NEW YORK (Reuters) - “I cannot really tell you how many men came to rape me, there were many. All I know is that four months later, I was pregnant.”
Those are the words of Rwandan mother Sylvina, whose recent photograph and story are among the many that populate a current exhibition called “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape” at New York’s Aperture gallery (www.aperture.org).
Sylvina was one of more than a hundred thousand Rwandan women raped in 1994 by Hutu militia fighters who embarked on a killing spree and slaughtered nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The photos and interviews were done by Israeli-born photographer Jonathan Torgovnik, who sought to tell some of the stories of the estimated 20,000 children born as a result of the rapes that took place during the Rwandan genocide.
The exhibition at Aperture runs until May 7. Torgovnik’s photos will also be on display at the United Nations as of April 7, the 15th anniversary of the start of the genocide, to raise awareness about systematic violence against women which continues in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
The images of the mothers and their children born of rape are both beautiful and shocking — exquisite portraits of ordinary Rwandan women and their children and a reminder that the consequences of rape can be felt for generations.
Torgovnik lets the unsmiling faces of the rape victims and their children speak for themselves. A tiny reflection of the photographer is vaguely discernible in the children’s pupils, which bore into the viewer with almost accusatory ferocity.
In the accompanying interviews, many of the women speak of the difficulties of raising the children of rapists. The few surviving family members and their communities often shunned the mothers, wanting nothing to do with offspring of Hutu militia. Like Sylvina, many are HIV positive due to the rapes.
Some of the mothers have little affection for the sons and daughters they never planned to have. One describes thoughts of killing her son.
“I never loved this child,” Josette says of her son Thomas. “Whenever I remember what his father did to me, I used to feel the only revenge would be to kill his son. But I never did that.”
“The boy is too stubborn and bad,” she says. “He behaves like a street child. It’s not because he knows that I don’t love him, it is that (Hutu) blood in him.”
The descriptions of the rapes are frank and brutal — one woman’s genitals were ripped apart with a broken beer bottle filled with mud, another was tricked into drinking a glass of her brother’s blood.
It is no surprise that today many of them have no interest in sex.
“I never had sex until I was raped during the genocide,” said Valerie, whom Torgovnik photographed with her son Robert. “Even now when I hear people say they enjoy sex, I don’t know what it means to enjoy sex. For me, sex has been a torture.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte