Charity says 8,000 Rwanda rape survivors need AIDS drugs
LONDON (AlertNet) -- For three days, Hitayezu was raped by Hutu militiamen -- soldier after soldier, hour after hour, until someone took pity and hid her in a kitchen.
Hitayezu survived the slaughter that engulfed Rwanda in 1994, but the genocide stays with her. It's in the HIV coursing through her veins.
Ten years after her ordeal, she has scarcely enough money for rent, let alone the expensive antiretroviral drugs that could prolong her life. In a tragic irony, the men who infected her, now imprisoned, are entitled to free medication under international humanitarian law.
"My security is threatened because of the Hutus who blame me for suing their brothers and getting them jailed," Hitayezu says in testimony published by the Survivors Fund (SURF), a British-based charity that supports survivors of the genocide.
"Worst of all, I get sick so often that I would not be employed anywhere."
As Rwanda marks the 10th anniversary of the butchering of almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, activists are calling on rich countries to fund free antiretroviral treatments (ARTs) for women and girls infected with HIV/AIDS in the genocide.
Hutu ringleaders extorted militiamen to rape Tutsi women in a deliberate plan to use AIDS as a weapon that could go on killing long after they had murdered their other victims with clubs and machetes.
Massacres also led to HIV infection as survivors hidden under body piles had their wounds exposed to others' blood.
According to SURF, about 8,000 female survivors are known to be HIV-positive but only 22 are receiving medication.
Many of those unable to afford the $100 a month it costs for ARTs are sick or dying, and many have children who have already lost fathers.
'GENOCIDE STILL WITH US'
"Instead of keeping on reminding ourselves that we should never let this happen again, we should recognise that it is still here with us," SURF Director Mary Kayitesi Blewitt told AlertNet.
"Our message is to ask the international community to take practical action and responsibility... If they genuinely think they should have acted, here is something they can do."
Some 3.2 percent of women surveyed by UNAIDS after the genocide reported being raped, and the Rwandan Ministry of Health says 17 percent of them have since tested HIV-positive. That compares with 11 percent of women who were not raped.
In a country where 70 percent of people live below the poverty line, ARTs are a luxury few can afford, despite reductions in the cost of HIV/AIDS medicines in the past few years in parts of Africa.
Rwanda's government, alarmed at HIV/AIDS infection rates around 12 percent, has lobbied developed countries and drug companies for cheaper medicines, helping to drive down the monthly cost of treatment to $100 from $400 in March 2001.
The government has freed up money to give soldiers ARTs, while foreign funds ensure that those accused of genocide at the U.N. Tribunal's detention centre in Arusha receive antiretrovirals. The convicted also get full medical care.
No such treatment is available to rape survivors.
"What we're saying is that whereas everybody else is counting 10 years, we haven't moved from where we stopped," Blewitt said.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the United States' ambassador tasked with hunting war crimes suspects, said he would do what he could to convince Washington to send drugs.
"We're looking to see how we can use some of the money that we pledged for HIV/AIDS to help specifically with the genocide survivors," he told Reuters.
"I understand that the suffering continues."
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