Focus on genocide widows dying of HIV/AIDS

Mediatrice Ilibagiza, 38, is a widow and mother of three who, like thousands other Rwandan women, lost her husband during Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

She was also among the hundreds of women who were raped by Hutu militiamen known as the Interahamwe and soldiers of the old army, the Forces armees rwandaises, leaving her infected with HIV/AIDS.

Tutsi women were the main targets of the militia assault that used AIDS as a genocidal weapon, according to Hiraly Mukamazimpaka, the national coordinator of Avega Aghozo.

Avega Aghozo is the umbrella organisation that groups genocide survivor bodies representing up to 25,000 widows. These groups and human rights bodies say that the raping was orchestrated by the leaders of the genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus were killed.

"After killing our husbands, they turned to us. They knew very well that they were infected with the virus and wanted us to experience the same agony," Ilibagiza said.

She has now been living with HIV for nine years. Her skin is scarred and eyes sunken by the disease. The genocide did not only kill, it left in its wake lasting psychological scars on thousands of survivors. So, to many widows of the genocide, theirs is an existence filled with the agony of having lost their husbands and of waiting to die from HIV/AIDS.

A study by Avega Agahozo conducted in three of Rwanda's 12 provinces shows that 66 percent out of the 1,200 widows sampled tested HIV positive. The same statistics – limited because the study could not cover all the provinces due to the lack of money – revealed that the experience of 100 days of killing and raping left 80 percent of the widows traumatised.

"The misery I went through during the genocide is something I will never forget. It cost me half of my family and now my own life," Ilibagiza said as she wiped away her tears.

Meanwhile, she cares for her three biological children and five others adopted from relatives who died during the genocide.

Today 558 of Avega Agahozo's members are living with HIV/AIDS, but the organisation's officials said the numbers could be higher since most widows have been shunning HIV tests.

"It's not until their conditions worsen that they turn up for testing," Rose Musana, the Avega Agahozo official in charge of the project helping these widows, said.

She said the stigma attached to being raped by the Interahamwe had caused many victims to remain silent about their ordeal. "Some of them sacrificed their bodies for the machete and many others were forcefully raped," she said.

Antiretroviral Drugs

The widows are largely overlooked in a country trying to rebuild nine years after the genocide. Only a handful of these women, mostly in the capital Kigali, receive medical care and counseling.

Only 20 of the 585 infected Avenga Agahozo members have access to anti-retroviral drugs, courtesy of a British and a Dutch NGO. As many continue to die of HIV/AIDS related diseases each day, Avega Agahozo continues to seek support to provide anti-retroviral drugs to the living. It has sought the support of donor agencies and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda's Department of Witness Protection and Welfare.

"We have done the lobbying but we seem to be fetching virtually nothing," Musana said.

This means Avega Agahoze can only provide limited support. The tiny dispensary the organisation runs only provides testing, counseling and basic medications to treat opportunistic diseases associated with HIV/AIDS. Ilibagiza is one of the lucky 20 patients who receive anti-retroviral drugs. She started taking her medication a year ago and now feels better.

"I used to fall sick very frequently before I started taking these drugs," Ilibagiza said in her small ramshackle home in a Kigali suburb. "I used to spend most of my time in hospital but this stopped when I received them. I only wish my colleagues could also have access to these drugs."

Ilibagiza's association has built semi-permanent structures to house close to 180 widows but her main problem remains how to get the nutritious foods that doctors have recommended in her battle to extend her life.

Emotionally, the HIV infected widows are hurt by the realisation that those who caused their agony - now undergoing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, -are receiving free HIV/AIDS medication while their victims are denied.

"If we have been denied proper justice why should we receive double injustice by being denied medication? The international community should do something," Ilibagiza said still crying.

Yet, the most painful feeling most of these widows must endure is the knowledge that their children will soon be orphans. Avega Agahozo helps orphans by paying school fees and finding them lodgings. But with their numbers increasing daily, the burden is becoming too great for this small association to bear. Today the centre caters for at least 1,000 children, half of whose mothers are HIV/AIDS infected.