One of the biggest challenges following the Rwandan genocide was getting it classified as such. As the international community faltered and fiddled and failed to appreciate what was happening, Rwandans shouted their experiences through shrouds of shock, grateful to anyone would listen and believe that such horror was possible.
Now with each anniversary those stories and images reappear throughout the media. And many survivors, once so grateful for a voice, have come to resent this exposure.
This issue first came to my attention in a conference in the Rwandan parliament on the weekend that this year’s official period of mourning began. As questions were taken from the floor, a passionate voice piped up. “I’m not asking about what happened because I was there and I have seen it, but there is another issue now. As survivors we all wanted to tell and to say what had happened. There are at least two or three women I know pregnant from rape, they only wanted to talk. But twenty years later you still see your image coming out from BBC, CNN…” Speaking, I learn, is Odette Nyiramilimo, a physician, former government minister and current East African senator. Ethnically a Tutsi, she survived the genocide in the Hotel des Mille Collines, a scene later depicted in the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’.
We meet again a few weeks later. Nyiramilimo sits in a bright, airy office, on the fourth floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A portrait of President Paul Kagame hangs over her head. She’s busy; her phone buzzes as we talk.
She tells me story after story.
The story of a girl, aged 15 during the genocide, who was taken by her parents’ killers to the DRC and raped. When she escaped she was pregnant, and after she gave birth to a son she handed him to relatives to raise so she could attend university and start her life anew. She met a boy and they got engaged; then he travelled to Canada to finish his schooling. There, on the TV, he saw old footage of her speaking about her rape and called her in shock. With her engagement over, the girl called Nyiramilimo asking “what do I do? I don’t want that story to be following me my whole life. Now I am well, I just finished university and I want to be normal.”
Nyiramilimo tells me another story of a women raped while her eight-year-old daughter was being attacked beside her. The daughter died, and this woman never told her husband what had happened – confiding only in Nyiramilimo and one other friend, despite their advice to the contrary. “She knew some men that had rejected their wives because of the rape, and she didn’t want to lose her husband.” Twenty years on this woman has had more children, is still married, and is slowly coming to terms with what happened to her. Nyiramilimo says that despite their advice at the time, she ended up better off now than many of those who were encouraged to talk. “They don’t know who was listening about it, how people will digest that now. There are some who now have grandchildren.”
Then Nyiramilimo tells me about two Rwandan-born boys who grew up with their parents in the United Kingdom. Returning to visit family in their homeland, they saw footage of their father testifying on national TV to murders they never knew he had committed. “Did they beat him, did they try to kill him? I think that’s what happened but the children returned back here. They said ‘that one is no longer our father’.”
Nyiramilimo says when those stories were initially collected – in a country where, she says, there are still only between 3-5 psychiatrists and not more than 200 counsellors – those who spoke out were still in shock. “It was as if we were dead. I’ve seen an image of myself saying that, ‘you know when we died in that swamp… That’s where we were killed…’, so in my brain it’s like I was dead.”
The Survivors’ Fund, a Rwandan NGO that regularly interacts with the media, has begun ensuring that both journalists and survivors sign a contract before they embark on interviews. You can read the contract here. For their part journalists agree to explain the purpose and extent of their coverage, and to halt the interview should any trauma emerge. Survivors state whether they’re happy for their full name to be used, and whether it’s ok to include their image.
Sam Munderere is a project officer at Survivors’ Fund. “To some extent the media is good for advocacy and letting people know what happened, but in certain situations you have to be a lot more careful.”
He says that, particularly with the arrival of the internet, media ethics around survivors of traumatic incidents is an area that is developing, but definitely merits more discussion. “I think some of these things it is very hard to reverse, but what we can do is take a new approach, realise that what we are doing, speak honestly to the people who are being photographed or interviewed about how exactly their material will be used.”
Munderere knows women who have had their personal lives affected by this too. He tells me the story of Francis, a lady who was raped during the genocide. Afterwards she spoke to a journalist about how difficult she was finding loving her child, because every time she saw her she was reminded of what had happened.
This quote was printed on a leaflet, along with a photo of Francis. Though it was never meant to be seen in Rwanda, another visiting international journalist brought copies of it to the country. Not speaking English, Francis brought the leaflet home, happy to have a nice photo of herself. Her daughter, who learns English in school, read it. “There have been huge difficulties because of this,” Munderere tells me. “Even though the mother managed to move on, the daughter no longer trusts her.”
When I meet Francis she is tight-lipped. It is a few weeks after the main commemoration events, and she says straight away that someone has used her image again – this time a local musician. There needs to be more thoughtfulness, she says, “especially in this digital and internet world. You put one photo in America and the next moment you find it in Rwanda, and people can manipulate it.”
Simply changing names, blurring faces, she says, would make a huge difference. Or even if there’s no way to retract what has been revealed, having some warning that you might encounter your own story again would be a start. “I need to know so if I see it on television I will not be surprised.” Francis says that if she had initially been aware that her words could boomerang back at her, she would never have spoken as freely.
No one I spoke to complained about how the media acted initially. They were so grateful to journalists for forcing the world to recognise what had happened, and they are happy that it continues to be recognised (one of the major themes over the commemoration period was remembrance, and how to fight attempts at denial). However, twenty years on many now wish, as individuals, to separate their lives from the specific details of what happened to them so that they can move on.
Nyiramilimo tells me “there is a proverb in Kinyarwanda that says when something has gone out of the mouth it is impossible, or almost impossible to have it swallowed again… But I wish that those journalists come back and ask what do you want today as a survivor? What do you want to talk about today? And what do you think of what was registered 20 years back and can you give the authorisation for what was said at that time to be published again?
“I’ve talked with many survivors who are really of the idea that what had been said at that time should be given back to them for their own memories, and not be kept for other people still.”