Twelve years on, HIV-positive genocide survivors still suffering

Rwanda marked its 12th Liberation Day since the 1994 genocide on Tuesday with calls of "never again", but thousands of women who were brutally raped in the 100 days of terror have an enduring reminder of their torment - the HI virus.

"Two years ago, after falling sick several times, I went for an HIV test, which turned out to be positive," said the widowed Marie-Therese Mutoni (not her real name), in the capital, Kigali. "This burden ... does not allow me to forget those days when the Interahamwe [militia from the majority Hutu ethnic group] were going around our village raping us and killing our families." Close to one million people were massacred.

Although the statistics vary, there is no doubt that rape was commonly and deliberately used to intimidate members of the minority Tutsi community and liberal Hutus. According to survivors, spreading HIV/AIDS was often deliberate, and not limited to women - men were sometimes forced to have sex with women known to be HIV-positive.

"These rapists would tell the women that they wanted them to die slowly, so the killing would continue long after the actual genocide had stopped," said Peter Turyahikayo, of the Rwanda Women's Network (RWN), which has been assisting women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence since 1997.

"The effects of HIV/AIDS are far-reaching," Turyahikayo said. "We have thousands of AIDS orphans in this country, and the burden of care falls to their families. Rwanda is a very poor country - these people have no land to till to give them food, and they cannot afford to take on so many children."

RWN has helped build or reconstruct 110 homes across the country for families affected by the genocide, and has set up 20 homes in a "village of hope" in Kagugu, on the outskirts of Kigali.

Its programmes assist HIV-positive people, widows and women looking after children orphaned by the pandemic or genocide. Some are the wives of imprisoned men accused of participating in the genocide, or "genocidaires". Despite their differences, the women are trying to build a better future for their children in a country free of division.

"Whoever was not killed in this war was wounded in one way or another - the genocide has affected the killed and their killers, because all their families were left destitute," Mutoni said. "This Rwanda Women's Network helps us to share our anguish and the effects of our angry past."

The only hope for the elderly, often forced to look after AIDS or genocide orphans, is handouts from the government and charities. "I am looking after five grandchildren - my son and daughter both died of AIDS," said Rose Nsabimana (not her real name), an elderly widow at Kagugu. "We are lucky to have found shelter, but I don't know how I am going to put these children through school."

Rwanda is a tiny, overpopulated country with little arable land and the options for income-generation by the largely unskilled population of eight million are severely limited. "Our biggest problem is that we have nothing to do that can help us make enough money to send the kids to school, as well as feed and clothe them," Nsabimana said.

The Network and other agencies are teaching genocide survivors dressmaking, beadwork, carpentry and other skills to enable them to have a better income, but the market is small. RWN does not have a shop in the city, and the necklaces and dressing gowns gather dust while they wait for occasional visitors to the village to buy them.

Nevertheless, the women in the village are among a tiny minority benefiting from such projects. Other groups, like the UK-based Survivors Fund (Surf) and Avega Agahozo, an umbrella organisation for genocide widows, are also fighting for the rights of HIV-positive women in Rwanda, but the problem is huge.

Surf is running a five-year programme, with support from the British government's Department for International Development, to provide antiretroviral (ARV) medication to some 2,500 women, but estimates that up to 7,000 need it.

"Apart from treatment, these HIV-positive women, who were raped, need specialised counselling to enable them to live normal lives in society. Many bore children from the rape and cannot even bring themselves to look at them - they are a daily reminder of their attackers," said Turyahikayo. "The women also need socioeconomic support so they can become self-sufficient and stop depending on us and others for survival."

RWN runs the Polyclinic of Hope, a centre for women survivors of gender-based violence, which has a voluntary counselling and testing centre, and offers free medical services, ARVs, psychosocial support and trauma counselling.

"It is more convenient for our clients to come to the clinic for treatment than to go to the government's clinics - the staff know them and they are less likely to be stigmatised," Turyahikayo pointed out. "Their history is already known by the clinic, so they are spared the indignity of reliving their nightmares."

Most women who suffered sexual violence cannot bring themselves to talk about it - they internalise their pain and, as a result, the virus remains undiagnosed, often leading to a premature death from preventable AIDS-related illnesses.

Turyahikayo stressed the need for more facilities allowing women to have some semblance of a normal life, saying, "We can't change our history, but we have to find a way to live positively despite it.