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Sexual violence in the context of the genocide in Rwanda

* Warning: This text contains descriptions of extreme violence. *

Verena Muckermann, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

“But when you saw, you could see the evidence, even in the whitened skeletons. The legs bent and apart. A broken bottle, a rough branch, even a knife between them. Where the bodies were fresh, we saw what must have been semen pooled on and near the dead women and girls. There was always a lot of blood. Some male corpses had their genitals cut off, but many women and young girls had their breasts cut off and their genitals crudely cut apart. They died in a position of total vulnerability, flat on their backs, with their legs bent and their knees wide apart. It was the expressions on their dead faces that assaulted me the most, a frieze of shock, pain and humiliation” (Dallaire, 2003, p.430). 

The sexual violence perpetrated in the context of the Rwandan genocide starting in April 1994 (mainly but not exclusively by the Hutu against the Tutsi) was recognized as a systematic part of genocide for the first time at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu. During this trial, but also in further proceedings before the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania, many victims of sexual violence as well as members of the peacekeeping forces testified in court and contributed significantly to the documentation of the acts of sexual violence during the genocide (Brouwer, 2015, p.654). 

In addition to a brief contextualization of the genocide itself, the aim of this article is to describe the practice of collective sexual violence in the context of genocide and extermination in Rwanda in 1994 by using transcribed (English-language) witness testimonies of the ICTR, further publicly available victim testimonies and relevant secondary literature.  Artifacts that have been reinterpreted for the acts of violence, as well as the pattern of spreading HIV during sexual assaults receive special attention. 

Furthermore, similarities of the environment in which rapes took place, which are reflected in the witness statements and reports, will be analyzed. For example, the forest or the bushes and roadblocks are frequently indicated as crime scenes and thus the surroundings’ contribution to the practice will be examined. In addition, witnesses also mention the presence of other persons as part of the practice of sexual violence, be it public due to spectators or because of a group of perpetrators (Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009), so that the public display of sexual violence will also constitute an important point of analysis within the article. Throughout the article, many survivors’ accounts will be presented in a grouped way. They raised their voices for the truth to be heard and their stories will be presented in the original wording, rather than in a rephrased manner. 

Context: The Rwandan genocide 

“Genocide is often called the most serious of crimes and with good reason: it is the most extreme and final form of violence and is the ultimate denial of a group’s right to live” (Smeulers and Grünfeld, 2011, p.199). 

The Rwandan genocide lasted 100 days, from early April until July 1994. In the four months after the plane crash of President Habyarimana, about 800.000 to one million Rwandans died. The Tutsi, one of the three main ethnic groups next to the Hutu and the Twa, were blamed for the death of the president, even though the truth has never been found. “Whoever did shoot the plane, the killings started that very same day. After the plane crash Rwanda changed overnight” (Smeulers and Grünfeld, 2011, p.193). Next to moderate Hutu, who were married to Tutsi or gave them shelter, predominantly Tutsi were targeted. The resulting killings were however so well-organized, that it is assumed that the genocide was planned by the Hutu majority beforehand. Estimations show that about 75% of the Tutsi who lived in Rwanda at the beginning of 1994 were killed during the genocide (Smeulers and Grünfeld, 2011, p.195). 

At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), it was later legally established that the atrocities amounted to genocide. This means that the acts were “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” (ICTR Statute, 2010, Article 2) and therefore aimed to the physical destruction of the Tutsi population. This entry however does not further examine the genocidal intent prevalent during the atrocities but focuses on the acts of sexual violence that were committed as one part of the genocidal acts. There is “an estimated lower bound of a little more than 350,000 female rape victims, most of whom were Tutsi” (Bijleveld, Morssinkhof and Smeulers, 2009, p.208).  

In the context of the genocide, “rape was conducted not only to degrade and humiliate the victim individually but also to socially disgrace and destroy an entire community” (Smeulers and Grünfeld, 2011, p.197). On the one hand, because rape is associated with strong stigmatization in a society where women are particularly dependent from men and therefore leads to very difficult living conditions (ibid.), but on the other hand also because “ethnicity was determined along patrilineal lines, the offspring of Tutsi women and Hutu men were legally Hutu” (Green, 2002, p.746). This means that children born by a Tutsi woman from rape by a Hutu man would be Hutu themselves, so that the Tutsi population would no longer be existent in the next population.  

To conclude, the acts of sexual violence further investigated in the following sections should be seen in the light of this context. “Rape during the Rwandan genocide was clearly more than a violation of an individual. It was a deliberate assault on a community and was conducted in order to eliminate the Tutsis. Rape was not incidental to genocide – it was used as a means of genocide” (Smeulers and Grünfeld, 2011, p.197). 

Patterns of sexual violence 

“When the violence began, the violence directed at the women, not surprisingly, was sexual violence.  It was directed at their sexuality.  And women were raped, gang-raped.  They were held in sexual slavery, both forced marriages, individual sexual slavery.  They were raped with objects such as sharp sticks or weapons.  These rapes were followed by sexual mutilations such as cutting off of breasts or mutilations of vaginas.  And this happened throughout the country throughout the genocide, and it happened in an open fashion.  These were not rapes that occurred behind closed doors”  (Bagosora trial, Witness Nowrojee, 2004, p.33). 

Binaifer Nowrojee, a Human Rights Watch (HWR) researcher, presented several patterns of sexual violence in the Rwandan genocide in her report Shattered lives – Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath (HRW, 1996) and testified as an overview witness at the Bagosora trial before the ICTR. The following sections provide insights into these and further identified patterns of sexual violence by using her as well as several other (survivor) testimonies. 

The concept of sexual violence in this article encompasses not only physical sexual violence but goes beyond the definition of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which includes “rape (footnote: According to the ICC Elements of Crimes, rape is defined as invasion “of the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body”. Furthermore, it is required that ”the invasion was committed by force, or by threat of force or coercion, such as that caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power, against such person or another person, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment, or the invasion was committed against a person incapable of giving genuine consent.” (ICC, 2011, Elements of Crimes), sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” (ICC, 2011 Rome Statute, Article 7 (1) (g)). In line with the World Health Organization, sexual violence here means “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work” (WHO, 2002, p.149). 

