basics to live, can afford to get the drugs she needs. "It is impossible," she says. "They are too expensive." She is too dignified to beg, or scream, or rage, though she would have every right to do all of those things.

The world owes her a favour. And the world ought to know it. For, as every nation acknowledges now, it is a colossal scandal that the United Nations and Nato and countries that could have done something stood back and did nothing during a genocide that claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsi men, women and children.

But for these pitiful survivors, the world has a chance now to make amends. These women did not contract the Aids virus through irresponsible sex. They are sentenced to death because no one in New York, or Washington, or London or Madrid would answer their cries for help.

Ms Nakabonye knows her life is slowly seeping away. "Now the drugs are my only hope," she says quietly. "Only the drugs can save me. Only the drugs can give back my energy and my life."

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