[I’m currently in Rwanda and tomorrow headed to the DRC with a delegation from the Nobel Women’s Initiative. I’ll be posting brief reflections here where possible]
Kigali, Rwanda – In December 1990, the Rwandan Hutu-supremacist paper Kangura published The Ten Hutu Commandments. The first three:
1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who
-marries a Tutsi woman
-befriends a Tutsi woman
-employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or a concubine.
2. Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?
3. Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.
The politicization of women’s bodies, and female sexuality and reproductive capacity in particular, to serve an agenda of ethnic supremacy and later to facilitate a genocide isn’t unique to Rwanda, but this country provides an illustrative case. (Background on the Rwanda genocide here and timeline here).
Hutu power propagandists widely imaged Tutsi women as both sexually promiscuous and sexually mysterious, as whores for politicians and military men but also attractive and sexually skilled. Propagandists appealed to the masculine pride of Hutu men by portraying Tutsi women as haughty and thinking of themselves as “too good” for sexual relationships with Hutus. The supposed inaccessibility of Tutsi women to Hutu men made rape a powerful instrument of humiliation, debasement, degradation and torture. Hutu men who married Tutsi women were just as suspect at Tutsis themselves, since Tutsi women were enemies of the state, and infiltrating Hutu structures by marrying Hutu men.
Three years and one month after the publication of the Hutu Ten Commandments, Brig. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Rwanda, sent what’s now known as the “genocide fax“: A warning to his superiors in New York that a plan to exterminate Tutsis was underway, and he needed support to counter it.
His warnings were received by the United States, Belgium and France, but ignored.
Three years and four months after the publication of the Ten Hutu Commandments, the interahamwe Hutu militia and the Rwandan Armed Forces set up road blocks across the country, and went from house to house raping, torturing and slaughtering Tutsis and anyone perceived as a Tutsi sympathizer.
UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping forces in the country, did little; when ten Belgian soldiers were killed in the first days of the genocide, Belgium withdrew its troops from UNAMIR. The United States, France and Belgium pulled all their citizens out of Rwanda, but brought no Rwandans with them. Two weeks after the genocide began, UNAMIR cuts its forces from 2,500 to 270.
In a three month period, close to a million Rwandans were brutally murdered. Enormous numbers of women were raped; most were killed afterwards, but some were spared, often to later find out they were infected with HIV or pregnant with their rapist’s child. Rape was a crucial tool of both torture and genocide, of debasing a population and of destroying a minority group.
Today, twenty years after the genocide, categories of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” — existing in some relatively benign form before colonialism, but formalized by the Belgians as intentionally economically and socially divisive — are taboo to speak about, with the government emphasizing that everyone is simply Rwandan. Rwanda today has one of the lowest levels of gender-based violence in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 60 percent of Parliamentarians are women. The country is a one-party state with almost no tolerance of political opposition; it’s also made astounding progress on women’s health and rights, among other development goals. Reconciliation in Rwanda means asking forgiveness and forgiving. It also means many women live side by side with their rapists.
“All the people are still [living with the aftermath of] genocide,” Godeliève Mukasarasi, a Rwandan genocide survivor who works with other survivors, told our delegation through a translator. “Even those who are raped, even those whose mothers were killed, all those people are living in the same areas [as the interahamwe]. Some of the interahamwe who killed people went to jail, but they got out and live with the people they raped. You cannot say genocide ideas have stopped. [Rape survivors] are still looking at those people who raped them and killed [their families]. You have to try to accept and to live with them.”