Women and Children First

Survivors of the Rwandan genocide live with horrors and injustices that few Americans seem to care about.

'My baby reminds me of bad things but I love her. She is all I have."Olive Uwera, who lives in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, says she thinks women who are raped in the United States are lucky because usually they don't get AIDS and can still have more children.

"I can't have another child because I'm infected," she says softly, adding that no man would want her because of her disease. She says she hopes to live long enough to see her 7-year-old daughter Isimbi through high school.

"I too am lucky. I was only raped by one person. Other women here have bigger problems. Their husbands and children were killed; the women themselves were gang raped and mutilated and their homes destroyed."

Olive is one of the thousands of women in Rwanda who were raped, sodomized, mutilated and tortured during the country's bloody genocide, which left close to 1-million people dead.

Government officials here estimate that 250,000 women were raped between 1990 and 1994 in Rwanda and that 30,000 pregnancies occurred from these rapes. Social services and women's groups in this Central African nation the size of Maryland say the majority of these women are HIV-positive or fighting full-blown AIDS as a result of the rapes.

"We need medicine for these victims — effective AIDS medicine," says Sylvie Barakagwira, one of the founders of Avega, a nonprofit Rwandan women's group that assists the genocide widows and their children. Mostly funded by foreign charities and private donors, Avega provides counseling and some medical, legal and financial assistance to its 25,000 members.

"Without medicine, these women will die and die soon. Who then will care for their children?" Sylvie asks.

In our part of the world, however, there seems little interest in Avega's members.

Weekly Planet asked three members of Florida's congressional delegation, who serve on Capitol Hill committees with international responsibilities, for comment on the plight of these Rwandan women. Only one of them responded.

Requests for an interview with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were rebuffed by the Democrat's aides.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami), who chairs a House international human rights subcommittee, could not be reached.

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis (D-Tampa), who serves on the House International Relations Committee, said he hopes the American government can help in 2003.

"It is tragic enough that these women were so horrifically brutalized by their attackers, but it is completely heartbreaking to see them victimized a second time by HIV and AIDS," Davis told the Planet. "As a society, we should not turn a blind eye to their suffering."

Congress has been working to authorize more than $1-billion in HIV/AIDS initiatives worldwide, according to Davis. "This coming year, we cannot afford to let those efforts fail again," the congressman said.

Sylvie says no one is willing to donate any advanced AIDS and HIV treatments to Avega. The only free medical treatments reaching the group are for other secondary symptoms AIDS patients succumb to as their immune systems fail. Sylvie says her clients are so desperate for treatment they would volunteer for human drug trials, if only the Western drug makers would accept them as test subjects.

Forty-one-year-old Marie Jose says she thought her case would be different.

She was promised medical care in exchange for her testimony against the men who attacked her. She says she too was infected with HIV when she was gang raped by four men. (Her last name is not being used in this story to comply with the witness protection orders of the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Rwanda.)

"Look at it," she says during an interview, opening her gray business suit to pull out her right breast. Next to the nipple is a round and ugly scar, ragged edged, presumably from a bayonet. Her hands tremble as she buttons up the jacket to cover up her chest again. Her hands then move down onto her lower abdomen pushing violently downwards.

"After they raped me," she continues, as her voice gets louder and angrier, "they held me down and the fourth one stabbed me and pushed sharp objects inside my private areas, mutilating me. And two of my children saw it all."

Unlike many other victims of the gang rapes, Marie Jose thought she would get at least partial justice when one of her attackers was captured and brought before the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. This court is trying the leaders of the genocide, just like the Nazis were prosecuted in Nuremberg after World War II for the Holocaust.

The man Marie Jose says was one of her rapists is Juvenal Kajelijeli, the former mayor of Mukingo Commune in Ruhengeri Prefecture in northern Rwanda — Marie Jose's hometown. Kajelijeli is charged with genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and crimes against humanity, including rape and extermination.

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