Even though “these crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which Tutsi women were raped after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes” (HRW, 1996, p.2), this entry does not further evaluate the particularly sadistic nature of the overarching crimes during the Rwandan genocide but limits its focus on the specific patterns of sexual violence that will be examined in the following. These patterns are not necessarily part of every single act of sexual violence that has occurred. Nevertheless, it will become visible that they frequently overlapped and constituted the overall picture of what has happened during the Rwandan genocide in terms of sexual violence. 

Organized propaganda and its effects 

“I remember that, outside the gates of the ISAR centre, in a nearby forest, one of the Interahamwe said he wanted ‘to see what a Tutsi woman tastes like’. Then the Interahamwe stated raping us. Some Interahamwe held me down and took turns raping me, while others shouted insults at us, saying that we were nothing more than snakes and cockroaches. They shouted ‘remember the past months when you were proud of yourselves and didn’t look at us because you felt we were lower than you? Now that will never happen again’. I felt that I was no longer a human being. I lost consciousness during the time I was being raped by the fifth militia member”  (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.114). 

The structured use of media like radio and newspapers by the Hutu extremists even before 1994 “demonized the Tutsi population by playing upon historical stereotypes and misconceptions” (Green, 2002, pp.733-734). The propaganda against the Tutsi women was twofold: they were targeted because of their gender, and because of their ethnicity: 

“the organised nature of the propaganda that preceded the violence, which I have not seen in my experience in such a sort of overt and organised fashion, which then contributed to fuelling that violence and targeting of women — Tutsi women on the basis of their gender and ethnicity.  And so what you see then in the rapes that do occur, the statements that are made by the rapists mirror very directly the stereotypes that were put forth in the propaganda that preceded the genocide” (Bagosora trial, witness Nawrojee, 2004, p.34). 

In the propaganda, female Tutsi were portrayed as “beautiful, manipulative, highly sexual infiltrators dedicated to humiliating Hutu men and furthering Tutsi dominance” (Green, 2002, p.734) in addition to the status of an enemy that was attributed to Tutsi in general. As one example, Cartoons were distributed that portrayed female Tutsi as prostitutes together with foreign politicians or soldiers (ibid., p.748). This sexualization of Tutsi women in the preface of the genocide had severe consequences in its course. 

“what we found is, when Tutsi women were being raped, the rapes were frequently accompanied with statements about either their gender or their ethnicity. Let me take gender first.  Gender — in terms of gender, the stereotype is that these Tutsi women were very beautiful, but also very arrogant and very – and thought themselves too good.  And so a number of the statements were to the effect that, ‘You thought you were too good for us’, or ‘You thought — were too arrogant, now we will teach you’, or ‘You’, you know, ‘You Tutsi women’ — and in terms of ‘You thought’, you know, ‘we wouldn’t have had you under normal times, but now we can have you.’ The other aspect of the statements targeted directly their ethnicity and statements were made as to their deviousness; the fact that they — their ethnicity was also problematic. So comments like, ‘You Tutsi snakes’, ‘You Tutsis, we will’ — one of the women said that she had been told ‘We will leave nothing except drawings to show that there were Tutsi people’” (Bagosora trial, witness Nawrojee, 2004, pp.89-90). 

The link between the propaganda distributed in the media and the later statements made during acts of sexual violence is undisputable and played a substantial role in the prevalence and nature of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide, which was – as will be shown in the following – not only distinct in this respect. 

Intimate nature of sexual violence 

Another factor to be considered when examining the Rwandan genocide is the fact that the violence that occurred was particularly intimate. People who lived together as neighbours, in-laws, or co-workers before were with the onset of the genocide suddenly enemies trying to kill each other or trying to survive (Green, 2002, p.740). And as for all genocidal acts, this intimate nature was also true for the acts of sexual violence. Many survivors identified those men who raped them as neighbours, or even men they rejected before (HRW, 1996). But not only the direct perpetrators were familiar, but also those who stood by, as this testimony illustrates:  

“They detained me, and the leader of the group, a twenty-one-year-old named Damascene, ordered me to strip my clothes off so that he could ‘see what Tutsi sex looked like’. I recognized Damascene from before the genocide. He lived in a house in my neighbourhood. He was a quiet person, and no one really knew him. As I started to undress, he hit me on the head with a stone and hit my back with a club. He grew impatient with me and started to tear off my clothes himself. He pushed me into a ditch and raped me in front of his friends, who were standing nearby. Many other Hutu, who were my neighbours, were also watching. I knew them all. They watched and laughed, as if Damascene was an artist painting his masterpiece” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.60). 

This testimony shows the remarkable tension between the intimate nature of the acts due to the knowledge of the perpetrators on the one hand and the public display on the other hand. 

Public nature of sexual violence 

These were not rapes that occurred in secret.  These were not rapes that occurred behind closed doors.  They happened at checkpoints.  They happened in cultivated fields.  They happened near government buildings.  They happened in or near hospitals.  They happened where people had fled to seek sanctuary, such as churches.  They happened in plain view, in open view, and often these women, after they were raped, were left — the bodies were left dead and spreadeagled in public view.  (Bagosora trial, witness Nawrojee, 2004, p.89) 

The public nature of the sexual violence in Rwanda had three main pillars: the public places where the acts took place that led to spectators and witnesses, the element of group rapes and the public display of survivors and corpses. 

Crime sites 

Next to rather private places like houses of the perpetrator or the victim itself (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, pp.37, 52, 120, 121), predominantly outdoor places were mentioned as crime sites by the survivors. According to the testimonies, this can merely be seen as opportunistic since the perpetrators encountered their victims there, but as a manifest pattern that also proved true when the victims were met somewhere else: 

“we eventually arrived in a refugee camp in Gitarama. This was a camp of about two hundred people, set up by Tutsi. We stayed there for three weeks. One morning, as I was walking to the toilets in the refugee camp, two Hutu men abducted me. Those two men took me to a tiny forest nearby and ordered me to take my clothes off so that they could see what a Tutsi woman looked like. One of them raped me immediately in that forest, and while it was happening I could hear other people screaming and the sounds of guns going off all around us. The other man raped me after the first one was finished. After about one hour, I returned to the camp” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.89). 

