On Thursday, I had the privilege of attending a group counselling meeting. It was not planned that way; a group of Canadians was at the centre filming (research for a funding proposal) and they and I were invited to introduce ourselves to the group and the group to us. The plan was that we would then leave and the women were to have their regular counselling session in private, especially because they are a relatively new group, having been meeting for only a few months.
But what happened in reality was that after our introductions to the group, which were translated from English to French to Kinyarwanda (a fairly tedious process)(and for me just French to Kinyarwanda), the women introduced themselves one by one, and each one told us about their lives and about what had happened to them during the genocide. All of the women present are widows with children and all are HIV positive. They range in age roughly, from thirty to forty. Most of them experienced brutal, violent rapes. Most of them lost their husbands and families in horrifying ways. Many never were able to bury them as they would have wished. One woman said she had no more tears to cry and that she didn’t care if she lived or died. Each of these mini stories was translated for us as we watched and listened.
One woman, who I will call Fortuné, made a decision to tell her whole story for the first time. And she told it well. She is about thirty three now and is very beautiful, so I can only imagine her beauty as a girl and young woman. I suspect that beauty was also once a curse.
She began her story talking about her birth in Kigali to two parents, the first child of what would have been a family of five. But a few years after her younger brother was born, her parents separated and the father took a new wife. Her mother lost the baby that she had been carrying and then her brother died as well. The parents spent the remainder of her childhood fighting over who would get her. She was shuttled back and forth from house to house, even stolen, all of which created a lot of confusion and instability for her.
At age fourteen, the house servant, who was her friend, offered to take her away because all this fighting over her was causing Fortuné to suffer. So she agreed and they stole away to another place entirely, far away in another area of Rwanda. But the so-called friend betrayed her and brought her to a man who locked her in a house. Even if there had been any possibility of escape, it wouldn’t have helped, as she had no idea where she was nor where home was. So she was given more freedom. The man, needless to say, raped her repeatedly and she became pregnant. He also beat her frequently. She carried the baby and gave birth to a girl.
Not too long after that, at some point, somehow, she recognized a man from Kigali who was a friend, and through this relationship she was somehow able to escape with her baby and find her way back to Kigali. She eventually found her mother and settled in with her for a short while. But one day, the father of her baby came with some other men and stole the baby from her. She was despondent and suffering as well, since she was lactating and stopping so abruptly made her ill. She went for help and, while out, again, a man took her hostage and locked her up, raping her over and over, as well as being very abusive towards her. I don’t know how long she was in this situation, but not too long.
At some point, she was able to get away from this man, but just then also came the beginning of the genocide. She was pregnant again actually by this second man, but did not know that for quite some time. She was fifteen. After leaving this second man, she returned to her father’s home. One night, militia entered the house and raped her, one after another, while her father was forced to watch. Then they killed her father in front of her and took her away again, again imprisoned as a sex slave. Throughout the genocide, she was passed from one man to another, each one staying with her for one or two weeks. Sometime during the genocide, she realized she was pregnant and she gave birth to another child near the end of the genocide. However, she did not know that she was HIV positive and, indeed, didn’t know that for a long time. She repeatedly told us that she wished she hadn’t left the man who beat her (the second child’s father) as it would have been better than what happened during the genocide.
Finally, Fortuné, at seventeen, was found by a man who was good. She did not love him, but he was nice to her. Over several years, they had four children together, plus the child of the second man. But one day in about 2002, a friend of hers, who had suffered in the same way she had during the genocide, decided to go and be tested for HIV. She was positive. This made Fortuné decide that perhaps she too should be tested, but she was very afraid to go as she did not want her husband to know what she had been through during the genocide. She was so ashamed. She thought he would reject her.
But in the end, she did get tested and was positive. She told her husband and he too was tested, but was negative. She was sure he would leave her. But he did not. He accepted all that she had suffered during the genocide and wanted to stay with her. But Fortuné herself decided to leave him. Why was not clear as he was a good man who treated her very well. Perhaps it was that she did not want him to become ill too. But she did leave him with her children. Perhaps it was the shame of him knowing what she had been through.
During the past few years, she has only had the courage to have two of her children tested for HIV. She did not say if they were positive or not, but since she did not test the others, one can only assume the news was not good.
Through the years, Fortuné continued to look for her lost daughter. She was finally able to find her in 2003, but at that point the father and his family had turned the child against her. The child rejected her completely. But she continued to see the child, affirming her love for the child and telling the story of how they came to be separated from each other. At this time, the child and Fortuné are becoming closer. But as a “widow” with five children, she does not have many options.
Just to read this story is bad enough, but to be present to the pain with which she spoke, the anguish that rose up from somewhere very deep inside her over and over in waves, to hear her heartfelt cries for her mother and for her lost child, the unimaginable shame she felt to have her father witness her multiple rapes, I (and everyone else in the room) could not help but share her anguish, her shame, her sorrow as she relived her past as a fifteen year old girl again. Our tears flowed freely with hers. And somehow, what arose from this deep sorrow was some relief and some peace. Fortuné reasserted that she had never told the genocide part of this story to anyone, and was only able to do it that day because she was with friends who were present for her. She left, I am sure, lighter, filled with the certainty that she had not been rejected yet again. That she was not just accepted but loved.
She was smiling and able to give and receive hugs.
I feel very privileged to have borne witness to the very heart of the group counselling that goes on here at Tubahumurize. Each one of these women arrives here alone and suffering. Each one is able to share her deepest burdens with the group, in her own time and way. And each is growing in previously unimaginable ways. The women support one another, as each person is at a different stage, and all of them have been through similarly horrifying experiences. I don’t know what will happen to Fortuné in the long run, but I do know that she is now on a new stage of her journey. She knows that she is no longer alone.