KIGALI, Rwanda — Julienne Uwimana, 50, had three children. They were murdered in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide. Her husband Francois — who smiles out from a faded black-and-white wedding photograph in a frame above a doorway in her home — was also killed by the ethnic Hutu militia, the Interahamwe. Julienne survived but she was raped countless times and contracted HIV.
The genocide that began on April 7, 1994, lasted 100 days and killed more than 800,000 people. It was an ethnic massacre carried out by ordinary people armed with the everyday tools of Africa: sticks, machetes, axes and hoes.
Extremist Hutu politicians organized the genocide bent on wiping out the minority Tutsis as well as moderates of their own tribe who might oppose the planned extermination. Like other genocides in Namibia, Armenia, Germany, Cambodia, Kosovo and Sudan, the one in Rwanda failed to exterminate a people, but it left the graves overflowing and the society shattered.
Julienne now lives in Kigali with three orphaned children. The two boys and a girl are her nephews and niece, the only survivors of the next generation of her family. A local program funded by the British government — Rwanda’s biggest donor — and run by Solace Ministries
supplies Julienne with antiretroviral drugs and counseling. This has helped her to to rebuild her life after the violence of 15 years ago.
Speaking at her home in her native language, Kinyarwanda, through an interpreter, she tells her story:
“Many terrible things happened to me during the 1994 genocide, it’s very hard to talk about them. I was married then. I had children and I had parents. But all of them perished during the genocide and I alone survived.
“My husband was killed on the April 22, 1994, with my oldest son. A week later my two other children were killed with their grandmother. They took my oldest child, who was 16, and raped her for one week then they killed her. The people who raped her were the same people who raped me. They were our neighbors.
“Many different soldiers also raped me. For these men it wasn’t a matter of sexual urge. After they had finished raping me they used the bottles they had been drinking alcohol from to rape me. In 2008, because of the problems this caused, doctors removed my uterus.
“A neighbor found me and took me to Kabgayi Catholic church but on the way we were stopped at a roadblock. There were many men there and they beat me with clubs until they thought I was dead. I was bleeding from my nose, mouth and ears — from everywhere.
“During the night they left to drink alcohol and share out the things they had looted. I crawled away and escaped with five other women. On the way to Kabgayi we passed the place where I was born. When I reached home I found that my parents and relatives had all been killed.
“We thought that because Kagbayi was a Catholic church we would find refuge but it was even worse.
“Many people took refuge there so the militias used to come and shoot and throw hand grenades. A bishop there mobilized the militias and the soldiers. They would come with trucks and take people away to burn them alive.
“I stayed for a month and a week in Kabgayi. We had to drink stagnant water and spent weeks without food. We suffered from lice, so many they turned my black skirt white.
“The ‘interahamwe’ used to come at nine in the morning and then at three in the afternoon, when they were drunk. They told women to stand up and would choose the young ones and the strong ones. They took the women to a playground where they raped them. Some died there.
“Thousands of people were killed in Kabgayi. I thought it would never end. By the time it was finished almost all the people in that area had been wiped out.
“For four years after the genocide I did not talk, I did not open my mouth, except to speak to one lady, one of the five who crawled away from the roadblock together with whom I shared the same experiences. We used to go and lock ourselves inside a house and just cry the whole
“In 1997, I discovered I was HIV-positive. I became crazy, wishing I had died with all the others.
“I changed when I reached Solace Ministries. Solace became our alternative family: They comforted us and supported those who were able to work to earn something. I make handbags to sell and stuffed toy giraffes and dolls. They give me medicines and care for me. I have
become a normal person.
“I feel very happy to have the three orphans living with me: I feel like I have a family again. Many people around here do not know that I have no children, they call me ‘Mama Elize’ after the oldest one, who is now 22, and that makes me happy.
“I can’t forget about the people I lost but that does not stop from me being happy. I can’t keep crying forever.
“After the genocide I never thought I could be happy again. There was a time when I used to ask why I was still alive but now I wish to live on so I can see my orphans grow up.”
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