“They took the women to the bush” (HRW, 1996, p.32) or “one soldier picked me out of the group and took me to a nearby bush” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.32) could soon be understood as a synonym for being raped. To choose a publicly approachable space like the bush, the forest (ibid., p.32, 115, 121), a ditch (ibid., p.45) or a lake (HRW, 1996, p.26) as a crime site seemed to be an important element of the practice, even if the woman was captured in a house for days, that would have provided opportunity for the conduct to be committed in a more private space: 

“This soldier raped me. After he was done with me, he took me to a house and told the owners of the house to keep me safe, so that he could rape me every time he came. He told them in anything happened to me he would kill them. Every time he came to the house after that, he took me to the forest to rape me. Over five days, I was raped five times a day. The rapist didn’t say anything to me. In the forest, the local people often saw me being raped by this man. The local people, and Interahamwe militiaman and other Hutu would watch the soldier rape me and did not even raise their little finger to stop it. They didn’t care, because I was Tutsi. They were silent” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.32). 

Thus, it can be concluded that not only opportunity led to the reported rapes at commune centers, refugee camps (ibid., pp.46, 62, 121), stadiums or at roadblocks where Tutsi were intercepted from fleeing (HWR, 1996, p.31), but that the public nature as a result of the chosen crime sites had on many occasions an essential contribution to the practice of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide itself. 

One perpetrator later recounted that he “did not hear many [Hutu] women protesting against Tutsis being raped […] They agreed on this, except of course if the men did their dirty sex work near the houses” (Hatzfeld, 2003, p.111). It can therefore be assumed that the collective element of the sexual violence encompassed more than the direct perpetrators, but rather a large part of the Hutu population, which might have also contributed to the distinct nature of the sexual violence as established in this article. 

In addition to the burden for the victims who recall that “all of my neighbors had seen or heard what had happened to me” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.52) and were witnesses of the crimes in public places, sometimes even family members of the victims were forced to watch the acts of sexual violence: 

“While Damascene raped me, one of the Interahamwe decided to call my father and force him to see what was happening to me. When my father came, he begged the Interahamwe to kill him instead of raping me, but they wouldn’t. He ran back to his house, screaming in agony” (ibid., p.60). 

“They said that they wanted to kill us but first they wanted to ‘taste’ a Tutsi woman. They raped me one after the other, in front of my children” (ibid., p.133). 

This refers back to the genocidal context in which these acts took place. The acts of sexual violence targeted not only the women, but the whole family, community, and Tutsi population. 

Group rape  

Another very prevalent pattern during the Rwandan genocide is sexual violence committed by multiple perpetrators. In extreme cases, survivors reported numbers of 20-50 perpetrators: 

“In the end, they refused to sell me, and they pushed me to the ground, injuring my chest. Afterward, the men raped me, one by one. Even the youngest ones in the group raped me, and they looked like they were no older than thirteen. Almost fifty men raped me in one day. I was too numb to feel anything” (ibid., p.75). 

Not only did the perpetrators openly encourage and invite others to take part in the rapes (ibid., p.54), but they also incited children to participate, as another witness recounts: 

“I was stopped at a roadblock. I told them I was Hutu, but they told me to show them my fingers and said that my fingers were too long to be Hutu. Then, they told me to show them what I used to do to my husband. These Interahamwe called over young men, some as young as twelve years old. Four of them raped me while six older Interahamwe watched and encouraged them. The smallest boys were not even able to do anything” (HRW, 1996, p.33). 

The prevalence of the group rapes as well as the instruction of children to participate points next to the public nature especially to the collective element of this practice of violence. In the militia groups, an atmosphere was created where it was normalized to take part in the acts of sexual violence and where committing such acts became part of the male socialization process.  

This process however was not necessarily only directed at children, but also to other militiamen under the command of perpetrators like Alfred Musema, who was later convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity including rape (Musema judgement,2000): 

“Telling his troops that ‘he would give them an example as to what to do with the women… the young men should take the Tutsi women and see how they are made’, he raped the woman, then stabbed her in the throat. After their leader was finished, the militia men fell upon the rest of the women ‘raping them and after raping them, they stuck some pointed sticks into their private parts… those who did not die were finished off either with clubs or with machetes’” (Mullins, 2009, p.728). 

Public display of corpses 

„One, when they killed women it appeared that the blows that had killed them were aimed at sexual organs, either breasts or vagina; they had been deliberately swiped or slashed in those areas.  And, secondly, there was a great deal of what we came to believe was rape, where the women’s bodies or clothes would be ripped off their bodies, they would be lying back in a back position, their legs spread, especially in the case of very young girls.  I’m talking girls as young as six, seven years of age, their vaginas would be split and swollen from obviously multiple gang rape, and then they would have been killed in that position. So they were laying in a position they had been raped; that’s the position they were in” (Bagosora trial, witness Beardsley, 2004, p.51) 

The victims and survivors of rape were often equally left behind by the perpetrators. Those who were still alive were told to go away since they were already dead due to the rape, and the dead bodies were left in plain sight at the very same places they were raped at, or even raped again after their death (HRW, 1996, p.29). 

Roméo Dallaire, the head of the UNAMIR peacekeeping mission, testified at the ICTR how he remembered the crime sites he and his troops witnessed: 

“I can’t say it was a standard operating procedure by the extremists as such, but we could notice on many sites, sometimes very fresh — that is, I am speaking of my observers and myself — that young girls, young women, would be laid out with their dresses over their heads, the legs spread and bent.  You could see what seemed to be semen drying or dried.  And it all indicated to me that these women were raped.  And then a variety of material were crushed or implanted into their vaginas; their breasts were cut off, and the faces were, in many cases, still the eyes were open and there was like a face that seemed horrified or something.  They all laid on their backs.  So, there were some men that were mutilated also, their genitals and the like.  A number of them were — women had their breasts cut off or their stomach open.  But there was, I would say generally at the sites you could find younger girls and young women who had been raped or, you know, deducting that they were raped“ (Bagosora trial, witness Dallaire, 2004, p.32). 

