Rwanda, Genocide, and Gender-based Violence
This month marks 25 years since the 1994 genocide that unfolded before the international community’s watchful eyes in the small East African country of Rwanda. I write this as sheets of rain pour down on Kigali, the growing capital city of Rwanda. I am reminded of the interviews I conducted with survivors from 2011-2018 that involve hiding in swamps or banana plantations during rainstorms to escape the genocidal militia who hunted them down with machetes and guns with the intent to eradicate an entire population. I remember a woman I interviewed in 2012 who shared with me her story of survival.Esperanza’s village in the Bugersera district is located in the Eastern province of Rwanda. She was born to parents who were Tutsi and had survived previous episodes of anti-Tutsi violence in the early ‘70s. In the 1990s, tension increased in surrounding areas during the civil war between rebel armies made of Tutsi in neighboring Uganda and the mostly Hutu government of Rwanda.
The civil war was the result of ethnic divisions facilitated by colonialism and political strife. After the president’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, genocidal violence immediately erupted throughout the country by a trained militia intending to wipe out the Tutsi.
Esperanza’s home in 1994 was across the road from the church she attended twice a week throughout her childhood. In previous episodes of violence, churches were safe havens where Tutsi hid until the violence passed. However, when militias successfully defeated the men in her village—killing her father and older brother—they moved toward Esperanza’s church. The women and children in the village, including her mother and four siblings, had been congregating in their church only to be massacred by the genocidal militia. They met their deaths with particular brutality—rape, mutilation, grenades, and gender-based torture. Esperanza miraculously survived by hiding under the dead body of her neighbor.
When the militias left, thinking they killed everyone, Esperanza hid in the swamp near her former village for days as rain poured over her recently orphaned 15-year-old body. She was eventually found by a militia solider and raped multiple times until she passed out from pain and trauma. The solider, thinking she was dead, left her. She continued to fight for her survival in the swamp, caring for two orphaned children she found in the swamp, until the genocide ended. Today, Esperanza lives in the same village she grew up in, and her former church, now a genocide memorial, houses the remains of her beloved family.
Esperanza’s story of survival illuminates important dimensions of genocidal violence, particularly its rampant gender-based violence. Estimates of how many women were raped during the genocide in Rwanda range significantly, from 250,000 to 500,000, but what we do know is that rape was the rule rather than the exception. And like every genocide and war in recorded history (such as WWI, WWII, Cambodia genocide, Vietnam War, Bosnian genocide)—the ubiquity of rape meant that battles were fought literally and figuratively on the bodies of women. Rape was a weapon used to terrorize the entire community, and rape was also a tactic of genocide with an intent to exterminate an entire population (demonstrated legally in the ICTR case of Akayesu). While the particularities of the genocide in Rwanda are unique, the gendered norms that make rape such a powerful and effective way to destroy a community are not.
Often, gender-based violence in times of war and genocide is regarded as an assumed casualty of violence that in the aftermath survivors are marked by shame that is so powerful that sexual violence often falls outside the dominant remembered narrative of survival. Take Holocaust research as a key example, as the first academic book on sexual violence during the Nazi Regime was not published until 2010. While the roots of institutional sexism that marginalize women’s narratives of violence run deep, historical and public narratives of genocide often adopt a gender-neutral perspective. Because genocide is considered an “equal killer” of women, men, and children, where death is the fate of all, some scholars and researchers have not found it productive (or moral) to analyze the process by which such deaths occurred.But acknowledging the particulars of violence does not negate the experience of those who did not experience gender-based violence. Rather, understanding the dimensions of violence is essential for violence prevention, intervention and providing appropriate services in its aftermath. For if we understand the gendered dynamics of genocide and war, we can maximize the impact of programs, services and aid to survivors’ post-conflict. I write this as reports surface about the prevalence of rape in US detention centers and college campuses. Concurrently, Eastern Congo is considered the “most dangerous place on earth to be a woman” because of the pervasiveness and brutality of gendered violence, while the Myanmar government publicly denies the raping of Rohingya women and girls by armed forces in an ethnic cleansing campaign.Esperanza’s story of survival illuminates important dimensions of genocidal violence, particularly its rampant gender-based violence.
I spoke to Esperanza this morning and asked her what she would like the West to remember about the genocide. Esperanza told me, “The wounds of hatred stay forever. Please try to build unity. Remember that is has been 25 years, but I don’t ever forget. I try to survive … Remember to love.” On the 25th anniversary of the 100-day genocide, it’s the West’s obligation to bear witness to the wounds of gender-based violence, war and genocide, in Rwanda and beyond. We must also remember the West’s compliancy in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda: how then President Bill Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright refused to intervene even when they knew genocide was taking place, how Canada denied requested reinforcements by their commanding General who was on the ground in Rwanda, how Belgium withdrew its forces after the genocide began, and how France provided weapons to the genocidal militias.
But also, we must remember our continued inaction, and even active participation in gendered-violence globally. To honor Esperanza’s survival, and the death and torture of so many others like her, we have an obligation to declare the sins of our past and strive to prevent such deep wounds from annihilating other communities.
Nicole Fox is in the division of criminal justice at California State University-Sacramento. She studies genocide and the ways that individuals mobilize to interrupt or intervene in violence.