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Symposium Examines Rape as a Tool of Genocide — Session II


The Rwandan-American Community of the Midwest and the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation hosted a Symposium on Genocide at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana on April 26 and 27, 2019. This year’s commemoration marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda when an estimated 1 million people were killed over a 100-day period from April to July 1994. An article about Session I, “Genocide Awareness and Prevention,” can be found here.

Session II on Friday examined “Rape as a Tool of Genocide” and featured three speakers: Christine Venter, Consolee Nishimwe, and Catherine Borshuk.

Christine Venter, who is director of the Legal Writing Program at Notre Dame Law School, spoke first on gender propaganda in Rwanda and the mass rape of Tutsi women. It is believed that approximately 500,000 women were raped during the genocide, said Venter, though that number is presented with a question mark because many of the women who were raped were subsequently killed and their rapes weren’t necessarily counted. Rape was also used to forcibly impregnate women as a form of ethnic cleansing and men who were known to have HIV/AIDS were used to deliberately infect women.

“Rape is not incidental to armed conflict; it is a distinct and insupportable war crime,” said Venter.

She then discussed the way in which women have been characterized through the history of war: they were seen as “spoils of war,” assaulting women was seen as a way of punishing and terrorizing a community, soldiers have seen rape as a reward. The Geneva Convention saw rape as a “violation of family honor and rights,” rather than a crime against individual women.

Historically, rape was not recognized as a crime against humanity, said Venter. It was not until the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that this changed. During the case against Jean Paul Akayesu, who was being tried for murder, women came forward to testify about their rape. The female judge questioned why he was not being tried for rape as well, and through the efforts of the female prosecutor, the charges of rape were added. For the first time, a court found that rape was used as an act of genocide and was a crime against humanity.

The second speaker was Consolee Nishimwe who shared her personal testimony of surviving the genocide. Nishimwe is the author of the book Tested to the Limit: A Genocide Survivor's Story of Pain, Resilience, and Hope. “What happened to us was unimaginable. For those of us who survived, it was a miracle,” said Nishimwe on Friday. Then, quoting Elie Wiesel, she added, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness,” as she recounted her experience for the audience. She was 14 years old when the genocide happened, and was the oldest of five children. Her sister was 11 years old, and her brothers were nine years old, seven years old, and 16 months old.

Even though we faced discrimination outside the home, we felt love inside, and witnessed our parents being loving and caring to others, both Tutsi and Hutu, said Nishimwe, whose parents were teachers in the community.

When the killings started, her immediate family, along with an aunt, first headed for the Amahoro Stadium to seek refuge. They didn’t know where any of their extended family was. Nishimwe said she remembers the crowd of people traveling to the stadium singing gospel songs to bolster their courage. On the way, the group encountered extremist Hutus with machetes and clubs. “How happy they were to kill their own neighbors,” reflected Nishimwe. The family fled to a neighbor’s house instead of continuing on to the stadium. Outside they could hear the killers chanting, calling the Tutsi cockroaches and snakes.

“All of the kids were scared; I cannot find the words to describe this fear….You didn’t know who was going to be kind or how long they were going to help, “continued Nishimwe. The neighbor family decided they couldn’t continue to hide them, and so after just a few days they fled again. The Hutu found them the next morning hiding in a field and killed Nishimwe’s aunt. After taking all their money, the Hutu decided to let the rest of them live, and so they fled again. Nishimwe’s father went in one direction, and the rest of the family went in another. She never saw her father again. Later that evening, while the family hid in a woman’s home that was next to a bar, they overheard Hutu soldiers in the bar bragging about who they had murdered that day, and one of the names mentioned was her father’s. “My dad was not only a good parent, he was a best friend to me,” said Nishimwe through tears.

Over the next three months, they just tried to survive, going from place to place. There were times when good friends we thought we could rely on called the killers to come and get us, said Nishimwe. “I couldn’t comprehend or understand how people who were our friends had changed so much and could do this.” This included the parents of children her mother had taught in school.

