Lt Jeanne Umulisa
In summary: Rwanda’s fallacious women empowerment and how the RPA sacrificed women combatants in the struggle:
There is no country that divides the world opinion as Rwanda; A success model of post-conflict recovery yet a renowned repressive police state at the same time. Prime of what makes Rwanda a global star is a facade of women emancipation, but as Lieutenant Jeanne Umulisa; in a personal testimony; portrays; Rwanda’s women empowerment is simply a PR stunt.
As a lady who lost her youth in order to bring peace in my country despite the fact that our efforts and hard work were hijacked by the opportunists in the RPF /RPA and later the Rwandan Government, I feel duty bound to dispute the lies peddled by the government of Rwanda that she respects the values of women and considers them the foundation of national development.
To understand the pose and posit of a woman in Rwanda’s contemporary political dispensation, it is prudent to reflect on the value the RPA/F attached to women during the 1990-1994 war that later brought the RPA/F war to power. It is this value attachment that the RPA/F would later re-concretize while in power.
During the war, women in RPA were treated as commodities not human beings. For instance we were called ‘dry ration’- a term describing the tins of beans and dry food that soldiers ate while on mobile. So women were regarded as those tins of goodies. Women in RPA ceased to be human beings but rather seen as war equipment such as 120 mm mortar, 107mm Katyusha, 75mm recoilless and many more.
What does this mean?
In clearer terms, for example, young women soldiers who were based in the sick bays as nurse, doctors, assistants were named all sorts of abusive names to the extent of naming their bases as ‘Sodoma and Gomora’. In essence, the RPA commanders took us as sexual objects despite the fact that we were the ones who helped wounded soldiers. Constantly harassed and abused, women soldiers during the war faced both physical and psychological and mental degradation. At the climax of it all was that senior women soldiers started harassing their fellow junior women soldiers because of competition for men.
As early as 1991, I witnessed one of my colleagues spending a whole night tied up on a banana trunk in a Candoyi style, simply because she refused to sleep with a senior male officer Afande Kizza. Disturbed and helpless, I went to see the then Chief Political Commissar Afande Frank Mugambage. I explained to him the problems we were suffering and asked him what he thinks of the plight and future of us in our struggle. To my dismay, Mugambage only told me that he will answer my question in three years to come.
In early 1992 I was posted as welfare officer in one of our Sick Bay On arriving, I was called to go and see the Commanding officer Afande Charles Nzaramba. I was impressed by his disdain of the commanding officer he had just taken over, having characterised him as a “reckless, womaniser”, and that “all the nurses were carrying their knickers on their head”. But to my shock, when I later got up and saluted him in preparing to take my leave, he said to me that he thought I was going to spend a night with him.
To say I was dumbfounded is an understatement. To say I was shocked would be an injustice. No words can explain how I felt of a man who, in front of me, had castigated his predecessor of being sexually reckless. Having out rightly declined his advances, he ordered his escorts to take me to Mabuso (code word for a prison in a military jargon). When I got there, I asked an intelligence officer to give me a paper and pen to write my statement. In my statement, I requested him to forward it to the high command, but before I handed over to the intelligence officer Afande Byarugaba, a political officer called Afande Nyagatoma (RIP) came in and read through the statement. He promised me that he was going to handle the case himself not Intelligence Officer because the Commanding Officer would be in trouble. Afande Nyagatoma left and came back after an hour, immediately asking me to return to my base. Since that time my relationship with the commanding officer Charles Nzaramba only graduated from bad to worse, and yes, to worst.
A Month later, we were invited by civilians to attend international women’s day The CO, Admin, doctors, nurses and myself went there. On arrival, the CO introduced all other people and did not introduce me. Later we were joined by Afande Muzungu Munyaneza. After the women chairperson had made her speech, she asked us if we have anything to say on that special day. Others silent, a nurse colleague named Candari one of the senior nurses sent me note asking me to be their ambassador.