That this public display of corpses did not only occur due to and in the event of approaching peacekeeping forces is demonstrated by the survivors who describe that even in the earlier period of the genocide, women “were left dead with their legs spread apart” (HRW, 1996, p.27) or that they “saw one woman ripped apart and hung. And one leg was in place, the other leg in another” (ibid., p.29). It was reminding those people that were still alive of their potential fate should they eventually encounter the militiamen (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.17), and in addition to the physical destruction of the group also destroyed the memory of the nearly exterminated Tutsi population as humans rather than dehumanized, mutilated corpses, laying in ditches or at roadblocks with wooden weapons in their genitals (Mullins, 2009, p.732). 

On some occasions, the corpses were not only left behind, but arranged in sexual positions: “I also found a body … the legs were apart and the body of her child… was placed on her genitals, as if she was being forced to have sexual intercourse with the mother” (Mullins, 2009, p.730). 

Humiliation 

“They placed some banana leaves on the ground and ordered me to lie down. Before raping me, they ordered me to perform all kinds of gymnastics, including handstands, which was difficult because I was very weak. They tortured me in so many cruel ways, forcing me to take their penises in my mouth and shoving their penises up my nose. Their sperm fell from my nose onto my body and into my mouth. I wanted to vomit. I felt so stupid, and I could do nothing. They insulted and humiliated me. They told me that I was ugly and dirty and that I stank. No one was there to help me” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.76). 

Humiliation constituted another very prevalent pattern of sexual violence committed during the Rwandan genocide. Next to insults and degrading comments, often times the public display of the particularly shameful experience of being victimized by sexual violence added up to the humiliation experienced by the Tutsi. As will become visible in the following testimony, particularly the nudity as well as being treated as animals were part of the degrading treatment endured by many Tutsi women: 

“The next day after I was raped, all the women were forced by the Interahamwe to walk on the road naked like a group of cattle. At all the roadblocks that we passed, the other Interahamwe were shouting to them “kill them, you have to kill them. They will make Tutsi babies.” Those Interahamwe who were keeping us for rape would answer that they would kill us later. By this time, we all smelt because we had not washed. We had no clothes. We were covered with blood. Blood was everywhere. When I urinated, blood was coming out. Some women were dying of exhaustion. The Interahamwe made us sing militia songs while we walked. By the time the group reached Kabgayi, only approximately thirty women had survived the ordeal” (HRW, 1996, p.32). 

In Rwanda, being seen naked is considered especially shameful (Mullins, 2009, p.729). Moreover, the humiliation additionally contained making the women aware of their help- and powerless situation, in particular compared to the life they lived before. 

“One of them argued that it would be a great mistake if they killed me without humiliating me first. He said that they should strip me naked and do to me all that they wanted, in order to tell others that they had been thorough in carrying out their ‘work’. I was nothing but an instrument of gratification for them. The men ordered me to undress, and I could do nothing but obey. After that, they asked me if I still refused to have sex with them. Tears burned my eyes, and I started weeping. They laughed at me, saying that there was no one left to hear my cries and no one to stand with me. They ordered me to lie down, and a man I had refused to date before the genocide raped me first. Before he raped me, he said I now had no choice but to accept him. After he was finished, another raped me, and another, and another, until I did not have the courage to keep count. These men were so sadistic that they tried to cut my vagina into two parts with a sword in order to share me. I still have deep scars on my pelvis today. I as bleeding so profusely that the next man about to rape me did not do it, saying it was disgusting. All of this happened during the daytime, in front of the bar. Many Interahamwe were watching, dancing and laughing at me. The whole time, I felt nothing. I thought I was going to die” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, pp.101-102). 

As described in another witness testimony at the ICTR, being raped by a substantially younger man or even a boy was considered particularly painful and humiliating for the women (Akayesu trial, witness JJ,1997, p.59) and yet occurred as a manifest, rather not coincidental pattern. 

Mutilation 

They were raped with objects.  A lot of women were raped with sharpened sticks, often to their death, or with weapons, and they are also often sexually mutilated after they were raped, either with injuries to their breasts or vagina, or to features that were considered as Tutsi such as noses or long fingers.  These are some of the broad patterns (Bagosora trial, Witness Nowrojee, 2004, p.86). 

The humiliation and the public nature of the sexual violence culminated in the pattern of mutilation, due to which for example pregnant women were unable to give birth to their Tutsi children:  

“Pregnant women had their stomachs slashed open, foetuses on the floor.  Even a foetus was smashed.  I remember — just from the time I was there, I remember looking down, a woman obviously had tried to protect her baby.  Somebody had rolled her off the baby.  The baby was still alive and trying to feed on her breasts.  She’d been — her clothes had been ripped off.  The killing that was done was not done, in their opinion, to kill the people immediately; it had been done to kill them slowly.  Women’s breasts, women vaginas had been cut with machetes; men’s scrotum areas cut with machetes” (Bagosora trial, witness Beardsley, 2004, pp.44-45). 

Next to this violent abortion of pregnancies and therefore the attempt to extinguish the Tutsi population, the mutilation was often combined with other, already mentioned patterns of sexual violence, as described in the following testimony of a woman who recognized some of the militiamen as her neighbours: 

“He said, ‘you are lucky. Your god is still with you because we don’t want to kill you. Now the Hutu have won. You Tutsi, we are going to exterminate you. You won’t own anything.’ When he finished, he took me inside and put me on a bed. He held one leg of mine open and another one held the other leg. He called everyone who was outside and said, ‘you come and see how Tutsikazi are on the inside.’ Then he said, ‘You Tutsikazi, you think you are the only beautiful women in the world.’ Then he cut out the inside of my vagina. He took the flesh outside, took a small stick and put what he had cut on the top. He stuck the stick in the ground outside the door and was shouting, ‘Everyone who comes past here will see how Tutsikazi look.’ Then he came back inside and beat me again. Up to today, my legs are swollen. Then they left. I crawled out of the house bleeding. There was blood everywhere” (HRW, 1996, p.38). 