At one point, the children were separated from their mother, who had been kidnapped. She was taken by a young man who she had helped to pay for his schooling, said Nishimwe. They thought their mother dead, but neighbors directed the children where to find her. When they were reunited, the killers said that because all of her kids were alive, she had not suffered enough. They took the 16-month-old baby first, and then the older boys, and slaughtered them all, then threw them in a septic tank nearby. The person who took them had grown up with our mother, said Nishimwe. They had been very close friends. Next, Nishimwe was pulled onto the street by a neighbor who beat and raped her. Afterward, she was able to make her way back to her mother. The three women — Nishimwe and her mother and sister — survived.

“Even though I survived, I was carrying this pain inside myself,” she shared. My chance to be a young teen was taken away, and I didn’t know how I would function again. Trying to go back to school afterward was difficult, because what happened would keep flooding back. Looking around, though, I saw friends who had no one, and so I was thankful I still had my mom and sister, Nishimwe added.

Later, Nishimwe found out she was HIV positive from the rape. “It is a constant reminder of what I have been through. But I am very fortunate, because though I have invisible wounds, I don’t have physical wounds, and that means I can lead and I can tell this story on behalf of the women who can’t. I want the world to see. This has to be known. It’s not easy to tell it, but it’s very important to say.”

Like many of the other widows, Nishimwe’s mother was able to go back and teach after the genocide, and some of the children she had to teach were the children of those who had murdered her family. But my mother taught me to always act in love. “Never lose hope. Losing hope is the beginning of your own self defeat,” said Nishimwe. And to the young people in the audience she added, “You need to pay attention to these stories, because you are the ones who are going to share them.”

The third speaker was Dr. Catherine Borshuk, a professor of psychology at Indiana University – South Bend. She spoke on the topic of “Trauma and Healing for Survivors and their Children.” Genocidal rape is used as a tactic, a weapon, a tool of terror, and an instrument of extermination against a people, a gender, and individuals, began Borshuk.

The perpetrators of genocidal rape have an obedience to destructive authority, dehumanize their victims, and are able to suppress empathy for others, she explained. We know from past experiences that people will blindly follow orders from their superiors, feeling it absolves them from responsibility. Similarly, most people do have empathy, but if they are rewarded for hate and fear, they can quickly harden their hearts.

Much more has been written about the survivors of genocidal rape than about the perpetrators, said Borshuk, as she transitioned her presentation to survivors, specifically the physical, psychological, and social harm they experience, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder, disease and physical pain, pregnancy, deep shame, and rejection by family and neighbors.

Healing occurs through supportive counseling, trauma-informed care, respect for the survivor’s need for safety, empowerment, cultural competence, and minimizing the possibility of future trauma. Envisioning a plan for the future, prayer, and survivor’s groups can also be helpful, said Borshuk.

She concluded with a brief discussion on the children of rape. Studies have shown that just being a child of a genocide survivor will mean you experience more stress and other issues, said Borshuk, but these studies don’t take into account the children of genocidal rape. Between 5,000 and 25,000 children were born in 1995 due to genocidal rape, and this group is just now being studied. They are young adults now who are dealing with issues of identity, explained Borshuk. Who am I? Am I Tutsi or Hutu? These are children being raised by mothers who are just beginning to heal or still have unresolved trauma themselves.

These children need to experience acceptance and self-acceptance, safety, and recognition of their own trauma, concluded Borshuk.

After Session II, a brief Q&A followed. One audience member, a genocide survivor himself, asked Borshuk to speak to two different groups he saw emerge during the genocide: the Hutu who resisted, refusing to follow orders, and instead took a stand against the killing, and then the ones who not only participated in the killing and rape, but seemed to take great joy in their actions. What makes a person behave in either of those ways, he asked.

Borshuk spoke to the first group, the resistors, saying that in each atrocity throughout history you do have a small number who will resist, and these are usually individuals who aren’t afraid to buck the status quo, who don’t have a high respect for authority, and who have a strong internal moral compass. As for the other group, it is one that hasn’t been studied extensively, mostly because it is hard to find individuals who will admit to being involved in the killings at all, let alone ones who will admit to the pleasure they felt while committing these atrocities.


Further Reading:

Symposium on Genocide Discusses Awareness and Prevention — Session I

After the Genocide: Symposium Wrestles with Denial, Forgiveness, and Hope — Sessions III, IV, and V

Remember, Unite, Renew: Symposium on Genocide Commemorates 25th Anniversary


Alisa Williams is managing editor of

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