Jonathan Torgovnik's photographs of children born of rape during the Rwandan genocide.

Collected images.
June 10 2009 7:03 AM

"Children of Bad Memories"

Photographing a generation born of rape during the Rwandan genocide.

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They call them "enfants mauvais souvenirs," children of bad memories. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi women were systematically raped and forced into sexual servitude by members of extremist Hutu militia groups. Many of these women became pregnant. Since abortion is illegal in Rwanda, some resorted to back-alley procedures or traveled to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo to terminate their pregnancies. Others gave birth and abandoned the babies or gave them away to orphanages. Still others kept their children and are now struggling to raise them alone in post-genocide Rwanda.

Photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik first became aware of the estimated 20,000 Rwandan children born of rape in 2006. He was traveling on assignment for a Newsweek story pegged to the 25th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic. While in Rwanda, he met Odette, a young Tutsi woman who had been raped repeatedly during the genocide and had contracted HIV as a result. During the interview, she revealed that she was raising a son fathered by one of the Hutu militiamen who had raped her and slaughtered her family. (The subjects' names have been changed to protect their identitites. While the women want the world to know what happened to them, they hope to protect themselves and their children from the censure of their own communities.)

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Over the next three years, Torgovnik returned repeatedly to Rwanda to interview and photograph other genocide survivors like Odette. The result is Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape, a new book and traveling exhibition of 30 haunting portraits of Rwandan women and their children. Torgovnik's photographs are accompanied by the women's testimonies—intimate accounts of the horrors they endured and the daily challenges they face, as well as their complicated feelings about caring for children conceived as the result of extreme sexual violence.

The testimonies do not make for easy reading. More than half of the women Torgovnik interviewed are HIV-positive. Most live in dire poverty, ostracized by their own families and communities because of the stigmas attached to rape and AIDS. In Rwanda, a heavily patriarchal society, children of wartime rape are perceived as belonging to the enemy. As Josette, the mother of Thomas, recalls, "My uncle didn't welcome me into his house. He asked me who was responsible for my pregnancy. I said if I am pregnant, then it must be the militias since many of them had raped me. He said I shouldn't enter his house carrying a baby of the Hutus and chased me away. I left, but I didn't know where to go. Later, my uncle told me that I could only enter his house if I agreed to throw away the child."

The women discuss their own feelings about their children with heartbreaking candor. Some confess their inability to feel love or affection for children who are living reminders of the terrible ordeals they endured. Others say that their children are their only source of hope and consolation, that without them they wouldn't have the will to survive. Their stories are stark dramas of evil and innocence, brought to life with horrific specificity.

Torgovnik interviewed the women away from their kids, most of whom have not been told about the circumstances of their conception. Afterward, he photographed the mothers and children—mostly young adolescents now—together in their home environments. Torgovnik, who is himself a child of Holocaust survivors, clearly earned the trust of his subjects. The portraits have a grave beauty, a quality of unguarded exposure that one rarely finds in documentary photography. Lushly colored and suffused with golden light, the portraits humanize their subjects and amplify the emotional impact of the stories that accompany them.

When Torgovnik asked the women about their hopes for the future, nearly all of them talked about their children's education. As one woman put it, "It is my wish that they go to school because if you go to school, you have a better life, and if you have a better life, you don't get involved in bad things." In Rwanda, primary school is free, but the cost of secondary school, including fees, books, and uniforms, comes to about $350 a year—an expense well beyond the means of most of these women.

Moved by the mothers' repeated appeals, Torgovnik co-founded a nonprofit organization, Foundation Rwanda, that provides funding for secondary school education for these kids and helps connect their mothers to existing psychological and medical support. Now, on the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a generation of children born of rape is ready for high school.

Click here to view a slide show of portraits and excerpted testimonies from Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape.

Mia Fineman is a writer and curator in New York.

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