This combination of propaganda, knowing the perpetrators, the public display of the sexual violence and accompanying humiliation as well as mutilation preventing Tutsi offspring constitutes a very distinct picture of the acts of sexual violence that occurred during the Rwandan genocide. 

Artifacts 

„Another pattern is the rape of women using objects.  The most common object that was recounted to me was the use of sharpened sticks.  And frequently I heard testimonies of women, from witnesses, who talked about women being speared to death through their vagina with sharpened sticks.  Other objects were used including weapons.  And we know, also, in the case of the prime minister, a bottle was put in her vagina.  So objects — these sorts of things also were meant to worsen the pain, or to also humiliate, to degrade. They were part of both terrorising and degrading” (Bagosora trial, witness Nawrojee, p.87). 

The following section is going to explore the diversity of artifacts used for acts of sexual violence in the course of the genocide. They constitute a continuum starting from weapons to everyday objects, some of which were used in a way that was rather obvious, whereas others were reinterpreted to be applied for acts of sexual violence.  

“Every single person in Rwanda knew how to use a machete and thus the tool was easy to use” (Smeulers and Grünfeld, 2011, p.199). Next to killing and mutilating Tutsi and moderate Hutu, the machetes were also used to impose a threat and create duress. One survivor recounts for example that a militiaman “would keep the machete near the bed while he raped me” (HRW, 1996, p.35).  

An artifact being used with a similar twofold function were knives. On the one hand, the threat to be killed using the knife led many women to obey the orders of the perpetrators under duress (HRW, 1996, p.40; Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.138), but they were also used for severe mutilation of genitals or other body parts (HRW, 1996, p.40). The same is valid for swords (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.67). 

The use of condoms however, even if their use would be more likely implied in acts of sexual violence than other artifacts, was a rather rare occurrence (Akayesu trial, witness JJ, 1997). Their absence will be further discussed in the section regarding the transmission of sexually transmittable diseases like HIV. 

Further artifacts used predominantly in acts of mutilation were boiling water and acid that were poured into vaginas (HRW, 1996, pp.37-38). 

Figure 1: Weapons used for acts of sexual violence including clubs, machetes, and arrows (Genocide Archive of Rwanda, 2020)

Moreover, several artifacts were used to penetrate the vagina of Tutsi women. One survivor remembers: “After they were done raping me, they shoved a nailed club into my vagina, threw me into a thorny bush and left me in that state. I removed the club very slowly and dragged myself to a nearby river, because I thought the water from the river would help heal me” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.75). 

Another artifact, in this case concerning the moderate Hutu prime minister at that time, was discovered penetrating the left-behind corpse: 

“She had been shot. The prime minister had been shot from the head downwards, up to the lower abdomen.  And a fanta bottle had been thrust in the genitals of the prime minister — in the genitals of the prime minister.  And she was bleeding and the body was so — in such a bad shape that one could imagine that she must have been shot 10 or 12 times. […] The bottle was thrust in her — in the prime minister’s genitals, but I do not know who had thrust the bottle in her genitals, because when that was done, I was not there” (Bagosora trial, witness DA, 2003). 

One of the most reported artifacts used in acts of sexual violence were sharpened sticks of wood, as described in this testimony: 

“Then, one of them sharpened the end of a stick of a hoe. They held open my legs and pushed the stick into me. I was screaming. They did it three times until I was bleeding everywhere. Then they told me to leave. I tried to stand up, but I kept falling down. Finally I crawled outside. I was naked crawling on the ground covered in blood” (HRW, 1996, p.26). 

In many cases, this use of an artifact would constitute the final act of sexual violence, and the victims were either killed directly or left behind to die: 

“About ten of them would gang-rape a woman, and when they had finished, they would kill her by pushing a sharpened stick the size of a broomstick into her vagina until she was bleeding and almost dead. I saw them do this to several women” (HRW, 1996, p.39). 

Arrows – as depicted in figure 1 – were used the same way, but less frequently so (HRW, 1996, p.31). A possible interpretation is that sharpened sticks were simply easier replicable and available, so that they could be left behind without a major loss, compared to an arrow or other, more sophisticated weapons. 

One example of radically reinterpreted artifacts is given in the following testimony, where food was used to penetrate victims after mutilating them: 

“They picked two of the women in the group: a twenty-five year old and a thirty year old and then gang-raped them. When they finished, they cut them with knives all over while the other Interahamwe watched. Then they took the food from the table and stuffed it into their vaginas. The women died. They were left dead with their legs spread apart” (HRW, 1996, p.27). 

Sexually transmitted diseases: HIV/ AIDS 

Gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV were few of many sexually transmittable diseases (STDs) survivors of rape encountered. Brouwer (2007) estimates that 70-80% of the female genocide survivors were infected with HIV. Even though there is missing baseline data, survivor’s testimonies suggest that the infections rose significantly due to the sexual violence during the genocide. Since condoms have only been worn in exceptional cases (Akayesu trial, witness JJ, 1997), it can be concluded that the mass rapes contributed significantly to the high prevalence of HIV in Rwanda (Brouwer, 2007, p.212). 

That absence of condoms was often a deliberate choice rather than mistake or act by chance becomes visible due to testimonies of survivors:  

“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” (Donovan, 2002, p.17). 

“In one case the Interahamwe intended to have the mother transmit HIV/AIDS to her seven year old son since she had just been raped by an HIV/AIDS positive Interahamwe” (Brouwer, 2015, p.643). 

“One victim, Françoise Nduwimana, revealed that she was raped for sixty days in front of her children and that her body ‘was used as a thoroughfare for all the hoodlums, militia men and soldiers in the district.’ The soldiers would tell her that some of them had HIV and hoped to transmit the virus to her” (Bradford di Caro, 2019, p.76). 

