April the 7th, 2009, was the fifteenth anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. Within 100 days, it took the lives of about 800,000 people. Between 250,000 and 500,000 girls and women were raped, and many of them were infected with HIV. Israeli photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik interviewed rape victims who became pregnant by their abusers - and he founded an organisation to help them and their children.
How did you get onto this topic with the children?
It all began in 2006. I was travelling in East Africa to do a story for Newsweek magazine. The story related to the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the first HIV infection. One of the topics involved the Rwandan women who were raped during the genocide and infected with HIV. It was all about rape and HIV as weapons of war. One woman told us what she went through during the genocide, how her whole family was murdered, and bit by bit she told us of the multiple violent rapes she suffered and contracted HIV as a result. But in the interview she also told us that she became pregnant from the rapes and had borne a son.
Then it became clear to me that this couldn’t be an isolated case. It had to be a widespread phenomenon. For me, that interview was the most horrific experience of my life, I was very shocked. That’s when I decided to come back and pursue the topic.
What is the situation of those women and children today?
My research showed that at least 20,000 children were born as a result of rape during the genocide. That’s incredible! So today there’s a whole generation of children in Rwanda who are growing up with this mixed identity and with very complex relationships to their mothers, and they have to deal with this stigma. Of course the same is true of their mothers, who suffer the consequences of what they went through. They are traumatised on several levels: in their memories of what they experienced, but also every day anew through the stigma of rape, of HIV infection, and on top of that, they have borne children of the enemy militia. They are entirely isolated, because in Rwanda, rape is considered a severe shame. They live alone and get no help.
How did you get these women to break the silence?
I returned to Rwanda often and was able to win their trust. I recorded their stories and took photos of the women with their children. They want the world to hear about their fate. They feel that no one is interested in them, that no one will care for them, and that no one knows about this catastrophe.
The women were very thankful that I came to them, a stranger, to publicise their stories outside of Rwanda. But I had to promise them to say nothing in Rwanda itself. They didn’t want the people in their villages to find out - even though many knew it already.
You always took pictures of the women together with their children. What kind of relationship do these women have to the children?
There are many layers. Many women considered suicide when they discovered they were pregnant. They thought that what they had experienced could create only a monster, not a human being. But they didn’t know how to do it and decided to abandon the child or kill it after it was born. No one knows how many women actually did that. But the women I found decided in the end to bring up the child after all.
Reactions are very mixed. Some of them say bluntly that they don’t love their children. For others, their children don’t matter to them. And some of them love their children a lot, because the rest of their family was murdered and the child is all they have left. They live for that child. In addition, most of these mothers have never told their children of the circumstances in which they were conceived. That makes it even more complicated. The mothers are traumatised, and when the children behave badly - as all children do sometimes - the women associate that with the father of the child and react in a way the children can’t understand.
Most children who are half Tutsi and half Hutu can be physically recognised as such. Of course that makes trouble and stigma for them. People tell them that their fathers were murderers. They don’t hear the truth at home either, but rather that their fathers supposedly died in the war. At some point the women must tell their children the truth. They are fourteen years old now, they are asking questions. The mothers know that they must tell them, but they also feel that the children aren’t yet ready.
Do you know how the children are dealing with this situation?
At the moment it’s still unclear. We don’t yet know how badly the children are traumatised or might become. Most mothers are still withholding the truth from their children. It’s more that the people around them know about it. But the children are already affected, because their mothers live very isolated lives and don’t get any help from social agencies. It will take a few more years before we know more about this.
You founded an organisation to support these women and their children. How does it work?
The organisation takes care of continuing education for the children and helps the mothers with medical care and psychological assistance. In many places the women would be able to get help, but they don’t ask, because they don’t want to reveal their experiences. So we explain to them that they can get help from us without having to tell their stories, and that these are confidential matters.
But my main goal is ongoing education. When you ask the mothers what is their greatest hope, they say it is the future of their children. Normally at first they say they want to get married, even if they mean it to be ironic. For them, to live is to fight their way from day to day. They say that "future" is an abstract concept to them, and that they can’t see any future for their children because they are stuck in this horrific trauma. All of them want a good education for their children. I was amazed at that, because these are very poor women, even poorer than others. They did not wish for clothes or food, but they recognised the value of an education for their children. They know that if this child goes to school, then it can develop skills that will enable it to survive in the future. So the idea for this organisation actually came from the mothers themselves.
What keeps these women alive, what gives them the strength to live with this nightmare?
To be honest, I don’t know. But I see them as the strongest human beings I have ever encountered in my whole life. I am really amazed at their strength, their resilience, their beauty. Some have said to me that they want to kill themselves, but still they go on living from day to day. People have an inner mechanism that helps them to survive.
Dealing with this topic must have affected you yourself. What have you learned from these women?
I believe that this whole project has changed my life - as a photographer, but also as a person. I did a lot of interviews with the women and I spent a lot of time with them, I’ve seen how they survive and how they take care of their children. In spite of their deep hurts, they still have a smile on their faces. I speak for them, because they need a voice the world will listen to. Someone had to do it. Once, after an interview, one of the women said to me that this day was like a birthday. Why? Because in the 15 years since the genocide, no one had ever come to her to ask how she was doing, never mind to help her. The fact that a stranger with a big car came to visit her and speak with her, even that helped her to gain more respect in the community.
On the 7th of April, the 15th anniversary of the beginning of Rwanda’s genocide, a memorial event will be held in the United Nations building, accompanied by the exhibition "Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape" with photographs and interviews by Jonathan Torgovnik.
Interview conducted by Anna Wander, SeenBy.com.
Copyright for images: © Jonathan Torgovnik