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Living and Dying After Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide

Kayitesi Jeanette is 21 years old, as is the genocide that orphaned her. The brutal impacts of the Rwandan genocide live on.

Kayitesi Jeanette breathes in the early morning, Kigali, Rwanda, November 2013. (Photo: Hamada Elrasam / Al-Masry Al-Youm)

Raising your arms above your head stretches and expands the ribcage and diaphragm muscles, optimizing lung inflation. It’s a technique that makes breathing, at least, easier.

Absorbing the early morning light, Kayitesi Jeanette, 19, practices this technique inside her room at Nadaguswi Chez Mamadada prostitution house in Giporoso, a slum in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. “I didn’t know my father, and my mom died because of sickness; I don’t know what it was,” she told Cairo-based photojournalist Hamada Elrasam upon their first encounter in November 2013, a meeting Elrasam had arranged so that he could take her portrait. “I’m an orphan of the genocide. My sister and I were maibobo [the Kinyarwanda word for ‘street children’] and I’ve been a prostitute since age 15.”

The portrait, seen above, appears against a bloody sociopolitical backdrop born the same year as Kayitesi Jeanette: According to the official version of events, in 1994, between April 7 and mid-July, Hutu extremists (including security forces, militias and civilians) across Rwanda waged a killing campaign and systematically slaughtered an estimated 800,000 men, women and children of the Tutsi minority and political moderates of the Hutu majority. The campaign, described as “one of the most efficient and terrifying episodes of targeted ethnic violence in recent international history” (concisely, “100 days of hell“), orphaned an estimated 400,000 children, many of which, as young adults, now populate Giporoso.

Kayitesi Jeanette’s story is a glimpse into the lifelong and life-threatening consequences the genocide has cast on these young adults: In late 2012, after feeling sick for several months (swollen glands, skin rashes and lesions, chronic fatigue and fevers), she saw a physician and was urged to take the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) test. “I’m HIV-positive,” she told Elrasam during their photo session and interview the following year, “but I can’t stop working. I have to get food and pay transportation to the hospital when I get tired. Sometimes I skip doses when the medicine finishes, and I don’t have enough money to go to the hospital to receive more. At that moment, I have to find a client or someone to give me money.”

Though incidents of HIV cross the globe, its strategic spreading throughout Rwanda’s genocide must here be considered. During the 100-day killing campaign, not only was rape used as a “tool of war” against an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Rwandese women, it also became a method for ethnic cleansing. A research paper titled “Rape and HIV/AIDS in Rwanda” published by The Lancet medical journal, describes this practice:

Among the weapons of choice calculated to destroy while inflicting maximum pain and suffering was HIV. Eyewitnesses recounted later that marauders carrying the virus described their intentions to their victims: they were going to rape and infect them as an ultimate punishment that would guarantee long-suffering and tormented deaths.

“Sometimes people here tell me, ‘you will die soon,’ which makes me scared and alone,” Kayitesi Jeanette told Elrasam. Others, like her Ministry of Health, told her she’s part of the “most-at-risk population (MARP)” since “sex workers [criminalized and stigmatized] form an important epidemiological link for HIV transmission to the general population.” And she tells herself, through force of circumstance, “I’ll never expect to receive cows or for the rabbit to die.” (Cows are a reference to wedding dowry, and the rabbit to the Friedman test, wherein an unmated female rabbit is injected with a woman’s urine sample, and, after a period of time, the rabbit’s ovaries are inspected for formations that could confirm the woman’s pregnancy.)

“If We Can Find Her”

“You should come with me to Kigali,” Elrasam suggested to me midway through our collaboration on another story in early March, “and you can meet Kayitesi Jeanette.” After a prolonged pause, he added, “I mean, if we can find her, and if she’s still alive. … At the time of that picture, the HIV was making her very sick, and she didn’t have the medications.”

With the intention of reporting on Kayitesi Jeanette’s life inside Giporoso and to understand deeper the after-effects of “100 days of hell” – particularly the potency of the “you will die soon” rhetoric – I resolved to fly to Rwanda on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the genocide. Upon landing in Kigali, I was denied entry to the country on the basis of a technical error in my visa application and instead requested that Elrasam give Kayitesi Jeanette a print of her portrait inside Nadaguswi Chez Mamadadam. “Ask her what she thinks about it,” I wrote in a message, “her portrait and life.”