Since diseases like HIV/AIDS can also be transmitted to children during pregnancies, it can be argued that in the context of the Rwandan genocide, infecting Tutsi women with HIV/AIDS was not a by-product of opportunistic rapes but was rather purposefully inflicted upon individuals as a weapon to eliminate the whole Tutsi population, including following generations. In other words: 

“Until the very last of their rape victims dies of AIDS—and until all the HIV-positive children born to those victims, and all the sex partners subsequently infected by them have died—in effect, the genocide continues” (Donovan, 2002, p.18). 

Forced marriage – sexual slavery 

„There’s another category, the second category of what, in Rwanda, is called ‘forced marriage’ or ‘mariage forcé’.  This is what I would call individual sexual slavery.  These were women who were taken by individual soldiers, fighters, militiamen, whatever you would call them, and held as ‘wives’ or held for ‘protection’.  And it is very important that you understand the euphemisms that are used in describing this because these women were not wives, they did not choose to go with these men. They were held for periods of time under coercive circumstances where they feared to leave or they were unable to leave because of the situation.  Many of these women, because of the long duration of  stay with these men, ended up having children as a result.  

Another common pattern was collective sexual slavery where women were held in houses of rape.  Several of them were held in a place where they were used to sexually service groups of men.  They were held anywhere from a few days to a month or months” (Bagosora trial, witness Nawrojee, 2004, p.87). 

In line with Nawrojee (1996), even though the phenomenon was often referred to as forced marriage or being a wife to the perpetrator, in this article the term will not be applied. Instead, it will be phrased as what it is, sexual slavery (HRW, 1996, p.33). 

Individual sexual slavery 

In some cases, women were abducted by a man they knew or even rejected before who saw an opportunity profiting from the overall situation: 

“I told him that my boy was a girl, and he said that he was going to make me his ‘wife’ and that my ‘daughter’ would replace me when I did not satisfy him. He took the two of us to his house, where he ordered me to cook some beer for him […] I knew this Interahamwe militiaman. He was called Yabu. Before the genocide, he had told me many times that he loved me, and I had always rejected him. Now it was his time to take revenge on me. He told me that he was going to do whatever he wanted. I never truly understood the meaning of those words until the day he inflicted his savage desires upon me. He abused me in every kind of position: from behind, in front and even with his fingers. The very first day he raped me, I begged him to kill me, but he said that I still had a lot to endure. I lived that hell on earth every day for about three weeks. Even though I was not locked in the house, I was afraid to go out, because other Interahamwe militia might kill or rape me […] I stayed in the house doing nothing; I was too afraid to do anything”  (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, pp.67-68). 

Often, no further threat or coercion was necessary to keep the women under control of the perpetrator, because in light of the genocide happening at the front doors, the women did not see any alternatives but to stay 

“I could not escape, since I did not have any other hiding place, and I could not refuse, because he would call the Interahamwe […] this man did not want me to do any household chores, because he was afraid that I would poison him” (ibid., p.70). 

As personal slaves, the element of public display vanished. Instead, these women were sometimes even hidden to protect them from being shared with or killed by other perpetrators. “Such women were often called “women of the ceiling” because captors hid them in a space between the roof and the ceiling to prevent their being discovered and killed by others” (HRW, 1996, p.33).  

In other cases, women were abducted by groups, detained and repeatedly raped as a compensation for the militiamen: 

“After they finished, they took me to one of the abandoned houses they were camped in. I could not escape, because they would lock all the doors when they left to do their ‘work’. I was the only women in the house, and for two weeks many Interahamwe raped me every day, using me as their personal sex slave” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.76). 

Collective sexual slavery 

In some militias, sexual slavery was institutionalized in the way that the leader of the group would decide, which of his fighters would receive one of the abducted Tutsi women as a reward: 

“The head of the militia, Bonaventure Mutabazi, decreed that the four older girls would be given as wives to those militia who had killed a lot-as a prize. The two younger girls would continue to be confined and guarded by the militia. The following day, a marriage celebration was held. The militia conducted the ceremony themselves. The head of the militia decided which girl would be given to which militia member. Jeanne said: Bonaventure Mutabazi already had two wives, but he took me. The others were given to the militia without wives, who then took them back to their houses. The two youngest ones were sent to stay in a neighbor’s house. After that, I began a new life. I worked in the fields and in the house. I asked to go see the area where I was from, but he refused. We were told that our family’s land would be split among our husbands. We spent two weeks as “wives.” I thought that I would live like that until my death. All four of us were kept separately. We weren’t allowed to see or speak to each other” (HRW, 1996, p.26). 

Even though the women who were captured together were detained individually by a particular militia member, the militia as a whole confined many women in sexual slavery, so that some women were detained collectively by the same militia member. Other women reported that they found a house which “appeared to be an Interahamwe’s harem, full of Tutsi women and girls. There were about ten teenage girls in the house, all between about sixteen and twenty years old” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.32). 

 

This survivor’s testimony describes the collective sexual slavery by the Interahamwe in a former school-building: 

“After ripping our clothes to pieces, they took seven girls, including my older sister and me, to a small classroom in the compound. There were six of them, and they spent three hours raping us, without taking a break of even five minutes. After all six had finished raping us, they left, saying that their ‘work’ was calling. We all lay where we were because we were so weak. I felt a lot of anger and wanted to die. When the Interahamwe returned later that night, we were still in the classroom, lying down. They spent the rest of the night raping us, and from that day on, being raped by six different men a day became our routine.  The Interahamwe hardly spoke to us, except when they ordered us to come to them in order to be raped. We had to go through these horrors for one week” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.108). 

Sexual violence against men 

“After about a week, a Hutu woman found me and took me to her house. The women locked me in her house. I was only thirteen, and the horrors I experienced in her house were more than I could endure. She forced me to have sex with her. She raped me three times a day for three days. She made me lie on the floor, and because I did not have any experience with sex, she instructed me on how to do it. She would stroke my penis up and down with her hands first. Because I was still young, I had a hard penis fairly quickly, and then she would force my penis into her vagina. Sometimes she forced me to go on top of her, and sometimes she went on top of me. She was much stronger than I was, and since I was afraid, I did everything she told me to do. She also threatened me, saying that she would call the Interahamwe if I did not cooperate and that they would surely kill me. I don’t know why she did this to a young boy like me, but she didn’t have a husband, and it seemed she saw me as her husband. It was pure cruelty, especially considering my young age” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.91).  

