By: Jennifer Fierberg
Many books have been written about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide from various perspectives. The majority of the books analyse the unending question of was this war planned, unplanned, a spontaneous outbreak of mass violence or an organized and strategic event that took the lives of almost one million people in just 100 days. Many questions will always remain unanswered about this horrific time in history and many scholars will debate the issues for years to come.
The iron grip on information and criticism of any kind against the current Government of Rwanda makes any formative analysis a dangerous undertaking. Books written about the 1994 Genocide paint the picture of the ruling government against a rebel group fighting to return to Rwanda at any cost after having lived as refugees in exile for decades. Under this narrative the rebel group (RPF, current government in Rwanda) are the victors in ending the genocide and the previous regime under former President Habyarimana as being defeated. But few books focus on the sexual violence endured in mass by many Hutu and Tutsi women alike.
One such book was written in 2009 focusing on the amazing and heart-wrenching stories of the women and men who survived being horrifically sexually brutalized. The Men Who Killed Me, edited by Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu is a book in a class of its own. This book embarks upon the journey of interviewing these amazing men and women who survived the sexual violence of the genocide and how their lives were changed forever. This book features seventeen brave men and women who allow the world into their darkest hour of sexual violence and their brave journey every day out of this darkness. The authors conducted extensive interviews in Rwanda with the survivors and continue to follow up with all of them regularly to assess their progress.
Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu took time from their busy schedules to answer some questions for me regarding this amazing work. Below are the answers to our discussion:
1. All of the victims you interviewed in the book are Tutsi, their rapists were Hutu and the liberators were all RPF. Were there no Hutu women who wished to be interviewed? Or were only Tutsi women sought out in the researching of your book?
We wished to be as representative as possible of the extent of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide, so the large majority of survivors interviewed for the book (15 out of 17) are Tutsi women, who represent the vast majority of women who were raped during the genocide (an estimated 250,000-500,000 women, mostly Tutsi, as per a 1996 UN report). Nevertheless, we recognize that Hutu women were also raped during the genocide, especially those who were married to Tutsi men, protected Tutsi or were politically affiliated with Tutsi. In the book, you will find the testimonial of a Hutu woman who was raped multiple times by Hutu extremists because she was married to a Tutsi man. Men were also sexually violated in various ways: their genitals were mutilated, they were forced to rape women or they were raped by women. So we tried to portray the complexities of sexual violence during the genocide, including the ethnicities, sex, and forms of sexual violence (e.g. gang rape, sexual mutilation, sexual slavery) involved.
2. Was the Government of Rwanda involved in your research? Did you have to obtain permission/approval to begin your interviews on the ground? Also, were your findings first disclosed to the government prior to publication for their approval?
The genesis for the book was our work at an organization devoted to addressing sexual violence in conflict, where we read firsthand accounts of survivors of sexual violence that were circulated primarily within NGO circles. Since 2004, we have been in contact with the Rwandan survivor-run organisation Solace Ministries, which supports genocide survivors, including many who had survived sexual violence and who expressed their wish to us to tell their stories.
The Rwandan government was never involved in this project in any way.
3. How were the women and the one man chosen to be interviewed?
While we initially interviewed about 30 people for the project, we selected testimonials that we thought would be broadly representative of the sexual violence that took place during the 100 days of the genocide. Although more testimonials could have been included in the book (as there were many more survivors willing to tell their story of survival), we were constrained by time and the desire to keep the book a manageable length. Overall, we feel the seventeen testimonials we feature give a good indication of the sexual violence perpetrated during the genocide.
4. The NGO’s and community agencies mentioned in book have dome remarkable work. Are they still in touch with the victims and are the women and man still receiving services?
The survivors in the book are all beneficiaries of Solace Ministries, which is a survivor-run grassroots organization with its main office in Kigali (and regional offices across the country). Solace works with widows and orphans of the genocide, offering food, housing, HIV medication, counselling, income-generating projects and spiritual care. The women and man featured in the book continue to receive this kind of support through Solace Ministries. When the book was first published, the authors’ proceeds went to the survivors featured in the book. After these funds were depleted, the Mukomeze Foundation (an organisation based in the Netherlands which Anne-Marie co-founded, that supports Rwandan survivors of sexual violence through its partner organisation Solace Ministries) was able to find sponsors for each of the survivors from the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. The aim of the sponsorships is to empower the survivors to become self-sufficient. One of the survivors in the book is no longer under the sponsorship scheme because she was able to use her sponsorship for her studies and is now independently making a reasonable living.
5. Have you or do you regularly follow up with the women and how often? How are they doing?
Since we interviewed the survivors in 2008, we have managed to visit them on a regular basis (in July 2009, August and December 2010, and January/February 2012). We have been able to see with our own eyes the impact that the sponsorships and the book project has had on their lives. The survivors have undergone tremendous change. The sponsorship money, along with other forms of crucial support, such as counseling, small-business loans, business training and education, have made it possible for the survivors to become more self-sufficient. Being with other beneficiaries of Solace Ministries has also given survivors, most of whom lost their entire families during the genocide, a new family. At the same time, we have also observed that the health of some of the survivors continues to be poor, especially those who suffer from HIV and multiple other diseases, such as tuberculosis, asthma, malaria, cancer and infections persisting from the sexual assault they endured during the genocide. While HIV medication is available free of charge in Rwanda, the effectiveness of medication varies for different people, and survivors’ health is further compromised by other severe diseases that attack their immune system. Very sadly, in 2010 two of the women whose testimonials are included in the book died as a result of the trauma they endured during the genocide.