Kayitesi Jeanette holds up her portrait, Kigali, Rwanda, April 2015. (Photo: Hamada Elrasam/ Al-Masry Al-Youm)Kayitesi Jeanette holds up her portrait, Kigali, Rwanda, April 2015. (Photo: Hamada Elrasam/ Al-Masry Al-Youm)

Whatever Is Still Lacking Is Attainable

“People stopped saying, ‘You will die soon,’ ” Kayitesi Jeanette, now 21, told Elrasam, inside Giporoso’s Titanic Bar, a couple hours before she was set to start work that evening. Holding up the print of her portrait, (which she was seeing for the first time), she added, “People like me because I was in the movie; I’m famous now!” In April 2014, United States government-owned broadcaster Voice of America published Elrasam’s report, “Rwanda’s Genocide Orphans Still Struggling,” which features portraits, photographs and a video of Kayitesi Jeanette working on the evening of November 18, 2013.

“[After the report was published] a few people helped me with some money,” she said. “There was a lady who brought for me a phone, so if I get so tired or need something, I can call her or someone to help. And there’s another woman that still helps me to learn reading and writing and how to use the internet. I visit her every now and then, she gives me food and money for transportation, too.”

While looking at her portrait, she tells Elrasam, “I like this picture because it shows my body looking good! You can’t see that I’m sick.” At the time of that portrait, she couldn’t afford to medicate herself and consequently had skin rashes and lesions. And still, today, she describes her complicated and delicate relationship with HIV treatment: “I try to take the medication, but I can’t take it always, [which] makes me so tired and sick. And sometimes the medications give me diarrhea and make me need to vomit. When I go to the doctor, they tell me what to eat, and one time they changed [my prescriptions].”

After Elrasam set his camera down, a young woman across the bar walked over to them and said to Kayitesi Jeanette, “You’re going to be a Rwandese model!” The two young women smiled at each other.

Rwanda’s Untold Stories

On April 7, Rwandan president Paul Kagame delivered a speech to launch the “21st Commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi” before a select crowd of survivors, dignitaries and press at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. During his speech, Kagame reiterated the country’s 2003 and 2008 genocide denial laws, which aim to criminalize unofficial versions of events, charging genocide “revisionism, negationism and trivialization.” He went on to address a recent breach: “You have heard of ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story.’ In this story that hadn’t been told, [the BBC] wanted to show that what hadn’t been said is that the victims are the ones who caused the genocide.”A report by VICE News titled “Rwanda Versus the BBC” describes the allegations within and surrounding the British broadcaster’s documentary on the genocide:

The controversy centers on the documentary’s key allegation: that Kagame, the former rebel leader of the [Tutsi] Rwandan Patriotic Front, had a hand in shooting down Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane – the event that triggered the genocide. … Following the broadcast of the documentary in October [2014], Kagame told the parliament that the corporation had chosen to “tarnish Rwandans, dehumanize them.” The same month, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency, appointed to investigate the documentary, banned the BBC’s radio broadcasts in the country’s official language, Kinyarwanda. It claimed to have received complaints of ‘incitement, hatred, divisionism, genocide denial and revision’ from the public.

But for Kayitesi Jeanette, who isn’t among those invited to presidential addresses nor those reported to have filed complaints with her government, it’s the recent years of her life that she discusses with Elrasam, rather than the earlier, bloodier ones that brought her to Giporoso. The story she tells doesn’t explicitly reference the current controversy over historical crimes and chronology, nor the ethnic divisions intensified during Rwanda’s roughly three-quarters of a century spent under the scrambled logic of European colonialism. That is, without parents for over two decades and with HIV for nearly three years, the consequences of the genocide keep her away from its commemorations, official and otherwise.

Later in his speech, Kagame sets Rwandans like Kayitesi Jeanette against a healing sociopolitical backdrop:

This country has changed; it will never be the same. It has changed for good and forever. Even when they [international media and organizations] claim there is no democracy and freedom in Rwanda, there are people. Rwanda has people who value their dignity and fight for it. And everything else is available, and whatever is still lacking is attainable.

Presumably Kagame included as “available and attainable” the HIV medications that Kayitesi Jeanette cannot consistently afford, as well as the cows and rabbits she said she’ll “never expect.” Kagame, speaking resolutely on the 1994 genocide and BBC smear campaign, is fighting for his anticipated future as the leader of a “good and forever” Rwanda. When Elrasam asked Kayitesi Jeanette about her own dreams, “I don’t know,” she replied. But later she asked, “Do you know when people with HIV die?”