Not unfamiliar to challenges, I stood up to the embarrassment of the CO who had not introduced me; and intentionally so. My short speech that day focussed on the role of women in the development of their societies and nations and how women in unison should raise the bar and do more; especially in hostile patriarchal-dominated African societies. In a rare display of admiration, on our way going home and in reference to my speech, Afande Muzungu Munyaneza told me he didn’t know that out there they are girls who are smart and intelligent. He then told me that I should get up and fight for our rights because our image as in women in the struggle was tarnishing.
Towards end of 1992, I got a chance to visit Umutara region and interact with my fellow women combatants.
As they narrated the horror they were going through, not from the enemy fire but from their fellow men combatants, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness took the part of me. One of them names withheld due to security reasons told me that she is no longer a human being but rather a “120 mm mortar”. Another one names withheld due to security reasons said that she is 75 recoilless and went on to say that she only wishes to meet her old Dad and Mom and apologise for having left them alone.
“I thought I am a human being, a Rwandan, with a right to fight for my country but now I regret,” she told me, with tears rolling down her cheeks. This sense of betrayal of a cause we had sacrificed so dearly for reignited my resilience to follow up on this issue of women harassment to its logical conclusion.
When I arrived at my base, I sent a message to CPC Frank Mugambage and reminded him of my pending question. I also sent another message Afande Rose Kabuye who was regarded as head of women in RPA, requesting for an audience, such that we could discuss women’s abuse- a cancer that was almost tearing up the struggle into pieces.
When she gave me that audience (dates please and place of meeting), I raised my concerns about women’s abuse and what i think should be done to avert the situation. Her reaction was not for the weak-hearted. She told me that we have failed her so she has nothing to do. I asked her that whom she is leaving us with then but a reply never came forth. To quote her in Swahili, which is actually the military’s lingua franca, Rose said: “Wamesikyana wa menishinda, sina cya kufanya’ then I responded ‘ sasa Afande umetuwaca, umetuwaciya nani?” With no response in sight, i got up, saluted her, and left not in peace but in bewilderment.
Meanwhile, the abused girls who got pregnant were sent back to Uganda and some of them were harassed by the commanders wives back home.
I remember one woman by the names of Joyce came to where the Girls who had had babies were based before there were sent home. On arrival, she sarcastically said: “We sent you to fight not to have babies.” I looked at her and didn’t say a word but in my mind, I had literally “killed” her seven times.
By mid-1993, I had literally run out options. I had approached some of the senior officers to help but they didn’t. Although some of them promised, others said that they didn’t want to get involved. Young soldier were concerned but had no way out to help, then I asked one of my colleagues if she knew Afande Kabarebe. In response, she said that he is a good man but she can’t predict his reaction on the issue. I told her that it is worthy to try. The next trial was writing to Afande James.
In the strongly worded letter, I raised my concern about how we were treated in the struggle and for that matter, I needed his audience. Without mincing words, I explained that if nothing is done to check the rampant abuse of women, a volcano would erupt anytime.
Afande James Kabarebe sent for me and my colleague withheld names to go and meet him the following day. On arrival, he received us and went away, came back later and asked us to talk to him. I asked him if we were not Rwandese that has all the rights to fight for our country. Without pausing, i asked further: “Why have you sacrificed our lives? Why are you abusing us? You have abused us psychologically, mentally, physically and you have abandoned us.”
He then agreed that it was true that they sacrificed our lives at the expanse of the war. He went on to say that when they tried to withdraw the women from the front line; and all the commanders threatened to put their guns down and asked Afande Paul Kagame to go and fight the war alone. James apologised and promised to forward our grievances to the high command.
Fast forward, i was after one week called to go and meet Afande Mugambage. We discussed women’s abuse in detail and I suggested that elsewhere in other struggles, women went through the same problems but had a good way of handling the problem. I gave him the example of Nicaragua, Eritrea and other places. When women got pregnant, they were pulled out of the front line and put behind with other responsibilities such as administration and production while looking after their babies. Because of that, women in the above mentioned struggles never felt abandoned as we were. I also explained to him that women who stayed on the frontline formed their own units and they exercised their own command and administration.
