Thirty Years After The Rwandan Genocide: A Reflection On How War Scars The Lives Of Women And Girls

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By Kingsley Obom-Egbulem

The Rwandan Genocide stopped being a true-life event relived in “a horror” movie when I met Jane Ndayisaba. This was in 2005, a year after the release of “Hotel Rwanda,” a movie that depicted the most horrific event in modern history.

Jane Ndayisaba and other women like her fits the portrait of what war looks like on women and girls.

“I was raped by over 10 soldiers,” Jane told me. “One of them was my grade 6 pupil, who had become a child soldier and wanted to teach me a lesson,” she said.

A former elementary school teacher, Jane, was pregnant at the time of the genocide, and her vicious captors wanted to see how a pregnant woman could suffer a miscarriage through repeated, mindless sexual assaults.

“By the fourth day, I fainted. They thought I was dead and dumped me in the bush,” Jane recounted, her eyes now teary.
She was lucky though. Her limp and flaccid body was picked up by a team of emergency medical aid workers comprising the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Doctors Without Borders, who dared to comb some bushes outskirt of Kigali just in case there might be someone they could snatch from the jaws of death.

By the time Jane came to life, the fetus in her womb was macerating; decomposition had occurred in utero.

Sunday, April 7,2024, marked the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The abduction, raping, and eventual killing of women, children, and men began on a Thursday in 1994. And in 100 days, about a million people have been slaughtered.

Whenever you are tempted to beat the drums of war, provoke ethnic tension or you relish hateful tweets and bigoted posts on social media, think of Jane and  imagine what would happen just one or all of the women in your life: your wife, daughter, sister, aunt, mother, niece, cousin, girlfriend, or your female colleagues and teachers.

I met Jane in 2005 through Nancy, a Ugandan broadcaster who also volunteers with an NGO that works with female survivors of violence and abuse. Jane was among several Rwandan women, most of whom were sexual assault survivors who had fled the genocide and had refused to return to Rwanda after the war ended and the current administration of Paul Kagame began. They didn’t look like what they had been through. But their stories were not for the faint-hearted!

It was from these women that I heard true stories of abduction, rape, and sex slavery that characterised the Rwandan genocide.

If you’ve read that there are over 30,000 “children of rape”—born by women raped by militiamen during the genocide—these were some mothers of those kids. If you’ve been told that Rwanda has one of the largest populations of widows in Africa, these are some of those widows.

Incidentally, a few months before my trip to Kampala, I had read reviews and seen the trailer for Hotel Rwanda and the heroic feat of Paul Rusesabagina, the 40-year-old hotel manager who, against all odds, housed about 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the Hôtel des Mille Collines during those 100 days of horror, eventually saving them from being killed by Hutu militia.

The Rwandan women I met with Nancy not only personified the experiences depicted in that award-winning film but also relived the trauma of the genocide, particularly the most distressing, albeit gripping, account of its effect on the bodies and lives of women and girls.

Looking at those women, I recalled a documentary I had seen much earlier about the genocide and the sexual atrocities committed by soldiers during the war. In it, a woman painted a heart-wrenching picture of these atrocities.

“After you’ve been raped for days, it comes to a point when you are no longer alive. You get used to the smell of sweaty, dirty men and their semen, and the only thing you do is pray for them to shoot you one day,” said the woman.

Those words became real to me as I listened to Jane and gazed at the other women who personified the crimes captured in that documentary.

Every year, starting on April 7, Rwandans solemnly remember the genocide with 100 days of activities known as Kwibuka, meaning ‘remember’ in their local dialect. It begins with the laying of wreaths at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place for over 250,000 victims of the genocide, amidst piercing wailing and sounds of pain that time hasn’t been able to heal.

How do you heal the pain that Jane and other women like her bear to this day?

She was not yet born when a Hutu army general, Juvenal Habyarimana, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1973. His government, made up of extremist Hutus, reinforced anti-Tutsi sentiments and hatred that set the stage for the genocide that was to come. By the time Jane was 25, she had become a victim of hatred she knew nothing about. That is war for you.

Its victims are usually not the protagonists. Hence, the world must seek counsel from no less a person than Paul Kagame, Rwandan President.

“Rwanda’s tragedy is a warning. The process of division and extremism that leads to genocide can happen anywhere if left unchecked” said Kagame. He sure knows better.

May we never wish another Rwanda for ourselves. If not for you, but for your wife, your daughters, their nieces and aunts.

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