Center for Victims of Torture, conflict, conflict zones, conflict-affected countries, GBV, gender based violence, health and human rights, humanitarian care, Judith Twala, mental health, rape and sexual violence, refugee health, refugee mental health, refugees, Rwanda, Rwandan Genocide, sexual violence, torture, torture rehabilitation, torture survivors, torture victims, victims of conflict, war, war and conflict, war survivors
Every year on June 20, we pay tribute to the courage, strength and resilience of refugees. World Refugee Day invites all of us to see beyond “refugees” to the people who have responded to war and political violence in very human ways: They risk everything to save their families, they rebuild their lives from scratch, and they contribute to their communities in countless ways. Judith Twala, MA, CVT psychotherapist and trainer in Dadaab, Kenya, shares Sophia’s story (we changed her name to protect her identity).
During the Rwandan Genocide, rape was a weapon used against Tutsi women to strip them of their dignity and identity. Many Hutu women were raped as well, often because they were affiliated with Tutsi men. It was also a form of ethnic cleansing because any pregnancies resulting from rape meant that that baby would take the father’s – the perpetrator’s – ethnicity.
Sophia’s story is difficult to read. It shows how, in an instant, a person’s life is irrevocably changed. But it also exemplifies hope because today, Sophia wants to use her painful experience to protect other women living in refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya.
“I am from Rwanda and belong to the minority Tutsi clan. At 20, I married a medic from the Hutu community. The political conflict between Tutsi and Hutu tribes was reflected in my husband’s treatment. He is a loving, caring man, but he was ridiculed and insulted publicly for marrying a Tutsi. His medical clinic became a no-go zone for the community, eventually burned down by a gang of unknown men.
“I remember very well the fateful day. I woke up as usual and went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for my husband. I was only 2 weeks after delivery of our first born, so I was not strong. I heard screams and people running towards our house.
“I ran to my husband to tell him what was happening. Immediately he told me to get under the bed with our baby as he walked outside. I heard footsteps behind our house and the voices of men speaking in the Hutu language.
“They asked my husband where I was, shouting that they wanted to see the beauty in the Tutsi woman he called a wife. My husband said I was on a journey but they insisted on searching the house. Unfortunately the baby coughed under the bed and they saw me.
“This is the most painful and difficult moment to remember in my life. They pulled me from under the bed, tied my hands with a rope very tightly and three men in military uniform raped me. They forced my husband to watch. He pleaded with them to spare me and kill him instead, but all was in vain.
“The journey to Kenya was long and dangerous. We had to flee through the forests for fear of being found and killed by the Hutu militia. It was complicated by my pain and our small baby. My husband boiled traditional herbs to try to ease my suffering.
“In Dadaab, I was too scared to leave our shelter for medical attention. I was lifeless. Every day I wished that I died on that day. What is more painful to a woman than to be raped in the very eyes of her husband? I had so much bitterness and pain within me. I used to be a very social person, but after I remained silent and closed up in the tent. I had nightmares so I could not sleep. I only ate because my husband told me to.”
Sophia came to CVT for help with her deep despair. When she first started counseling, her expressions reflected fear, pain and mistrust. Her husband, who accompanied her to provide support, was also very emotional.
We slowly built trust with Sophia with the support of her husband. Sophia and her husband say CVT is the first agency that made them feel respected and valued after all they had gone through.
Today, Sophia reflects confidence. Her goal is to be among Rwandese women who will campaign against sexual and gender-based violence. She also intends in the future to assemble and encourage women who have gone through torture and war trauma.
With counseling and support, today Sophia says, “I have found an ear, felt and re-experienced warmth and am determined to fight the defeated soul within me. I believe in the future, and the future depends on the choices I make today.”