Even though most of the victims of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide were women, men were also victimized. According to Bradford di Caro (2019), there has been little public attention to the acts of sexual violence against males during the Rwandan genocide, even though they were for example “forced to ‘place their genital organs in sand-filled holes and other horrifying experiences’ […]” (Bradford di Caro, 2019, p.78). 

One male Rwandan rape survivor stated that these acts were not isolated, but that 

“there are several instances of young boys who were ‘beaten into erection’ in order to have sexual intercourse with them. A seven-year-old Tutsi boy and his mother were attacked in their village by Hutu forces during the genocide. After finding out that the mother was HIV-positive, the boy ‘was made to have sexual intercourse with his mother as a means of infecting him with HIV/AIDS.’ The aggressors then boasted that the boy would surely die with his mother, even as they both attempted to help each other survive. Another fifty-year-old Rwandan male’s penis was infected when he was forced to have intercourse with dead animals while his wife, children, and neighbors watched” (ibid., p.81). 

The humiliation accompanying the shame of being also forced to infect other Tutsi women with HIV during coerced sexual intercourse was an additional burden for the survivors “condemning previously healthy Tutsi women to death” (ibid., pp.74-75). 

The sexual violence against men did not only include rape, but also mutilation of genitals and other body parts (Bagosora trial, witness Beardsley, 2004, pp.44-45). One survivor recounts that:

“he was raped by three males, who not only anally penetrated their victims, but also used knives and sticks to mutilate their reproductive organs. As both the mutilation and rape were occurring, the victim heard the soldiers discussing how the Tutsis would die off if their men could no longer have erections” (Bradford di Caro, 2019, p.82). 

Thus, it can be inferred from the testimonies, that the acts of sexual violence against men as well as those directed against women were not only targeting individuals, but the whole Tutsi population as such. 

Actors 

The Interahamwe militia committed the most acts of sexual violence against the predominantly Tutsi population. The militia group was composed mostly of Hutu youth (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.171). As was later established at the ICTR, it was evident that the violence was systematically used to exterminate the Tutsi and that the militia leaders encouraged their fighters to take part. But the militia was not the only party to engage in such acts. 

There are also several testimonies of survivors that mention French soldiers committing acts of sexual violence in UNHCR refugee camps or tolerating rape committed by the Interahamwe: 

“Suddenly, a French soldier appeared out of nowhere, grabbed me by the arm, took me to a trench, took my baby off my back, slapped me, pushed me into the trench and raped me, while five other French soldiers watched. I thought he was going to kill me, so I didn’t shout or scream. He behaved like a wild animal. When he finished raping me, the others raped me too, one by one until all six had their fill. They did to me whatever perversion came to their minds. I felt so sick and weak that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t have screamed even if I wanted to, because they put their tongues in my mouth […] After that, there was no escaping the French soldiers. They came into the cap looking for women to rape. Once my vagina had healed, I was raped in the camp by French soldiers four more times. I don’t know if they were the same one who had raped me before, because I have a hard time distinguishing the faces of bazungu. The soldiers were not ashamed of raping women in front of children and elders. It became a nightly routine. But no one dared to speak out, because we were all scared of what the French soldiers would do to us“ (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.47). 

“About three hundred women and girls were at the camp. The soldiers just picked whomever among us they wanted to rape. The French new what was happening and did nothing to prevent it. The rapes sometimes took place right in front of their eyes. Rather than protecting Tutsi, the French were helping the Hutu, and towards the end of the genocide, the Zone Turquoise was used by many Hutu as an escape route from Rwanda to DRC” (ibid., p.121). 

These acts and omission by the French soldiers helped establishing an overall atmosphere of insecurity, that had contributed significantly to the possibility of acts of sexual violence like abduction and sexual slavery by all actors. 

The Rwandan Patriotic front (RPF), that eventually stopped the genocide, was despite the success of halting the power of Hutu forces and freeing many people also involved in acts of sexual violence against the Rwandan population. “Rwandan women and girls of all ethnicities were pressured into sexual relationships with RPF soldiers after they reached the safety of internally displaced persons camps in RPF-held territory” (Bumet, 2012, p.98). 

Aftermath 

“I never told my husband what had happened to me. I feared his reaction to the rapes, and I had no other relatives I could turn to. Even though he asked me a few times whether I had been raped, I always denied it. I lied to him and said that I was hurting because of the many beatings I had to endure during the genocide” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.70). 

As mentioned in the section regarding STDs, 70-80% of those who survived sexual violence in Rwanda are now HIV-positive, which as a large effect on their social, but also economic living conditions (ibid., p.4). 

“I have shared my testimony here so that the world may know what really happened in Rwanda. So much pain still lives inside of us, and the fact that most of us live with HIV makes things worse. I live in poor conditions, and I do not have money to pay for my children’s school fees. I wonder what will happen to my children when I am dead. I hope people will reach out and help them. I pray that the truth about the genocide will one day be revealed. Genocide is a vicious cycle. I hope the world ensures that genocide never happens again, because I want a bright future for my children and I never want them to endure what I have” (ibid., p.40). 

Even though for most of them the past has still tremendous effects for the life today, some others were not even able to escape the violence imposed to them starting from the genocide: 

“For me, the genocide did not end after the Inkotanyi [RPF] rescued us from the camp. For about two years, Rukokoma, who pretended to be a civilian not involved in the genocide, forced me to stay in the ‘marriage’. We remained in Ginkongoro until I was six months pregnant with his child. At this point, he fled to the DRC, since he had become more and more afraid I would tell the RPF about his true identity. I don’t know where he is now. In January 1997, I gave birth to a girl, but I hated her, because she was a constant reminder of what had happened to me. I didn’t breastfeed her because of that, though the doctor’s pressured me to forget about the past and to feed her” (ibid., p.122). 