In those guerrilla movements, women that were promoted were never seen as favours from one of the commanders who were her boyfriend but rather seen as recognition of their abilities; contrary to our own struggle.
After few weeks around January 1993, we had a meeting with senior officers sent by Afande Paul Kagame. The delegation, led by Afande Stephen Nduguteye, had come to explain to us the new arrangements and also listen to our concerns, but, unfortunately, things hit a dead end.
Nduguteye explained to us that the reason they have come to meet us was that they have formed a women combatant unit which would serve as our base such that we don’t spread AIDS to our male commanders. Whether Ndugute hadn’t understood why he was sent remains unclear to-date but the rest of the commanders, who were present, like all of us women, were exasperated to the bone marrow.
My reaction was to look at other senior commanders like Afande Musitu Charles, Afande Karemera Joseph, Afande Rusagara Frank, Afande Shaban Rutayisire and Afande James Kabarebe, who all looked empty and embarrassed. Screaming in anger, which was interpreted as resent, we stood up and left.
After a week January 1993 we all women combatants and women cadres were called for a meeting with Afande Paul Kagame. We received him with chanting and dancing very happy saying finally we can see “mwenyewe”, literally meaning “himself”. Every woman felt that this was the time we had waited for, for a long time.
Another shock! Paul Kagame, in a satiated fury, started blasting us saying that we rebelled against their decision. He said that we have abused our role. He went on to say: “I heard that some of you said you will crawl and find men where they are in the units. I can shoot your asses.”
No words can explain how I felt. I convinced myself that there was no need of saying anything since it was going to fall into deaf ears. After that, he calmed down and started explaining the reason of forming women unit. When he finished talking, he invited questions. I looked around and all the girls were quiet and even women cadres looked very cold. I then gathered my guts and put up my hand. I was determined to tell him what I felt about them (officers and senior officers and was ready for any repercussion). I started by thanking him for coming to meet us and also for blasting us. I said that when children mess up, the parents tell them off or even punish them but it is too late, the damage is done already. I told him you blamed us that we as women in the struggle have abused our role, but to me it is the other way round. Leaders you have abused your role. I started reminding him how it feels like joining the army and going through the training; how all the ideology you come with is brain washed; and after that training, how you start picking up something else. I also reminded him the beginning of our struggle.
The struggle started with unexpected death of the leader of our struggle Afande Fred Rwigema with other top commanders. It was a blow to all the soldiers and this situation created disorganisation in the struggle.
There was no defined administration and everyone was using own initiative. I asked them who made the girls pregnant. I explained that it was the senior officers (viongozi). Who named all sorts of abusive names to women combatants? Senior officers (viongozi). Who named sick bay as Sodoma and Gomora? Senior officers (viongozi). Who failed to solve our problems even when we asked them to help us and stop such abuses towards women combatants? Senior officers (viongozi).
Not done and with intent to maximise such a God-given opportunity, I told them that leaders have abused us psychologically, mentally and physically. Such psychological and mental abuse has a big impact on us women combatants. To the extent that women senior officers have started fighting junior women combatants because of men as if that was what brought us. I told them that women combatants have not abused their role; we tried to the best of our ability to look for help but never succeeded simply because we were abused by our leaders. I narrated all I did to fight for women’ rights in struggle but failed. I then turned and looked at them and told them: “by the look of most of you, you qualify to be our fathers, if one of us was your own daughter, how would you feel?” They all looked down. I went on to tell them that the damage is done but let us forget the past and focus on our common cause for the sake of our struggle and its objectives. Concluding, i asked the senior officers never to take advantage of war situation and abuse us again; I saluted him and sat down.
