Rwanda's Living Legacy of Violence
Photographs and interviews by Johnathan Torgovnik
* Names have been changed.
During the 1994 genocide, Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale, mainly by members of Hutu militias known as Interahamwe. The most isolated among the survivors are women who have borne children as a result of being raped.
An estimated 20,000 children were conceived during the genocide in Rwanda, and many of their mothers contracted HIV during the rapes that left them pregnant. In many cases, both they and their children have been rejected by their families.
Many of these women have waited more than a decade to tell their stories, to begin healing themselves. Many of the mothers also say they were raped after being forced to witness the murder of their families. "You alone are being allowed to live," many were told, "so that you will die of sadness."
In a country with a population that, in the years after the genocide, has been estimated to be between 57 and 70 percent female, these women--and their children--represent Rwanda's future. Non-governmental organizations on the ground are working to help those who are struggling most with basic survival by providing antiretroviral medications, shelter, food and the opportunity to speak with one another. Although the women in these photographs struggle with ambivalent feelings toward their children, they expressed a desire that their children have access to education--a basic human right not available to them now because they cannot afford school fees.
It is vital that these survivors be heard.
Isabelle, 28, with her son Jean-Paul, 12
Genocide started when I was 15. I was raped then and got a baby boy from that rape, whose father I don't know. I stay with my son at this place.
It all started on April 6, in the evening, when they told us that the president had died and my mother said we should run away from the house. The third day is when they killed my three brothers. In the evening, a group of militia attacked our home. In the evening, they took me to a place where they raped me, one after the other-- I can't tell you how many there were. I can't tell you the experience.
When I realized I was pregnant, my first thought was that I should abort, but I didn't know how or where to go for such services. After giving birth, I thought of killing it because I was bitter and didn't know who the father is. It was painful, but eventually I decided not to kill it.
It causes me trauma every time I look at this boy. I don't know how I am going to live with a boy who has no family. I am physically handicapped because of the beatings. I can't carry anything. I can?t work. All that I can do is sit down. It is now that I say it is good that I didn?t kill that boy, because he fetches water for me.
I fail in my duty as a mother because of poverty. I fail to buy him soap so he can't wash his clothes--he sometimes also doesn't have anything to eat because I don't have anything to give him. But it is because of my condition of poverty, not because he is the son of rapists. I am not interested in a family. I am not interested in love. I don't see any future for me. I sometimes look at my situation and compare myself with people who have their families around them, and I regret that I didn't die in genocide.
Stella, 30 with her son Claude, 11
My son was born on July 7, 1995. I'll never forget that day. My wish was that he would die immediately after birth. I'm surprised that he didn't die. Why he didn't die, I don?t know. My child was almost a skeleton because I didn't have milk in my breasts. But that man, that rapist was with me. He kept raping me again and again. My problem is that boy, my son. When I think about his life, he is like a tree without branches. I am alone. I don't have any surviving relative apart from my old mother. He is my life. He is the only life I have. I love him. If I didn't have him, I don't know what I would be.
A genocide happened in Rwanda, and we went through torture like no other person has gone through. Tell the world that the legacy of genocide can never be removed. The international community has a debt because they didn?t come to the rescue.
Valerie, 28 with her son Robert, 12
Genocide started when I was 15. We were staying in this very place where I am now. I was raped, and as a result, I got pregnant and I have a baby boy. His name is Vedaste. I stay with him and I look after him.
In 1997, I came back to Rwanda. I came with my son. When I got here I went to my stepbrother's house. When I got there he told me he couldn't stay with a son of a militia. He didn't want my son. I stayed there, but he mistreated us. I stayed there till 2000, when I asked Awega [a Rwandan organization that assists women with HIV] to provide accommodation for me, and I came here with my son.
I don't hate my son. I don't love him either, but I think I am comfortable staying with him.
Marie, 26 wither her niece, Catherine, and her daughter Lisette, 13
When I heard the bullets, I ran and hid under the bed in the bedroom. They had killed my aunt and uncle, but they hadn't killed their baby. The whole sitting room was full of blood and dead bodies except for the little kid, who was alive but sucking the breasts of her dead mother.
We were attacked by a gang of Hutu men--there were about four. After one month and fifteen days, they diagnosed me and told me that in addition to being HIV-positive, I was also pregnant.
After the war, my father constantly reminded me this kid is bad, her family is bad, her family killed my relatives, that there was no reason for me whatsoever to love that girl. When I see her, she reminds me of the rape. The first rape and the second rape and all the rapes that followed, I relate them to her.
I can't say I love her, but I can't say I hate her either. Now I miss her. She lives with my aunt, where I went through the horror. Every step of that hill, every grass, every tree, every stone, every house, reminds me of 1994. I don't want to go there.
Josette, 27 and her son Thomas, 12
That day, in the evening militias came, they took me and my sister and locked us in a house. Then they said they were going to rape us, but they used the word "marry." They said they were going to "marry" us until we stopped breathing. That night, my sister told me to get ready, because she had already experienced it. That night I got my first experience, and it was terrible.
They went away in the morning and came back in the evening with clothes stained with blood and machetes that had blood. They told us to wash the clothes and machetes. We wash the clothes, they rape us at night and then the next day they go to kill. That was the pattern of our life.
Eventually my sister said it was too much, we need to go and commit suicide. We went to throw ourselves in the river and die, instead of living with torture. But when we got to the river, there were many dead bodies floating on the river, and we feared going there.
My uncle didn't welcome me in the house. He asked me who was responsible for my pregnancy. I said if I am pregnant, then it must be the militias, and I said that many of them had raped me. He said I shouldn't enter into his house carrying a baby of Hutus.
I never loved this child. Whenever I remember what his father did to me, I think that the only revenge would be to kill his son. I'm lucky I didn't do that.