6. What compelled you to write/edit this book and what was your familiarity with the 1994 Rwandan Genocide prior to your research?
As colleagues at a women’s rights organization in The Hague, we worked closely on a variety of issues related to sexual violence in war. Rwanda became a frequent topic of conversation as our friendship grew. Anne-Marie had visited and worked in Rwanda over the years, including for her PhD research on prosecuting sexual violence before international criminal tribunals such as the ICTY, ICTR and ICC, and had met with Jean Gakwandi — the founder and director of Solace Ministries — in 2004. Through Jean, Anne-Marie became familiar with the work of Solace Ministries and the stories of its beneficiaries. Over time, we discussed the possibility of creating a venue for survivors of sexual violence to bring forth their experiences. Despite numerous accounts of the genocide, we believed that the voices of rape survivors, telling their stories in their own words, were notably absent.
7. What research methods did you use to formulate your statistics such as HIV rates pre and post genocide and have any studies been conducted since the publication of your book?
We based our book on publicly-available reports, including from UNAIDS and the WHO 2004, Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and the Risk of HIV (footnote 4, p. 146). According to this source, the HIV prevalence rate in rural areas was 1 per cent before the genocide and 11 per cent after the genocide (1997). This number has declined again, to 3 per cent (idem). According to UNAIDS, this continues to be the proportion of people living with HIV in Rwanda today, with higher numbers of women infected (http://www.unaids.org/en/regionscountries/countries/rwanda/).
8. While researching and writing did you face any challenges? If so what were they?
In general, things went well. Of course, it was not always easy for the survivors to relive their traumatic experiences, but the awe-inspiring staff of Solace Ministries were on hand to assist with translation and, if necessary, with counselling. We interviewed each survivor on three or four occasions. This approach worked well, since it lessened the trauma for survivors and gave us time to review the testimonials and ask follow-up questions. At each stage of the process, we obtained consent from the survivors, assuring them they could end the interview or withdraw from the book at any time. During the last session with each person, we read the entire testimonial aloud for their approval. All but one survivor we interviewed decided to continue with the project, but three requested that their faces not be recognizable in their photographs. Finding a publisher was initially also a challenge, given the sensitive nature of the topic, but eventually we found publishers in Canada and the Netherlands who were extremely supportive of our work.
9. What has the Government of Rwanda done to help the survivors highlighted in your book? What more can they be doing to help?
The survivors featured in “The Men Who Killed Me” have told us about some of the initiatives implemented by the government to support genocide survivors, such as Gacaca, which they generally feel quite positive about today (see our piece on this from early this year found here. Other initiatives include the construction of houses by perpetrators for survivors, the provision of one cow per family, and free HIV treatment, though the latter two initiatives are for all poor people in Rwanda, not merely survivors. These initiatives have enabled them to rebuild some aspects of their lives.
We also describe other developments and remaining challenges in the abovementioned piece.
10. Was the intention of the book to have further justice in Rwanda for the brave and resilient women you interviewed? If so do you believe the book achieved that outcome?
In addition to raising awareness about the hardships survivors endured during the 1994 genocide, the book’s testimonials also shed light on issues that have been historically less well-explored, including the realities that: (1) boys and men were also raped during the Rwandan genocide; (2) Hutu women testified against Hutu perpetrators implicated in the genocide; (3) women were oftentimes raped by many different men; (4) young girls and boys and older women were raped – and it has been particularly hard for young children and elderly women to discuss those experiences of sexual violence; and (5) sexual violence was incomprehensibly vicious. In spite of years of denial (which was made easier because survivors of sexual violence had a difficult time discussing what happened to them in the first years after the genocide), especially among genocidaires and their families, no one can deny the extent and cruelty of sexual violence during the genocide anymore. The survivors’ compellingly honest testimonials have made it perfectly clear that their experiences were true and are reflected among the experiences of many hundreds of thousands of other victims and survivors of sexual violence.
The survivors have inspired people nationally and globally in many ways. In one case, a Rwandan man who suffered sexual violence during the genocide spoke up about his plight after hearing about Faustin’s testimonial, the only man featured in the book. Sexual violence against men, especially when committed by women, is an issue men cannot easily discuss in Rwanda, and their bravery in doing so is remarkable.
The proceeds and sponsorships that arose from the book also improved their quality of life. The survivors were proud to learn that their stories had been read all over the world and that their stories had taken on new creative forms, including as a theatre production based on their testimonials (in Halifax, Canada), as a component of a university course involving letter-writing (in Winnipeg, Canada, but also in the USA and UK) and as a Gregorian chant honouring female victims of violence (in Nijmegen, the Netherlands). They felt these were all important ways to provide a platform for the stories of survivors of sexual violence in Rwanda and other conflicts worldwide.”
We aim to have the book published in other languages (German, French, Spanish etc.) and to publish a we are presently working on a new book describing and photographing the lives of the survivors in “The Men Who Killed Me” today. The book will describe how people who have suffered severe sexual violence and other atrocities in a post-genocide society have come to deal with their past. The book will include many more pictures than the current edition, the life of the survivors today through their eyes.
11. Do you feel you objectively covered the area of research you set out to cover?
We think so. Our primary intention was to accurately recount survivors’ testimonials, with some historical context that is available in the public record, and we feel we have done this objectively.
End of interview
The proceeds from the sale of this book go to Mukomeze, a charitable organization established to improve the lives of girls and women who survived sexual violence in the Rwandan Genocide. I strongly encourage all those interested in this dark part of the history of Rwanda to read this book and be astounded by the testimonies of these women and men.