By Olive Mukahirwa

A single candle in the foreground and three candles of different sizes in the background burning in the dark

As Rwanda commemorates 30 years since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, women say rape was used as a special weapon during the violence that lasted 100 days and claimed the lives of approximately 1 million people, displacing many others. The sexual violence led to unwanted pregnancies and a heightened risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Children who were born from the violence have always grappled with the emotional burden of not knowing their fathers. 

Gaudiose Mukandamage recounted the horror she went through during the genocide. “We hid in a church nearby because we thought that the church was a safe place. My whole family was killed in that church. We stayed there for two weeks, hiding in one room – [the perpetrators] came and collected us from that room and took us to a banana plantation. There, they started raping me. One of them took me as a sex object for three days. After the third day, when he went to loot food and property from neighbors, I ran back to the church. Stranded, we were eventually found by [Rwandan Patriotic Front] soldiers who rescued us.” 

After her rescue, Mukandamage learned that she was pregnant. Many years later, she also learned she had been infected with HIV, which continues to impact her health today: “In our family, we were nine children – four girls and five boys. Now, I am the only one left. Despite struggling with poor health for a long time, I didn’t gather the courage to go for voluntary counseling and HIV/AIDS testing until 2000. Encouraged to take the test, I discovered I was positive.” 

Mothers and children affected by wartime rape during the 1994 Rwandan genocide have often faced significant social rejection and family estrangement, and Mukandamage explained that she found it very difficult to face telling her child of her birth origins. But she knew she had to do so, and finally “…one day I called my daughter, and I said to her, ‘You know that many people were killed, many women were raped, during the genocide. Now I want to tell you that during the genocide I was raped, and thereafter I gave birth to you. I don’t know your father because I was raped by many men.’ ” Mukandamage said that her love for her daughter blossomed after she shared her story. 

Mirelle*, another woman from Kamonyi District in southern Rwanda, who requested anonymity, said she still struggles with the emotional wounds caused by the rapes she suffered in 1994. A widow with three living children, she said: “When I was hiding in the forest, I was discovered by the attackers. Those men raped me one by one until I lost consciousness. They left me there, believing me to be dead. Hours later, I awoke to a gentle breeze blowing across my body. I managed to get up and walk to the commune office, where I found people. The authorities claimed that peace had been restored, and that people were safe in the office. Many of those who sought refuge there were later killed, with the men and elderly targeted first. Only young women and baby girls were spared. The Interahamwe [killers] came to us and raped us in front of those young girls. I remember the noise and crying there.” 

Thirty years after the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, Gaudiose Mukandamage and Mirelle say that they are finally speaking out, sharing their testimonies, and allowing experts to help them recover their mental health. But the going is hard. 

Mirelle said, “I have chronic headache and back pain. When I think about what happened to me, I get a severe headache. I feel like wounds are still fresh. Out of eight siblings, I was left with only one younger sister, and she was contaminated with AIDS, and gave birth to a child from rape, but the child died of AIDS later.” 

On April 7, when he launched Rwanda’s week of mourning, President Paul Kagame thanked the survivors. 

“To the survivors among us, we are in your debt. We asked you to do the impossible by carrying the burden of reconciliation on your shoulders. And you continue to do the impossible for our nation, every single day, and we thank you.”