Mfashijwenimana is a child born of rape. But he doesn’t know. His mother, Bertherltide has not had the courage to tell him. He was born out of the multiple rapes she suffered during the 1994 genocide. She named him Mfashijwenimana which means ‘God helps me’. She says she needs all the help she can get, to live with what he represents.
“Recently he asked me some hard questions.’Why don’t you show me my father? Who will pay for my tuition when I pass my primary level exams?’ I told him ‘work hard, you will not lack someone to pay your fees, your grandmother is here and am here.’ He asked me if we could raise the amount needed. I told him, ‘no problem you just work hard,’ Bertherltide says.
Mfashijwenimana is in his third year of school. His mother says he is a good student. When he grows up, the young boy wants to be a teacher. But the older he grows, the more questions he asks, and the more his mother worries.
“It’s too much,” she laments. What can I say? When I think of these things, I get palpitations, if he is asking me such questions young, what of when he is older? What will happen? Sometimes I can’t help wishing he would find out about his father on his own,” she adds.
According to Survivor’s Fund, a global organization working with women like Bertherltide, about 11% of all women living in Rwanda in 1994, particularly Tutsis, were raped. Some were raped several times. The Fund estimates that four women were raped every minute of every day for the 100 consecutive days of the genocide. Bertherltide is one of the approximately 535,000 women that Survivor’s fund says experienced this atrocity and one in ten got pregnant. Some rape victims aborted their pregnancies. Exact figures are hard to find, but the National Population Office estimates there are currently between two and five thousand children born of rape and living in Rwanda.
Few women are willing to admit what happened. Some, Bertheltide admits have considered abandoning their children. “Truly, at some point, I wanted to throw him away but then I thought, why should I throw him away? I gave birth to him. I will look after him. He is my souvenir from the war,” she argues.
Bertherltide tries to be philosophical, but she has more her son to worry about. She is poor and also HIV positive, like 67% of women raped during the genocide, according to Survivor’s fund. Her health is failing. She says she learned of her medical status thanks to the intervention of a social worker, Gaudelive Mukasavasi,
“She is the one who advised me to go for testing, find out my status after all that had happened,” Bertherltide explains. “I was a healthy person but as time went by, I felt increasingly weak. I was already wondering what was happening. I went for testing and they told me. They also told me to try and live with it. But I have never gained the courage to tell my relatives,” she explains.
It is the emotional trauma, shame and fear of rejection, particularly among those with children born of rape that makes it hard for such women to tell even those who are closest to them. As Bertherltide herself attests “I used to live with my elderly mother. I feel so bad that I never sat down and told her what happened and how I came to contract the infection, but she sees it. She notices that I am not as strong as I used to be, I am finished,” she says.
Raising a child born of rape is a difficult task. “Sometimes I feel dead inside, full of despair. Sometimes on radio they discuss these topics and I get shivers. When he does something small to displease me, I beat him up and then I regret it afterwards. I know I am not beating him because of what he has done; it’s because of where he came from,” Bertherltide says as tears fall down her cheeks.
Because she has not told her son or her family the truth and fears being found out, Bertherltide she is not been able to take Mfashijwenimana for HIV testing. Lately, he has been getting sick.
“I went to the doctor, they took some blood and found I had malaria, and they gave me tablets, but the disease came back, I returned and they gave me more tablets, I felt better and I was able to return to school,” he says innocently.
Bertherltide knows it might be more than recurrent malaria. She should take him for testing, but she is afraid. She is also taking care of other children. One more of her own and two others belonging to her sister, a fellow genocide widow. The little support they get from survivor associations provides enough money for school fees. They have a few goats and a cow, but such animals are traditionally kept for milk, or to sell to cover emergency expenses. Apart from that, they have very little to live on.
Gaudelive is hoping to source anti-retroviral medication for Bertherltide.
“It would help,” Bertheltide reckons. “But there is a problem of nutrition. I think you saw for yourself how am living. Sometimes I feel I should just stop taking medicine. I don’t eat very well, the drugs make me weak, but the social worker said there is no problem, she told me to persist and take the drugs even if I feel weak,” she explains.
Gaudelive has won one national and two international awards, for her work with women raped during the genocide. But she says that life is not getting any easier for women like Bertherltide, despite the passage of time.
“Their lives are very hard. Some women who were raped contracted HIV/AIDS. Most have no access to anti retroviral drugs or even medicines for opportunistic infections because they hide what happened and they only discuss it with others like themselves,” Gaudelive points out.
Will these women benefit from the current process of justice, peace and reconciliation? Gaudelive thinks the odds are against it. “Most of them do not know the fathers of their children. Sometimes the men who raped these women are already dead, and some of those who were in prison for it have already been released,” she explains.
Like other rape victims, Bertherltide is expected to testify in the Gacaca process. But she says the justice system has already been a disappointment for her. In 1996, two of the men she accused of raping her were arrested; one died in prison, the other was released in 2003. She complained about the release to the prosecutor, but says that nothing was done about it. As for the future, she is not optimistic about seeing justice done.
“Gacaca is making it worse. They say we must tell the people. The Gacaca book says we must say what happened. Do you think I can stand up and say so and so did such and such to me? How can I say it? Who can I tell it to?” Bertherltide asks bitterly.
“I feel am only ready to tell someone who can help me and advise me, telling it to the rest of the population is useless because today when they see you walking they mock and say ‘that one is finished’, she reckons.
Gaudelive agrees that it is difficult for rape victims to retell their stories in court and for good reason. “At first women who were raped used to testify but nowadays, they don’t want to because nothing happened after their testimony. No one helped them. That’s why it is difficult to tell these women that they should tell it to their neighbors during Gacaca, neighbors who have no training and who cannot help them with their trauma. We tell them to testify but most are not willing,” Gaudelive explains
There are other reasons why rape victims might not trust Gacaca. They fear that some of those people participating in Gacaca are relatives of alleged rapists, or may themselves have betrayed people hiding from the genocide.
“We encourage them to reconcile but it is difficult because of these problems,” Gaudelive says. She argues that more must be done to help such women deal with the challenges they face. Financial assistance would obviously help, but it seems they need more than that just money.
“Justice should go hand in hand with medical care because they have been injured in body and in spirit. Something should be done to help those with children born out of rape deal with the relationship, to accept the children, because most families don’t,” Gaudelive urges.
So what does Bertherltide think about her future and that of her son? “God help him,” she prays. “Maybe he will grow up and buy land, maybe he will stay in school, and we can just go on. Don’t street children survive somehow? In a way, he is also a street child,” she muses.
She says she would benefit from more financial and medical support, but maintains that her biggest challenge will always be her son. “Sometimes I feel as if I will lose my mind. But I take it the way it is. I mean if I hate him who do I give him to? He is mine, where can I take him?” she asks. “I wish I could get a volunteer willing to take him. I would gladly give him away,” she adds.
Children born of rape are very vulnerable. They are often unwanted and unloved. Their mothers are also vulnerable. Many are too sick or too traumatized be to be able to give such children the support they need. Most look for help from the outside world and for many, it’s a question of too little, and often, too late.