The living proof of Rwanda's mass rapes

Leonille's baby was fathered by rampaging Hutu soldiers in 1994. She told her story to David Orr
Click to follow
Kigali - There are days when Leonille Mukamagyera says she would prefer to be dead. This 35-year-old is one of an unknown number of women raped during the Rwandan genocide two years ago. The baby boy she now holds is a constant reminder of the atrocities she suffered.

Testimonies from women like her suggest that rape was widespread during the genocide. Those abused were mostly members of the Tutsi minority and their assailants were soldiers or militiamen (Interahamwe) from the Hutu majority. Many women were killed after their ordeal, but a number survived to bear witness to the horrors which began in April 1994 and lasted for three months.

Leonille lives in the desperately poor Kigombe district of the capital, Kigali. Her home is a mud-walled cabin with a leaking corrugated iron roof. It used to belong to her brother, who was murdered during the early part of the genocide along with her husband, mother, four sisters and their children. She lives with four children from her marriage and the baby, born early last year as a product of her rape.

A crowd of children gather at the door of the cabin as Leonille begins to tell her story. She looks up from the rickety couch and stalls in mid- sentence, worried and ashamed that they will hear what she is about to say. A woman friend waves the crowd away and closes the door, plunging the home into darkness. A single, tiny window throws a shaft of light on to a row of cheap religious pictures pinned to the wall.

"My husband was killed within two days of the start of the killing," says Leonille, her voice barely audible in the gloom. "I went with my children to an army camp, but we were turned away. A Hutu man invited us into his house, but chased us out after a couple of days.

"Then another one took us and a number of others into his house. He said he would have to hide us individually and I was led to a nearby building which was under construction."

Leonille pauses and frowns as if perplexed by the nature of the events she is describing. She stares at the floor, but eventually looks up and continues.

"That night a group of soldiers came. It seemed they knew I would be there. One of them said, `I am going to kill you. If you don't want to die, show me what Tutsi women are like.'

"Then he took hold of me and threw me on to the ground. He forced himself on me and when he was finished two others took it in turns to do the same thing."

Leonille discovered that she was pregnant following the liberation of the country by the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, who went on to form the present Rwandan government. She considered an abortion, but then decided to have the child.

The plight of women such as Leonille is told in a report published today by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights agency. Entitled Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath, the report is a damning indictment of a regime whose hatreds caused the deaths of at least half a million people and portrays the lasting torment of countless survivors. It claims that rape during the genocide was commonplace and that thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery or sexually mutilated. "During the Rwandan genocide," says the report, "rape and other forms of violence were directed primarily against Tutsi women because of both their gender and their ethnicity. The extremist propaganda which exhorted Hutu to commit the genocide specifically identified the sexuality of Tutsi women as a means through which the Tutsi community sought to infiltrate and control the Hutu community.

"This propaganda fuelled the sexual violence perpetrated against Tutsi women as a means of dehumanising and subjugating all Tutsi."

Victims of sexual abuse during the genocide suffer persistent health problems. The most common ailments encountered by doctors who have treated raped women are sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/ Aids.

The number of children born to raped women is estimated to be between 2,000 and 5,000. Some women have abandoned their unwanted children or even committed infanticide, while others have suffered serious complications from self-induced or clandestine abortions.

"So many women have suffered like me and so many have unwanted children," says Leonille Mukamagyera. "Many of my neighbours shun me because they say I have an Interahamwe child. They are afraid he might kill them when he grows up."

The most pressing problem she faces is that of poverty. Aside from the small donations for food she receives from the Barakabaho Foundation, a local agency, she has no means of supporting her family.

Leonille has called her son Jean Ishimwe. In Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language, his name means "Thanks to God".