LONDON, June 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The three women from rural Rwanda smile sweetly and laugh to themselves as they recall flying on a plane for the first time.
“There was a strong air, I started having hearing problems,” one woman says with a grin. “I had pain in my ears, the nurse told me to yawn,” another says, giggling.
In October 1997, the women embarked on the long journey from their small town, Taba, to a court room in Tanzania where they would make history by helping to secure the first ever conviction of rape as a war crime.
Over several days, the women - identified only as witnesses JJ, NN and OO - testified in the first trial at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), against the mayor of Taba, Jean-Paul Akayesu, for his role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Though rape was declared a war crime in 1919 after World War One, it was not prosecuted until the Akayesu trial.
“In the face of enormous tragedy and pain, the fact that three of them were laughing about the plane journey shows their great resilience and demonstrates how they had kept their humanity,” said filmmaker Michele Mitchell, whose documentary “The Uncondemned” tells the story of the historic trial through the eyes of lawyers, investigators and activists.
During the darkest chapter in Rwanda’s history, extremist Interahamwe militiamen from the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Hutu, killed 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Tens of thousands of women across the small central African country were also raped as part of the campaign.
“Historically, sexual violence and rape have been seen as something lesser, not serious war crimes ... sad, unfortunate but never given the same attention as murder,” said Binaifer Nowrojee, a lawyer, who worked as a Human Rights Watch researcher, collecting evidence of rape during the genocide.
“I’ve interviewed hundreds of rape victims, but the Rwandan testimonies were really some of the most brutal,” she said in the documentary.
“The women said they would beg to be killed, but the Interahamwe would say, ‘No, we’re going to leave you alive, so you will die of sadness’.”
After being gang-raped, one woman had the outside of her vagina cut off with scissors which her attackers displayed on a stick. Another woman, who had been locked up and raped, had a sharpened stick passed through her private parts to her head.
Other women were raped repeatedly, sometimes fleeing only to be found and raped again. Many were held as sex slaves.
“It is torture. It is the wound that you can’t cure,” one unnamed victim says in the film. “Even if you see the person is looking good outside, inside it is all rotten,” says another.
Many women were initially silent about their experiences.
They were having trouble feeding their families and paying school fees - seeking justice was not a priority, local rights groups told ICTR prosecutors.
But after a while, a genocide survivor called Godelieve Mukasarasi, began gathering the women of Taba together every weekend to share their stories.
In a breakthrough for prosecutors in the Akayesu trial, one of the final prosecution witnesses to take the stand testified to seeing women dragged to the mayor’s office, and raped.
The trial was postponed as Akayesu’s indictment was amended to include rape as a war crime and a form of genocide.
Parallel to the ICTR, Rwanda had set up grassroots courts, called gacaca, to try perpetrators of genocide.
The courts placed rape in the lowest category of crime, along with petty theft, until Mukasarasi organised a protest march to the capital, Kigali, which led to rape being reclassified as one of the most serious crimes.
This recognition by the gacaca courts encouraged witnesses JJ, NN, and OO to testify at the ICTR.
The women agreed to give evidence in the tribunal even though JJ had given birth just three days earlier, NN was suffering from malaria and OO was only 17 years old.
Reflecting on the moment the tribunal delivered its ‘guilty’ verdict, the three women smiled as they recalled their joy.
“I was so happy I danced,” JJ said. “I was happy that it wasn’t for nothing that I travelled in the airplane.”
Mitchell has invited the three women, who introduce themselves at the end of the film, to a special screening of the documentary on June 17 in Kigali.
“They were empowered to tell their story ... in support of other survivors of sexual violence in conflict zones, to say ‘Don’t keep quiet, talk about it’,” Mitchell said.
The ICTR convicted 12 people on charges of rape as a war crime, rape as a crime against humanity and rape as a form of genocide, but its successor, the International Criminal Court, has convicted none to date.
All too often rape in conflict is dismissed as cultural, sexual or occurring in isolation, rather than being widespread, systematic and used as a “tool of terror”, Mitchell said.
“This is not an act propelled by misguided sexual urge - rape is all to do with establishing power, humiliating your enemy and destroying part of society,” she said.
“It is an act of torture.” (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)