I was waiting for a blast of a slap but to my surprise, Afande Paul Kagame looked calm and composed. He agreed that were sacrificed and explained again that all commanders threatened to stop fighting if he was to withdraw us so he had no option other than sacrificing our lives. He promised to support us and said to the commanders that if it happened again, he would imprison them and throw away the keys.
The creation of unit had good outcome. One, we were able to connect and support each other. We were able to exercise our administration and we had a chance to acquire some skills during cease fire. Women promotion was based on capabilities rather than one’s boyfriend.
But it was not going to be rosy anyway. Sooner than later, a downward spiral ensued again. A commander Lt Emmanuel impregnated a young girl of 15 who we had recruited in Byumba after capturing the town. I fought so hard for this officer to be punished but was in vain.
In the Promised Land
It was neither a bed of roses even after capturing state power in 1994. Women abuse persisted- graduating from a curse to be endured not a problem to be solved.
After the war, in 1994, most of the female combatant had a base in camp Kanombe. Some of them were mothers with their little ones. One day can’t recall the date Afande Rwahama Jackson evicted them with no warning and they were thrown outside the barracks with no accommodation at all. How they survived? Don’t ask. That no one cared in the face of such an inhumane act is beyond human comprehension.
Like I said, not all commanders were inhumane but at least 80% were inhuman. On the other side, women cadres faced the same problems but not as women combatants. These cadres- most of whom were graduates and professionals from different institutions- contributed a lot to our struggle, such as Anna Gahogayire, Inyumba Aloisea, Christine Nyinawumwami, Mary Baine, Francine from Burundi to mention a few. But all these ladies were abandoned and harassed by RPF and the government.
All these brilliant, brave, intelligent women are not seen in the parliament neither are they seen in the government. After the war, they all suddenly became incompetent. Obviously, the RPF and the government knew they can never manipulate them so easily and the only option was to harass them and frustrate them (some of these women were in the government and they fall out of favour, right?). How about women combatant who survived the war? Where are they and how are they surviving? I understand some of them suffered the post war trauma, they are often asked if they really fought in the struggle. It is so disheartening, but may be not to some.
This brings me to the crux of this testimony- that the RPA/F has never had any philosophy of emancipating women as a goal but rather using them for their own selfish interests. The same happened, and is still happening in the way the Rwandan government markets “women emancipation rhetoric” as a public relations strategy.
It is not in dispute that Rwanda has one of the highest rates of women representation in the parliament. However, beneath the surface lies intriguing facts that rewind us far back during the struggle. These women parliamentarians are katyushas and recoilless like we were then. 90% of these MPs are incompetent lots who are simply nominated; not elected. Some of them were primary teachers, nurses with no administration skills, not even on local level. How do you expect these women to participate in government affairs? They are simply there for numbers; for PR purposes, and if you allow me throw my modesty away; for caving in on the sexual advances of RPF big men who own power in Rwanda.
This is not to say that all women leaders in Rwanda are an incompetent lot. Some of them are bright but they are not allowed to make any decision. They are all there as flowers decorating Rwanda as the premier government to respect women participation. Others are used and abused like foreign affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo who, at some point, will find it hard to answer all the propaganda she said on behalf of the government of Rwanda. Take a glance at any demonstration of any kind and discern. It is women you will see most- a large majority of whom have no idea of why they are demonstrating.
And if you are wondering about the crux of the matter, it is seeing old women demonstrating at the parliamentary building in support of President Paul Kagame’s third term. One elderly woman from Gatsibo, in an interview USA’s premier news channel- the VOA- said bluntly that “My local leader signed for me and they packed us in a bus to here to support amending the constitution.” If this is not abuse, then what is it?
My personal appeal to all Rwandan women, both inside and abroad and also other women in the whole world, to stand up and fight for peace and their dignity. Look at the wars around the world and ask yourself who the causers are and who suffers most when men mess up the world. We should chose to keep quiet and suffer for ever or get up and fight with the help of few men who have a heart to bring peace in the world.
Jeanne Umulisa is a former RPA officer.