Monday, November 8, 2004
Photojournalist Kimberlee Acquaro, whose work appears on the Committee on Conscience Web site as an online exhibition, shows some of her work from five trips to Rwanda, where she interviewed and photographed Rwandan women. Joining Kimberlee is Norah Bagarinka, a Rwandan survivor of the genocide, who worked on women’s issues both before and after the genocide. She relates some her own story and discusses the challenges and triumphs of Rwandan women today.
BRIDGET CONLEY: We are pleased to have Kimberlee and Norah here with us today. We had the opportunity to work with Kimberlee on a photo essay of her pictures for an online expedition. She should us some of her photos and we immediately said, yes, we’d love to work with you. We’d always hoped to plan some time when she could come and talk about her photographs, and are very happy that she is here today. Kimberlee has an incredible passion for and concern with this story in particular: The story of what women in Rwanda suffered and how they have really triumphed afterwards.
And we are doubly honored to have Norah Bagarinka with us. We’ll learn more about her story later when she presents and talks about what happened to women during the genocide. Norah was a women’s rights activist before the genocide. She survived and continues to work on women’s issues today. And she will be giving us a much broader picture of what’s going on in Rwanda today.
Without further introduction from me, I’d like to turn the table over to Kimberlee first. And she’ll walk us through some of her photographs and you can hear some of the stories of these incredible women that she got to meet in one of the--how many trips, have you made?
KIMBERLEE ACQUARO: Five.
BRIDGET CONLEY: Five trips to Rwanda. So, we will go ahead and get started, then.
KIMBERLEE ACQUARO: Thank you. Just as an introduction--I made, I’m probably telling you all something that you know, but the genocide in Rwanda was ten years ago this year. And in 100 days in a country basically the size of Maryland or New Jersey, as many as 1 million and at least 800,000 people were killed. And that was at the hands of friends and neighbors; of colleagues; godparents; relatives. The methodology of the killing was particularly horrifying.
The country was left 70 percent women. And those women had not only the unbearable burden, but suddenly, out of the ashes, an incredible opportunity to change their plight and to change the fabric, the culture of Rwandan society and to dramatically alter women’s roles in the country. It is astounding just to look at anyone that survived the genocide and lost what they lost, and to see them get up in the morning, much less do what these women are doing.
Just as an example, before the genocide, boys outnumbered girls in school by nine to one. Now, boys and girls are in school in equal numbers. Before the genocide, only about six percent of the students that graduated from college in Rwanda were female. Now, as many as 50 percent of the students on Rwandan campuses are women. And before the genocide, about five percent of the government was female; now the government, the local leadership--the local government in Rwanda is 30 percent. And the parliament is nearing that number, at least 25 percent of the parliament is female. And, by contrast, the U.S. state and Senate is about 15 percent female.
Generally, in wartime, women move into some positions that are vacated by men when the men go off to fight. But as the men come back and the population equalizes, the roles--the women seem to fall back into their more traditional roles. And, yet, in Rwanda ten years later, their progress continues. This is against sort of all odds and with many obstacles and challenges. But also with the help of a government who recognized that they can’t afford to ignore what was, initially, 70 percent of their population’s contribution.
At the same time, these women have had to overcome traditional attitudes. The first lady of Rwanda, Jeanette Kagame, said to me, laws are easier to change than attitudes are. It is not just men’s attitudes, women, too, have had to realize that it’s their right, not a privilege, but their right to take part in these processes that govern their lives, the decision-making processes. And it’s difficult, as Norah can tell you more about, for women to kind of confront their own ingrained attitudes about their roles.
As much as it is an opportunity, it is a tremendous burden, because women are dealing with an unspeakable loss and grief and trauma from the genocide. They’re also dealing with abject poverty. Because so many men were killed, women lost their husbands, their brothers, their sons, their fathers. And the men were the main, if not the only, breadwinners in the family.
And women are also dealing now with the scourge of AIDS. So many of them, because they were raped during the genocide and they now have AIDS and many of them have passed it on to their children. And just now, eight to ten years later, these women are starting to die. And, so, the genocide’s death toll continues to rise, even today.