Some women still live with the men who abducted them today, because they do not see a chance to make a living alone. “Loss of virginity, rape, and assault are likely to negatively affect a woman’s future relationships with men and be defining factors in determining her social worth and standing. Survivors of sexual violence are frequently stigmatized and may no longer be viewed as viable members of society by family and community members” (WoolnerDenov and Kahn, 2019, p.705). This leads to poverty, hunger, and insecure living conditions, because women in Rwanda are particularly dependent on men to gain financial security. 

A common result of the massive scale of sexual violence during the genocide are children born out of rape, even though many women aborted those pregnancies. About 10.000 to 25.000 children were born as a result of genocidal rape in Rwanda. They “were nicknamed ‘little killers,’ ‘the fruit of hate,’ and the ‘children of bad memories’ by mothers and community members” (ibid., 2019, p.707) and therefore continue to have an influence on the Rwandan population today.  

Next to children as a constant reminder of what happened during the genocide, many women have to live in the very same communities as the perpetrators who victimized them: 

“After his release, Damascene came to my house and demanded forgiveness. I think it’s because he learned about unity and reconciliation when he was in jail. The government had already forgiven him by releasing him, he said, and now it was my turn to do the same. He asked me if I would forgive him in exchange for a cow. That really upset me. this man who reduced my life to nothing thinks he can make amends by giving me a cow? How can a human life be exchanged for a cow? Damascene and his wife are now my neighbours. They are getting richer every day, while my situation remains the same” (Brouwer and Ka Hon Chu, 2009, p.63). 

Many women feared to testify at the courts because the génocidaires that continued to live in their neighborhoods and decided not to tell anyone what has happened to them (ibid., p.90). 

Discussion  

This entry bases its findings mainly on eyewitness-memories, either gathered by NGO like Human Rights Watch, by researchers or by Investigators from the ICTR. The following section provides insight into the limitations that are inherent when using eyewitness-testimonies in general, and in the specific case of the Rwandan genocide. 

Since memories fade over time (Combs, 2010), especially the witness-testimonies given at the ICTR might not be as accurate as possible, because “the prosecutorial team came late to the issue of sexual violence during the genocide” (Mullins, 2009, p.725) and cases were discussed in court many years after their occurrence. Moreover, with regards to their own safety, the investigations team had limited access to witnesses and information about the crimes that happened because of restricted movement in Rwanda and might therefore not be able to provide a full picture. Additionally, the investigators would have had to maintain the anonymity of witnesses, which proves difficult if the perpetrators of the crimes live in the same neighborhood than the potential witnesses, who should not be seen together with the investigations team without risking their safety (Ibid.). Therefore, it can be assumed that many crimes are underreported and that there are further patterns of sexual violence left unseen and that the trial transcripts of the ICTR underlie a selection bias (ibid., p.733). 

Another reason for underreporting is the fact that the shame that goes along victimization of sexual violence in general, let alone genocidal sexual violence prevents survivors from testifying. An additional point to mention in the case of Rwanda is that in the Rwandan community, it is not very likely to use explicit language with regards to sexual organs so that for example terms like penis or vagina would not be used unless the word is introduced by another party (ibid., p.725). Sensitive topics like rape carry stigmata, which is also reflected in the language. In Kinyarwanda, the language mostly spoken in Rwanda, there is simply not a translation for the term rape (Combs, 2010, p.87), which impacts the quality of translated testimonies. Since “the syntax and everyday forms of expression in the Kinyarwanda language are complex and difficult to translate into French or English” (ibid., p.74), the testimonies are difficult to translate precisely so that a translated testimony should not be taken as verbatim.  

Moreover, since “Rwandans adhere to a tradition that a person’s perceived knowledge becomes the knowledge of all” (Musema judgment, 2000, p.94), it might be the case that witnesses testify what has in fact happened to someone else but became public knowledge and therefore tell their story as if they would have seen it with their own eyes. 

Nevertheless, the testimonies provided in this entry are considered to portray the reality of survivors of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide, because the overarching patterns resemble each other in all testimonies and comprise the accounts of female and male survivors from all over the Rwandan country as well as international overview and expert witnesses, collected by different actors, namely the ICTR, Human Rights Watch and a number of academics. 

Conclusion 

This entry aimed to give insights into the distinct nature of the sexual violence that occurred in the context of the Rwandan genocide. It showed that next to opportunistic rapes which resulted as a by-product of the chaotic conditions during the Rwandan genocide and might have grown out of “pre-existing interpersonal grievances” (Mullins, 2009, p.730), the presented and discussed testimonies of survivors and experts uncover distinct patterns, which point away from a characterization of the acts of sexual violence as opportunistic in nature.  

The organized propaganda emerging even before the genocide, the public display of sexual violence including humiliation and the many cases of mutilation of victims of acts of sexual violence reveal a picture of what is best described as genocidal sexual violence, as it goes beyond individual “catalysts for sexual assault” (ibid., p.728). The acts targeted not only the individual that suffered from the direct assault, but the family, community, and whole Tutsi population. By the means of sexual violence, the group was partly destroyed. Either directly, by using different artifacts to rape and kill, or indirectly by aborting and preventing pregnancies, through mutilation of male and female genitals alike, or through deliberately infecting the group with HIV that makes the population suffer physically next to the psychological trauma up until today. 

In addition to this physical destruction of the group, also the memory of the Tutsi population was aimed to be destroyed. The survivors’ memory of family members, friends and neighbours will forever be scarred by the way they died: dehumanized, mutilated, laying in plain sight of everyone in ditches or at roadblocks with no clothes on but left with the weapons that killed them. 

Verena Muckermann studies the two subject master Social Science (Social Theory & Cultural Psychology) and Philosophy at the Ruhr-University Bochum (March 2021). Writing the entry, she was inscribed at the VU Amsterdam for the M.Sc. International Crimes, Conflict and Criminology and had an internship at the Center for International Criminal Justice. Sources used in the entry are taken from the database of the Internation Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (https://jrad.irmct.org/cases.htm). 

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