[Svrilist] Perspective: An HIV Survivor's Story

svrilist at mrc.ac.za svrilist at mrc.ac.za
Wed May 17 11:29:14 SAST 2006

Perspective: An HIV Survivor's Story
15 May 2006

Twelve years after Rwanda's genocide claimed nearly a million lives, women
who were raped are suffering new consequences.

Margaret Mukacyaka survived Rwanda's 1994 genocide, but her struggle isn't
over. Of the 132 people in her extended family, 127—including her parents
and her eight siblings—were murdered by the machete-wielding interahamwe.
She now lives in the town of Rwamagana with her 12-year-old son and two
adopted daughters. Her son and her HIV infection are both legacies of the
weeks she spent in captivity as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, being raped and
terrorized by a gang of Hutu militiamen. She sat on a stool in her
concrete-floor home, speaking through an interpreter to NEWSWEEK's
Geoffrey Cowley.

I was in the third year of secondary school when the trouble started. I
was the youngest in my family; I had seven brothers and a sister. The mass
killing started on April 6, after the president, Juvénal Habyarimana, died
in a plane crash. Even before that, a roadblock had been erected in our
village. The roadblock was used once in a while to pick out some Tutsis
and kill them. But after the death of the president, killing a Tutsi
became more like a joke.

When I learned that my sister and six of my brothers had been killed in
Kigali, I hid in the bush with my parents and my surviving brother. As we
were trying to move from one hiding place to another, we ran into a group
of interahamwe at a roadblock. As we ran away, they followed my father and
brother and killed them, but they didn't follow my mother and me. My
mother then told me we must split up and find each other later if we
survived. She gave me a bit of money and said I must stay off the main

I went to several houses to ask people for help, but they threatened me
and took away my money. Even the sympathetic ones said they could not keep
me or they might be killed themselves. Finally I found some relatives in a
village where the killing had not started. There was a law saying that
anyone from a different locality must be handed over to the local militia.
But my relatives hid me in the cellar for two days and then got a man to
take me to a medical center, where there was a doctor my father had known.
At the medical center, I hid under a bed for a while and then looked out
the window. The man who had escorted me was being killed at the roadblock
in front.

The doctor took me with his family to a government hostel for nurses. I
hid with his children in the bathrooms. The interahamwe hunted down the
doctor there and killed him, but they spared his wife and baby, and they
didn't find us in the bathrooms. The mother found some Hutu friends to
take different children, but one of the girls and I ended up in a house of
prominent militia members.

Those men raped us and used us as wives. Each of us was assigned to a
different man. We were locked inside the house each day while they went
out to kill people. Then they would come home at night and rape us. I
still don't know how long this continued. I stopped thinking and could not
count days, but it was many weeks. Eventually, the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic
Front] rebels arrested the militiamen and took us to a center for
displaced people.

Life after that was very difficult because my family was dead and I was
pregnant. I wandered from one orphanage to another, sometimes stealing
food from people's gardens so that I could eat. After the baby was born,
an old woman I met in church took us into her home, but I couldn't stay
there. I was running in the streets, almost mad, until the lady's daughter
took me into her home. She treated me as a sister for three years, but she
died in 1999, and I went back to roaming until another old woman
encouraged me. She told me about the Survivors' Fund, which helped me
finish high school and attend a training college for social work. When I
finished that course in 2001, I saw there was a job at AVEGA [the
Association of Genocide Widows]. No one there knew my story, but I got the
job and started helping widows
find help for trauma-related problems. I must admit that I was full of
resentment. I didn't like to associate with other people. I envied the
other girls because they were still virgins, and I hated the boys with
bitterness and rage.

In 2004 I started to reflect on what had happened to me. I was advising
other rape survivors to be tested for HIV, but I hadn't been tested
myself, so I went to a place far from here to check my own status. I was
shocked when I learned that I had HIV. My health had been strong, but a
CD4 test showed that my immune system was badly depleted. My CD4 count was
just 94, so I immediately started treatment. I had access to
antiretrovirals through AVEGA and the Survivors' Fund. I have taken the
drugs steadily for a year, and my CD4 count has climbed to 205. My son has
been tested once, but the result was not clear. Finding his status will
require another test.

For a long time I never laughed with him, but I force myself to be a
mother to him, even if I don't always succeed. The strength is not mine. I
was the last-born child in a privileged family. As one of only two girls,
I was pampered and loved. I had every privilege until I turned 16 and my
fortunes changed. Now, when I stop praying, I feel bad and fall sick all
the time. But when I'm in the spirit of prayer, I know I can keep going.

Online at: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/12666384/site/newsweek/

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