We will start with the pictures and tell you some stories. This is a picture from a memorial and it’s from a school in which 92 of the 150 school children were killed in the genocide. After the genocide, they decided to make this school a memorial. There are about 12 little buildings; little schoolrooms, all in very neat little rows, and you open the door to the first one and you see tables, just lined with the skeletal remains of bodies and they’re left as they were found; and, so, they’re in varying positions and it’s breathtakingly sad.
You think that it’s all you can bear. You see a couple, the skeleton of one wrapped around the other. Or a mother with a baby cradled in her arms; or someone with a wedding ring on or still a crucifix or parts of their clothing. Little children. And then you open the door to another and there are more. And you just keep going, another and another and another; and that’s just a tiny fraction of the people that were killed in one area in Rwanda.
Many of the memorials are in churches that were left as they were found. Thousands of people were killed in churches because it was a strategy of the genocide to encourage people to go to the churches to tell the Tutsis and moderate Hutus to go to the churches so that they could be rounded up in one place and more easily exterminated. You walk into churches full of bones, but also you see a school book; a pot that someone used to cook dinner; a bracelet; a family photograph; the things that people brought to that place, to try to sort of maintain their life and hold onto their lives. Just the remnants of the real everyday lives of these people. I’ve heard that more people were killed in churches than in any other place in Rwanda during the genocide.
The first young woman that we’ll meet is named Adelphine. When the genocide ended, she was 10 years old, she had seen her father killed by the Interahamwe in their own home. Her mother was taken away, disappeared. They learned later on that she’d been killed. Her mother left behind Adelphine, who is the oldest of five. The youngest was less than a year old and still nursing.
The children survived the genocide and were sent to an orphanage where they lived for two years until it closed. And when it closed, they had no where to go. So, Adelphine, at 12, moved her family--took her family, her four siblings--back to their village. They found their childhood home; she moved them back into their childhood home and began caring, all by herself, for her family.
She had no living male relatives to challenge her right to the home, so she was able to move into it. Because, at the time, women did not have the right to inherit their homes, their properties and even their own children if the in-laws of the family wanted them. But because she had no living male relatives to challenge her, she was able to move the family back into their home. And since then, Rwanda has legislated many women’s rights, including the inheritance law. And, so, women now have equal rights to finances, to home, to property, which is very important.
And in their lives, this young girl, who’s now 20, but since she was 12 has been raising her brothers and sisters by herself, you find these universal moments: she was teaching her youngest brother to tie his shoes.
This is the family at breakfast. Adelphine gets up; gets them all ready to go to school; she insists that they go to school, because she said her parents told her that school is the only future that you have. She had to stop school. The genocide interrupted her schooling and she couldn’t afford to go back and she couldn’t leave the children; someone had to be the mother and that was 12-year-old Adelphine.
Here, the boys are doing their homework. They learn in English, French and Kinyarwanda; English, just since the genocide ended, before, it was primarily French. And Adelphine said that she does her best to help them with their homework, but now the oldest boy has learned more than she learned in school.
Here they are bathing, they just have a spout outside of the home; but they’re just meticulous about their appearance and their care. And she makes sure, as they walk out the door, she smoothes their skirts, she says just like her mother used to do with her.
They don’t have a lot of time for leisure, but many of the neighborhood children come and congregate in Adelphine’s home and it’s really a joyful place. There are children running around and they’re raising chickens and they are digging up sweet potatoes. I asked her how she ate after the genocide ended. And she said, it was very difficult; they would go out into the fields and try to find an old abandoned field and maybe find some beans to dig up and eat that were left over. Now, Adelphine is in tailoring school and making a little bit of money from tailoring. She said she often has to miss school because she goes and carries bricks. And it’s an astounding sight. You see these young girls with stacks of bricks--1-, 2-, 3-feet high on their heads and they make, maybe, 70 cents a day to do that. She somehow has to feed her family and make sure that they get to school.
The next young woman, is Mary, FiFi, as she was affectionately known by her friends. Mary was 16 during the genocide and she went to the local Prefecture office where she hoped she would be protected. But not only was she not protected, the Interahamwe came -- led by a young man here named Shalom. This was in Butare, which is the main university town in Rwanda. The Tutsis were gathered at the Prefecture office and Shalom, who was heading the local Interahamwe came. Under the supervision of his mother, who was, at the time, the Minister of Women and Family, her name is Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, and under her supervision, picked girls to be taken and raped, over and over and over and over again. And those that resisted were killed.
Mary was taken with a bunch of girls, gang raped repeatedly; but survived the genocide. She found out, though, in about 1999 that she had AIDS. And on my last visit to Rwanda on Valentine’s Day in 2003, Mary died from AIDS. She couldn’t afford the $60 a month it takes to get the medication.
Before she died, she lived, for a while, in a little shed behind some relatives? house. But these people, because she had AIDS, wanted almost nothing to do with her. And there would be days where she would be there, alone, too sick to move and no one would come check on her, bring her food, bring her water. However, she had a friend who we’ll see in a moment, who would come and from quite far away to visit her and try to help her. They met during the genocide; they went through the same experiences. They lost their families and they became like sisters. And Chantal would come with her children and take care of Mary. Eventually, moved Mary to a home near her own so that she could be there for her and was with her until her very last breath.
You see so many women in Rwanda taking their loss and, instead of wallowing in it, using their pain to say, I don’t want other women to suffer, and giving back to other women. And before Mary moved near her friend Chantal, she told me that even though she didn’t die during the genocide, she thought that before she even died of AIDS, she would die of loneliness and sadness. But her friend Chantal saved her from that fate.
This is Mary again. A large percentage of Rwanda was and is Christian, about 85 percent and about 15 percent is Muslim. And the Muslims, during the genocide, actually protected their congregations much more than the Christians did. But Mary felt salvation, she said, in church, where she would go every day that she could get up and pray.
This is a woman, Specioze, who worked for the government. She was pregnant with her third child when she lost her husband during the genocide. Her husband actually disappeared. There is some talk that he participated in the genocide and left. But she continued raising her three children. Her youngest daughter, who she was pregnant with when her husband disappeared, often asked who was my father? Specioze said to me, I don’t know if I can answer that, even in my own heart. Not that she doesn’t know who the man is, but who is he inside? She’s uncertain, like so many people are, because during the genocide many people turned on their relatives. They may have saved one Tutsi family member and killed 20 others.
This photograph is of another woman, Liberata, who also contracted AIDS during the genocide. I think she had 16 children and only one of them survived.
This is Joseline. Joseline was 17 during the genocide. Her parents were killed, most of her brothers and sisters were killed. She survived, came back. She said she was hiding in the swamps for so long to escape death that her legs grew scales, like frogs. And when finally they couldn’t stay in the swamps anymore because they were so hungry they thought they would die of hunger. They decided to come out even though they knew there was a good chance they would be killed. When they came reached the roadside, she said it was perfectly quiet, there was not a soul around. They didn’t know it, but the country had been liberated.
So, Joseline made her way back to her village and she found nothing. She said she had families of about 100 people, but in every home she turned to, there was no one and she was told that they had all been killed.
She began putting her life back together. She met and married another young man, a survivor. And when the new Rwandan government began the local elections at the village levels, Joseline campaigned. She had only a primary school education and she was running against people who were much more educated than she was. But she was elected head of development in her village. She said that of the six people under her, some of them even have university degrees, but most of them at least have a secondary school education. Yet, she’s head of development in her village. That’s her assistant in the background.
She’s here with her husband who is a new Rwandan man. He helps take care of the children. He helps her do everything, she says, because the community’s chosen her and even if he wanted to, because they’ve chosen her, he can’t say no. And so, he’s actually very involved at home, which is, as Norah can say is very unusual for Rwandan man, even now.
And here Joseline is showing me the pictures of her family that was killed in the genocide. And this is her husband, with her youngest daughter. It’s actually wonderful to see. I have a 10-month old son, and Norah, since she’s been visiting in the United States, has seen how engaged my husband is with my son, has remarked constantly that you just don’t see that in Rwanda and how wonderful it is.
And this is Joseline’s youngest baby, Christian. She told me that she really has hope for the future. She believes that Rwanda can be a different place and that her children can grow up and she expects them to grow up to be important people in Rwanda, both the girls and the boys.
This is Chantal, who cared for Mary. Chantal has three children now; in this picture she only had two. She has since had another little boy. And Chantal was raped at the same time, by the same people who raped Mary. And she was afraid to go for the AIDS test for years and years. But, recently, Rwanda has authorized if not ordered--have they ordered the doctors?
