We arrived at her home located in Kimironko, a Kigali suburb, around 2pm on Wednesday, last week.
Due to the delicate nature of the assignment, we were in company of a counsellor from a local organisation called Survivors Fund (SURF).
When we arrived, we could not readily tell if it was a home or a business area. The first thing that you see is a tiny shop on the left and many neatly stacked sacks of charcoal on the right. In the middle of the two, a door is ajar and we are invited in. The small three bedroom house may be so close to a dusty road but the neatness of the living room tells a different story. Yellow curtains hang loosely on the window and at the entrance of the house to provide some much needed privacy. In the room, five old chairs, a small wooden table, a small television and a wall clock stand out prominently.
Sitting in one of the chairs is Hellenah Mukansigaye, a victim of rape during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Although she is 58 years old, Mukansigaye looks physically drained. Beneath her elaborate wrinkles is a story of despair and perseverance.
Clad in a blue kitenge outfit and a matching head scarf, she apologises for not being able to stand up for a hug because the pain in her feet cannot permit her to. Next to her is a walking stick which she says has become her constant companion for over a year.
After briefing her about why we are there, she asks her son to step out before she can begin.
“You may need a week to hear my story because it is very long,” she laughs nervously.
In 1994, Mukansigaye was a happily married woman and a mother of five.
But when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi started, three of her children and husband were killed. Mukansigaye found herself alone with her youngest son on her back as her other young son had run off when their home was attacked. He was later to reunite with the mother after the Genocide.
The rape started when hundreds of fleeing people found themselves hurdled in Felicien Kabuga’s building. Felicien Kabuga was one of the masterminds and key financiers of the Genocide. The fugitive is still at large and the USA put a bounty of USD 5 million on his head.
She says that ironic as it may sound, at the beginning, they were a little safe, taking refuge in a building that belonged to a man that had bankrolled the Genocide.
“A Hutu man from Byumba promised to protect me and somehow turned me into his temporary wife and I was safe from the gangs for a short time before it all started. The man was powerless to stop it,” she whispers.
Each day, different Interahamwe took turns taking her behind the building where they repeatedly raped her.
At first, it was one or two men but soon, the number seemed to increase by the day.
Men, sometimes dripping of blood from their victims and others really drunk would rough her up and then laugh as they raped her over and over, passing her on to others.
“They mocked us. They laughed at us as they picked one by one. They joked that we should call our brothers in the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) to come and rescue us,” she says.
Can she estimate the number of men who raped her? I asked.
She fell silent, dropped her head in her hands and whispered.
“I was raped by very many men. Very many. I cannot even begin to estimate the number because I don’t remember a day that passed without being raped and this went on for months,” she softly says.
She says that looking back, she realised that they had done everything in terms of torturing and demeaning their victims.
“There are these men who were yanking off Tutsi women’s hair with their bare hands. Can you imagine how cruel that is? I thought I was scared of being killed with a machete, but that scared me even more,” she says.
When the RPA soldiers captured Kigali, Mukansigaye was immediately taken to hospital where doctors found that as a result of the rape, there was a lot of internal damage. It is at this hospital that she got shocking news.
“I was rotting because of being raped over and over. I had minor surgery and was cleaned up and then to my shock, I was informed that I was pregnant,” she says.
Mukansigaye says that she had a tough time accepting the news and though other victims of rape advised her to have an abortion, she could not bring herself to do it.
“I had gone through so much and survived. I considered an abortion. God had spared me, why then should I take a life? This child had not asked to be conceived, why then should he pay the price?” she says.
Three months after the baby was born, her gynecologist called her in for more devastating news, she was informed that she was HIV positive. Her son was surprisingly HIV negative. Her reaction surprised the doctor.
“I laughed. Seriously, with all the things I had gone through, it wasn’t surprising that there would be consequences,” she says.
Today, her son Peter (who requested for anonymity) is 22 years old and a university student. He tells me that he did not have any idea about how he came to be.
For a long time, he says that he did not understand why his two siblings’ education was being paid for by the Fund for Support to Genocide Survivors (FARG) and not his.
His curiosity heightened when children in the neighborhood started calling him a child of the Interahamwe.
Confused, Peter run to his mother and asked her why people would call him such.
“For a very long time, my mother would downplay it and tell me to ignore the children but I would also notice that she looked like she was in so much pain,” he says.
Peter decided to stop asking his mother what was going on to avoid causing her pain, till he was about 16 years old.
“She sat me down and told me what had happened and I don’t know how to describe how I felt. It all now made sense because I looked back and remembered how my community reacted to me as compared to my brothers,” he says.
Peter says that after his mother told him the story, her pain and tears made him decide that he would never ask her again.
“I am very close to my mother. She is honest with us but it was really hard to see her breakdown when she was telling me the story. I get the feeling that she told me a tiny piece of what she really went through and I have decided that I am comfortable with that,” he says.
Growing up, Peter and his siblings never had serious needs, thanks to Mukansigaye’s charcoal business. Today, the space she used is being rented out to someone for Rfw10, 000.
For the last one year, Peter has seen his mother’s health decline, with the pain in her feet making her almost immobile to a point where he needs to lift her whenever she needs to move around the house.
“My mother has always been very strong and hardworking but for one year now, doctors cannot seem to find a remedy for her feet. She is beginning to give up because she now has decided that she won’t be taking any more medicine which breaks my heart,” he says.
Peter, who is in the second year of his three year IT diploma course, says that he originally was supposed to stay at campus but had to change the plan to be able to help his mother.
One of his challenges is missing school or not fully concentrating in class because of the issues at home.
“Depending on how my mother is doing, I sometimes have to skip class or even when I go, I spend more time worrying whether she is stuck in bed with no one to give her a glass of water or whether she has eaten and this is really affecting my performance,” he says.
The financial constraints that the family has to endure have also made life harder. Peter requires at least Rwf9000 per month to be able to have lunch at school and at least Rwf800 a day to make it to and from school, something that he says is a challenge.
As an IT student, he is also required to have a laptop to practice what he studies; something that he says is one of his biggest needs.
I asked him what his biggest wish is today.
“To be able to finish school and upgrade my course and get a degree and see my mother walk again,” he says.
What keeps him going? I asked.
He says that learning how to live with the situation and not dwelling on it helps a bit.
“I refuse to think that our situation is permanent. I have to have faith, otherwise I won’t be able to do anything,” he says.