KIGALI, Rwanda (WOMENSENEWS)--The news is filled with stories about the 20th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, descriptions of the toll it has taken and predictions of the epidemic's consequences.
My story takes place in Rwanda, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Thick white mist flows like a river in the creases of green velvet covering the "Land of a Thousand Hills." Rwanda is also one of the world's poorest countries, but it serves up a feast for the senses: women wrapped head to toe in layers of bright yellow, blue and red against the lush monochromatic landscape; pungent leaves from eucalyptus trees; cool moist breezes on the skin and tangy fresh passion fruit.
The hillsides are terraced in small plots, farmed mostly by women, with hoes. The men clearing the land wield machetes. Those tools turned deadly seven years ago, as extremists launched a campaign of fear and hatred that claimed almost a million lives, out of a population of about eight million.
I met with women whose destinies were forever marked by the violence. Among them was Solange, 8 years old when the militia kidnapped her. She and four other girls were kept for three weeks and raped repeatedly, each day. At the end, only two were alive. Upon her return home, she began to get sick. At the hospital, she received a death sentence: HIV.
That's a death sentence shared by many African women who were raped in the course of other brutal conflicts throughout the continent.
After the Massacre, Soldiers Raped as Children Watched
Across from her sat Jeanette, probably in her late 30s, in a blue bold-print cotton dress with traditional large puff sleeves. Jeanette said she felt safe when she gathered her seven children with 5,000 others in the forest as the violence began. Their stones and sticks, however, were no match for the guns of the military that encircled them.
When most of the 5,000 were dead, including five of her own children, the soldiers seized the remaining women and girls. Jeanette lost consciousness when the thirteenth man was on top of her--her infant at her side.
These days, in response to the taunts of her daughter's schoolmates, Jeanette assures her surviving 16-year-old, "I promise I won't die." Privately she says, "People will not even take a cup of tea from my hands." She shows me arms and legs covered with lesions that don't lie about her fatal condition. I promise I will tell her story.
"I don't like to hear those stories," says President Paul Kagame, the general who brought an end to the bloodbath. "They make me think the men who did those things do not deserve to live.
"But that kind of thinking does not lead us anywhere. I tell these women we must reconcile, I expect them to say 'Never.' But they are amazing. They smile. Can you believe that? 'Well, this is my life,' they say. 'I can't go back and change it--I just try now to do whatever I can with it.'"
Clearly, Kagame faces enormous challenges in bringing about reconstruction and reconciliation.
Rwandan Women With AIDS Are Dying, Untreated
In Kigali last month I addressed a summit of African first ladies invited by Madame Kagame in order to devise strategies to address the AIDS crisis that has claimed 17 million African lives. In some countries, the infection rate is as high as 25 percent.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for $7 billion to $10 billion to combat the crisis; the United States, the richest country in the world, has pledged $200 million.
How to put it all together--the baffling disconnect? The atrocities to which Solange and Jeanette testified are relatively easy, in a way, to absorb. Evil aggrandized by the passions of war. But how to explain why Solange and Jeanette, infected by that evil, remain untreated?
We use much more sophisticated vocabulary about "profit margins," "compassion fatigue," "moral ambiguity" or "national interest" to explain why we, in turn, are content to leave them to die.
"I will be going on a journey soon," Jeanette says, wiping away tears. Then she adds, "I've told you only a very small part. Much, much more is unspeakable. But your coming to hear my story lets me know I am important." A smile flashes across her face:
"Today I feel valuable."
Swanee Hunt was the U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997 and is currently the director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
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