NORAH BAGARINKA: Yes, it’s a law that every pregnant woman shall be tested.
KIMBERLEE ACQUARO: Every pregnant woman is tested for the HIV virus and they’re working on also making the drugs available to pregnant mothers so they don’t pass it on to their children. So, Chantal was tested and she found out that she does not have AIDS.
think that what so many women said to me, when they were taking on all of these tasks--they’re still doing the tasks of the mother; the wife, the sister; the woman, but they’re also taking on the tasks that the men had primary responsibility for, for generations. And many of them do it. As Norah pointed out, many of them do it because they don’t have a choice, there’s no one else there to do it.
The population has equalized, it’s slightly more women than men now, but they began doing these things, putting their lives back together, taking what was left of their lives, rebuilding and taking what was left of the country, reconciling it, because they want peace. They want their children to want--to know peace. They want their children to be raised not as Hutu and Tutsi, but as brother and sister, as Rwandans.
One of the women that I met, Josephina, saw her seven children killed. They left her for dead. They threw her in the latrine and then threw the bodies of her seven daughters on top of her. Someone was running by and noticed in the latrine and it was Josephina; she was alive. And the pulled her from the latrine and she said she was drenched in the blood of her daughters; none of them lived.
She went to a shelter and lived for a while. And there, the nuns were taking care of orphans. And she met and developed a very special relationship with a little three-year-old girl, named Jane. And when she decided to leave the shelter, she decided to take Jane with her. Jane is a Hutu and the Hutus had killed her family. But she, Jane, is innocent. I said, Jane is really lucky to have you. And she said, no, I’m lucky to have Jane.
These are the kind of things that the women in Rwanda are doing; not just politically, but personally. They’re taking in orphans. Many of the women who are dying of AIDS will take in orphans from their friends who died. And when they die, their children will pass on to the next one. So, in personal ways, as well as in very important political ways, women are redefining their roles in Rwanda and changing the country.
One of the most--it’s hard to say the most impactful, but something that really moved me in Rwanda was a woman that I met named Severa. Ahe also had seven children, they were all killed in front of her. Her husband was killed in front of her. She was spared, but only to be raped for months by the Interahamwe, and then left for dead. They macheted her and they threw her in the river. She said the water washed her up on the shores and left her there. She didn’t care if she lived or died. She moved up to a house that was the home of a Hutu family, not caring what they would do to her. They took her in; they gave her something to cover herself and they said you can stay in our home. We have to go because the RPF, which is the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi Army that ended the genocide, was coming and they had to run. She said I don’t know if they were good or bad, I don’t know what they did during the genocide, but they were kind to me and they saved me.
The RPF Army found her. She went to a shelter and about a month later discovered she was pregnant from the rapes. When you think it can’t get bad, it just gets worse. She thought she wanted to remove the child, she said, but she just couldn’t do it. She said that this child was innocent. And she had her baby, she had a little girl. She told me at first it was so difficult for me, but when she started smiling at me, I fell in love with her. They have the closest, most special relationship and she named her daughter Akimana, which means child of God.
These are the things that these women in Rwanda are doing, you know, in both big and small ways that are really, I think, the hope for this country.
BRIDGET CONLEY: If anyone wants a chance to look at the photographs more closely you can see them on our website. One of the things that first drew us to Kimberlee’s photographs was seeing the dignity of the women and how she captured them. Maybe in the question and answer, we can get a little bit more of the stories of how she went around Rwanda, how she found the women and some of those.
But we have also want to hear from Norah Bagarinka, who, as I said, is a survivor herself. And she’s going to speak more generally about the conditions that women suffered and what they’re doing now. So, Nora, please.
NORAH BAGARINKA: Thank you. As you told I’m one of the genocide survivors and sometimes I wonder why was I spared? Why did God spare me? What did I give to be alive today? Because so many powerful, intelligent women, who are mightier than me had to face death and they were not spared. But I was spared.
Later on I have realized that God had a higher purpose for me. There are other vulnerable women who are more than vulnerable than myself and we who are a bit stronger than them, I think we have had to stand up and speak for them. To be there for them. So, each woman has her own story to tell. All different stories, horrific stories.
