/ 11 April 2024

30 years on, a Rwandan family’s journey to heal from rape

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Young Rwandans hold candles while taking part in a vigil during commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide at the BK Arena in Kigali on April 7, 2024. (Photo by LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images)

Every April, as Rwanda commemorated the 1994 genocide, Agatha would turn off the radio, take to her bed and retreat into a silence so impenetrable that her daughter Agnes once asked if she had been a victim.

The answer, given by her grandmother, left 10-year-old Agnes reeling.

“I cried and immediately started feeling afraid of my mother because I felt like I was a wound on her soul,” recalled Agnes, now 28.

She was told her mother and grandmother were among at least 250  000 women and girls who, according to United Nations figures, were raped by Hutu extremists during the genocide targeting the Tutsi minority. Because of the stigma surrounding genocidal rape, both women’s real names have been concealed at their request.

Raped and abducted by a former schoolmate during the 100 days of bloodshed that left more than 800  000 people dead, mostly Tutsi but also Hutu moderates, Agatha was just 17 when she gave birth.

Fearing reprisals by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front rebel militia that took Kigali in July 1994, her Hutu assailant had forced her to flee with him to Tanzania, where Agnes was born in a refugee camp. He died shortly after.

Agatha’s relatives urged her to kill the infant, but she refused. Yet every time she looked at Agnes, she struggled to choke down grief over her own lost future. 

Discrimination was an everyday affair — including in school, where her Hutu teachers made no secret of their disdain for Tutsi students — but she could never have imagined seeing her father killed before her eyes and his remains flung into a pit latrine by a Hutu neighbour.

When she returned to Rwanda from Tanzania in 1996, Agatha was now “a child with a child”, as she put it. “God raised her, not me. I had no capacity,” said Agatha.

Agnes was shunned by relatives on both sides. Her Hutu relatives called her “a snake”, echoing state propaganda that fuelled the massacres. Her mother’s family said she carried the bloodline of genocide perpetrators. She said she never felt as if she belonged and left home at 16, making ends meet through sex work and waiting tables.

Agnes returned to her village in the eastern Ngoma district in 2018. Her husband left her and their daughter when he discovered that Agnes was “born out of rape”. She remarried and had a second child.

For the next five years, Agnes and Agatha lived in uneasy coexistence, never speaking about their past even as it cast a long shadow over their relationship.

Although Rwanda’s government established community tribunals in 2002, allowing victims to hear “confessions” from genocide perpetrators, the suffering of rape survivors and their children has not been a priority.

Those born of rape — an estimated 20  000 people according to the NGO, Survivors Fund — are not recognised as genocide victims by the government. 

In 2020, the Rwandan chapter of the Geneva-based nonprofit Interpeace began organising workshops to address generational trauma called “Mvura Nkuvure” or “Heal me, I heal you” in Kinyarwanda.

Last year, Agatha agreed to participate in a workshop.

For three months, she didn’t utter a word while others in the group told their stories. She listened intently, and wept every time. She realised the nightmarish images that haunted her did not belong to her alone. Everyone lived with a story they were desperate to forget. 

Soon, Agnes began attending sessions with a different group. At the first gathering in August, she raised her hand to speak and the words poured out of her. For the next several sessions, she talked and talked.

“I immediately felt relief, my heart was lighter because I had said things I was always scared to say.” 

The shame she had carried for years began to lift and with it, so did her anger towards her mother, Agatha. “I realised that whatever she didn’t give me, she didn’t have herself.”

Still, she said she had little hope of repairing ties with her extended family, because they too were affected by the divisions that had riven the nation.

Clenie, the workshop facilitator, said the process was designed to help participants “find common ground”.

“There’s still a long way to go for Rwanda to heal, but we have made some progress.”

With the 30th commemoration of the genocide, Agatha said she felt stronger than she had in years.

“There are images you cannot erase, no matter how hard you try. But I am courageous enough to cope with the bad memories when they come up.”

Some things have already changed.

“I no longer feel sadness when I look at Agnes,” she said. “I only feel love.”