by Brenda Fitzpatrick
10th August 2016

Author and academic Brenda Fitzpatrick writes a personal and powerful post about her experiences in Rwanda, what she saw and the stories she was told by survivors of ‘tactical rape*’ in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in 1994.

Ngara, 1994. I stood on the bridge dividing Rwanda from Tanzania. In memory, the bridge was high above the water line, but I am no longer really sure.

I watched the constant flow of bodies, torsos and unmatched limbs drift, get caught in eddies and slowly turn on down the river. I had not registered earlier that black bodies turn grey when bloated.

I had come from Zagreb where a priest had shrugged, ‘It is war madam. Rape happens.’ I had asked him about rumours (later proven to be true) of rape camps and widespread rape of Bosnian women and girls. His reply was a chilling acceptance of this violation as somehow inevitable. Not good enough!!

I had sat with women on cold concrete floors in the refugee camps and heard them tell the stories of widespread rape. Sometimes couched as happening to ‘my sister’ or ‘my friend’ or ‘a woman I knew’. Sometimes they spoke in the first person despite the shame they felt – they felt shame! It was so wrong that they should feel shame! Many women reared in patriarchal societies knew they were valued when deemed chaste, respected by men.

Many women became pregnant and believed the babies were the children of their fathers – regardless of the rape. Some women suicided. Some killed their babies. Some lived isolated and rejected by their communities.

Now the metallic African sun pinged off the struts of this bridge in another conflict, another genocide. Just beyond the border of a massacre, it fell upon the piles of blood encrusted pangas, farming tools rusting in the full glare of murderous frantic heat, which had become weapons of execution, which had savagely created a world of chaos. They were now just remnants of lives, snatched at the final steps into apparent refuge, from those who made it to the river. The slaughter was already on record. We were too late to make any real difference. We could only document, hoping it might help somehow. It was a faint hope.

Survivors fled. Bodies did macabre dances in currents and whorls of the river, while others rotted in villages and fields. Girls and women were raped, violated. Those left alive crept with broken skin and spirits across the bridge, to face the climb up the hill to the suppuration of supposed refuge, but the reality of manifold despair.

There were signs of rape everywhere. Even seasoned soldiers were appalled at the ferocity. One commented that he and his men found that the savage evidence of rape of even little girls took an emotional toll greater than the sight of death.

All the workers believed what one said aloud, ‘Every female who has made it this far, has probably been raped – and more than once. Including the old women and the kids, too.’

Some stories are too horrific to recount. One woman ran to escape the gangs. She hid in the river holding her baby on her back. When she emerged the child had drowned. Some teenagers and little girls had somehow escaped, broken.

A young girl helping hand out food watched the man she had seen killing her brother and attacking her family. He was wearing the shirt she had given her brother for his birthday. She said, ‘It is up to God to deal with that man. So I gave him some food.’

One woman who had been gang raped and raped with weapons crawled along a road hoping to find safety. When people approached she sat down rather than face them and tell them what had happened to her. In courts, women who testified were subjected to attack, ridicule, their dignity stripped away. ‘If you had not bathed for days, why would that man want to rape you?’

In the camp there were killers and victim. How could anyone be sure who were the good guys and who were the bad guys?

The genocidaires had included youth groups whipped into a frenzy of hate and violence. One young boy asked me if I thought God would forgive him. I fudged my answer. An old man wrapped in a blanket in the rawness of the burning sun walked with a stick – half a foot, in front of half a foot, in front of half a foot. It was a long, steep hill to the camp. I saw him reach under his blanket to bring out a small cloth bag. Without breaking the slow painful rhythm of his steps, he drew out a handful of beans and dropped them into the lap of a young woman slumped beside the limp body of her baby. That was all he had with him. That was what he gave to her.

The stories did get told. Eventually even the UN Security Council took note and now at least there is recognition and rejection of rape used as a tactic of war – deliberate, condoned, encouraged. Perpetrators are slowly being held accountable in international courts.

Does this make any difference? Tactical rape continues. So maybe not. But murder still exists with laws and attempts to enforce those laws. Would it be worse without those laws?

I have to believe that eventually, painfully something will change for the women and girls still being raped in conflict. Surely it must be better if now at least it is recognised that this is a heinous crime – not ‘just’ an inevitable by-product of wars where civilians are targeted deliberately? Now at least there are international courts attempting to hold perpetrators to account. Now at least peace keeping forces and UN workers are being trained to recognise and document these violations.

Is this the end of the struggle for justice and protection of women and little girls? Clearly not. Is this a beginning for justice and protection? I hope so – but we need to keep pressure on and we need to keep remembering the hideous consequences of forgetting wars such as Rwanda.


  • *’Tactical Rape’ refers to rape which is used by state or non-state actors to attack individuals, groups and communities deemed to be enemies in conflicts.
  • It targets civilians.
  • It is a specific strategy to control, destabilise and even to destroy the social fabric of civilian communities.
  • It is a widespread, deliberate policy of attack, promoted or condoned by at least one party to a conflict and it may constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity and may be used as a weapon of genocide, of torture or of ethnic cleansing.

Tactical rape in war and conflict [FC] 4 webTactical Rape in War and Conflict: International Recognition and Response by Brenda Fitzpatrick can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £21.59.

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