Like what Kimberlee was telling you, each one has their own story. It is many women, if they can tell their own stories, you can’t believe it because it’s really a horrific--
You could pass many days without food. It is said that a woman can last seven days without food, but, I think we lasted more than that. You could feed on--I don’t know how they call it in the proper English, but could get, like, a little water from the grass and then mix with clay and then you feed on that so that you could survive.
At the end, I couldn’t imagine that I would be really a human being again. And I asked God, please, why can’t I die like others? Why am I alive? Because you could just escape very narrowly, you could just pass a small distance and the person behind or in front of you would be killed, there you are yourself. You don’t know why you’re spared. But I think God, as I said, had a purpose and women have come up and have challenged the problems. And we are working, we are doing great wonders.
Women now are involved in different sectors of leadership. They are from the grassroots level to the top. I was lucky to work with women organizations. I can say I was lucky to have some education that I could help my fellow women who are not educated who are vulnerable in different ways. Some are traumatized. Others, I assist are in poverty, which is a very, very high rate. But they survive as you have seen of these women in the pictures, like women go forward and they go into politics. They go into local leadership. They do different activities, like they stand in for others.
As Kimberlee was saying, most of the women were raped, because rape was used as one of the war tools. And each--women now, most of them, they live in villages; they live near to neighbors. Some women organizations have established villages. And what they do, they provide building materials and women help each other to build one--a neighbor’s house. When it’s completed, then they start on the next one.
But on the other hand, if one of the women dies, there’s no one to care for the orphans that she’s been caring for. So, what happens, the women share the children and they take care of them as their own. They continue no matter what. They know that tomorrow maybe they won’t last for a year, but we are moving. We have motivation. We want to make a change. We want to teach our children that what happened will never be done again.
There are a lot of challenges, like one of the women you saw with a small baby, Joseline, she was elected as one of the development leaders in her village. She has managed to pull all women together and they made a road, maybe 10 kilometers or 20 kilometers, with their own hands which would join all of them with a city, whereby women can take their vegetables and sell their commodities, which would be short way to go there.
Because after the war, there was no one. The Hutus had run away and most of the Tutsis were killed. So after the genocide, when she came back, it was bare and then when the Hutus came back, most of them of men were [unintelligible] or taken to prison and it was only women. So Joseline motivated all women whether they were Hutus or Tutsis, they came together and you could find, amazingly, working hand-in-hand making that road. They have now a hospital and a road through their own negotiations without men. Which is really a change.
Many women from different parts of Rwanda, they have different ways of helping one another. We have women in different sectors. As you have heard, we have some 30 percent in the parliament. We have some women who are leaders, who are leading different women’s organizations, those some who have little education, but they do whatever they can so that they can face the challenges and they can help their fellow women.
Also, women are involved in the local, local courts. We have a local court called the gacaca, which is a court in the village whereby they have help each other to solve their own problems. And the genocide perpetrators, most of them are going to be judged in that court. So,you find a big number of women have gone forward to be elected to be the judges.
I was lucky because I was working with women organizations and was one of the people helped to do the training for the judges. So, women, when I would ask of them, how do you feel, if they bring someone who has killed your family and you judge him? They say, we have to judge him accordingly, because he has to be punished for what he has done. So, women whether Hutu or Tutsi, they are ready to come forward and resolve their own cases. And I think, through that system, we hope that unitization can come forward, though it’s not easy--it’s very hard but we are trying. Thank you, very much.
BRIDGET CONLEY: I imagine there must be a lot of questions from the audience. We open the floor to you now, if you want to ask. I’m going to take advantage of being the moderator and ask the first. I wonder if either of you could speak to some of the organizations? I mean, we talked about women taking roles in leadership positions, but, also, then in local ways that women are doing it. But one of the things I wonder if either of you could speak a little bit more about are some of the ways women are also organizing into larger organizations. AVEGA of course, is a strong example, but you probably know of others, as well.
NORAH BAGARINKA: Yeah, we have others. Actually, there is a big one called Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe. It is an umbrellas of different small women organizations. I think they are 36 organizations under Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe and they have different ways of working. Some work on the human rights issues, others work towards to help the women who are left to doing the [unintelligible] survivors. Others work for the children’s rights. So each organization, how can I say that in English, do not compete with each other, because there are 36 major women organizations working as part of Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe.
And there are others, more than the 36, but the 36 are the major ones, like, as I say, under Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe. It is run as a women’s network which helps women who are victims of sexual violence. They provide counseling; they provide medicine for HIV; they provide small income generating programs for women.
There is another one called the [indecipherable], which helps basically the HIV victims by counseling, also, and by providing medicine and providing shelter. Because there’s a lot of victimization. People don’t understand, because of the culture sometimes they don’t comprehend, they think that an HIV person should be victimized, it’s her own fault why she had it. So they try to take the community and the Christian to work hand-in-hand.
There’s also [indecipherable], which is an organization which provides counseling. They have a hotline whereby, which came up very recently, whereby survivors, different survivors can phone in and putting forward their problems so they can be helped.
They work on very small scale because of problems that we have. We don’t have enough to cover for every woman around the country, but they work hand-in-hand so they can help. Actually, you find most of the organizations are in the capital city. Whereas in the villages, it’s very hard for women to come forward and maybe for testing because they fear what will happen next. The feel that, if I go for testing and I don’t get medicine, I just worry and die. And they fear that they will be stigmatized because if they know she has HIV then she will be an outcast to the community. So, you find that, in the village it needs a lot of sensitization. It needs a lot of training so that people can come forward. And, also, it needs clinics to be established today because women have to walk a long, long way to come to the clinic.
AVEGA, it’s one of the big organizations, has tried to much to help women here and there, but still it’s not enough. I think you can help me if you have some more.
KIMBERLEE ACQUARO: AVEGA is probably the biggest women’s organization in Rwanda started by, run by and for women survivors of the genocide. They’re very involved politically. From the bottom to the top, they’re involved with basic care. Counseling is brand-new to Rwanda. Before the genocide, they didn’t have counseling like we have here. They had very large extended families, and that’s how you worked out your problems. But after the genocide, there was no one left; no one to turn to. Norah told me that a woman came to her just recently and said, will you help me cry? I haven’t been able to cry for ten years. And so, the women brought counseling in and started helping each other.
Severa, the woman I told you about who was raped and who had the baby and named the child Akimana, told me that the counseling is what helped her decide to keep her baby and then it’s what helped her come to terms with raising her child. And she said, when the genocide ended, she felt like a mad woman. She was so traumatized. But that through the counseling, having other women who shared the same experiences, she was able to work through it. And now, she doesn’t have nightmares; she doesn’t wake up in sweat. She, you know, doesn’t jump when she hears a machete outside in the grass. And that’s all attributed to what these women have done. They’ve created the network to replace someone that they lost.
One of the other things about the rape survivors that’s incredible is that they’re coming forward and they’re speaking about their experiences. There still is a lot of stigmatization in Rwanda. Even though these women were raped--and, like, Mary, who died of AIDS -- it was her first and only sexual experience, being raped during the genocide. She said to me that all she ever wanted was to be a wife and mother and that’s something that she would never get.
Many rapes survivors who lived and who don’t have AIDS won’t get that either, because of the stigmatization towards rape survivors. Chantal is one of the lucky ones to marry and have a husband and family. But these women are, in spite of that, they’re coming forward and they’re willing to come forward now through the gacaca courts which are prosecuting the local people who committed genocide. These women are willing to come forward and speak about their experience.
One of the things that Norah has been doing is training the judges in the court to help the women in these cases to support them. And, not only in these courts, but in the ICTR, which is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where the leaders of the genocide are being tried. It’s sort of like the Hague for Rwanda. AVEGA, this organization, also supports these women through that whole process.
I just want to add a footnote to Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the woman who was the Minister of Women and Family, who ordered the rape of all of these women is now on trial at the ICTR for rape as a war crime and for genocide. And she’s the first woman ever tried for genocide or rape as a war crime and only the second person ever tried for rape as a war crime. It’s a new and very important legislation internationally. The first person to be indicted for rape as a war crime was a Rwandan mayor. That precedent has allowed this charge to go to the Hague and to other areas where war crimes are being prosecuted. And so, just an individual who committed rape isn’t prosecuted, but the leaders who allow it, who don’t stop it, who order it. And that’s very important in addressing this issue in war and women’s treatment in war.