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Shining light on Rwanda victims

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  February 24, 2009 07:32 PM

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Odette with her son Martin
"Odette with her son Martin" / Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent

The colors in Jonathan Torgovnik's photographs tend toward rich, welcoming hues. The light often shimmers warmly. But the tense, somber stares of his portrait subjects tug the viewer out of this safe scenery and into something hurt, dark, and hollow. Even before reading the sobering texts beneath the images, it is hard not to want to look away - but Torgovnik asks you not to.

This week, Torgovnik's acclaimed photographic portrait series, "Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape," opened at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center in Waltham, and runs through April 9. In it, the award-winning photojournalist turns his lens on what he believes to be the least-reported legacy of the 1994 Rwandan genocide: the estimated 20,000 Tutsi women and girls raped by Hutu militia who bore the children of their attackers. But rather than receiving support, these mothers continue to be victimized. Shunned by family and neighbors, most live with their children in severe poverty and isolation.

"They are suffering multiple traumas," said Torgovnik. "They have to live with the memories of the genocide and their families being murdered in front of them, of being raped multiple times and humiliated, of having a child from this experience and most of them also of contracting HIV from this experience. And then they are rejected by their families and their communities because of the stigma associated with rape, HIV, and of having a 'child of the militia.' "

Torgovnik learned of their plight in early 2006 while on assignment for Newsweek magazine. Along with reporter Geoffrey Cowley, he was in Rwanda to cover the 25th anniversary of AIDS and they met with a young woman with HIV named Margaret.

"The reporter was looking at how HIV was used as a weapon of war," said Torgovnik. "But Margaret told us more. For me, it was the most horrific interview I have ever sat through."

In a quiet whisper, Margaret spoke for nearly two hours. She told of her brutal rape. She described watching the militia murder her family. She explained that the rapes gave her HIV. Then she shared a secret.

"We were all already in tears and then we found out that she had become pregnant as a result of those rapes and had a child, a boy," Torgovnik said. "I knew that rape had been used on a massive scale during the genocide. So I started thinking to myself, how many kids are there like this in Rwanda?"

The answer, perhaps 20,000, haunted Torgovnik. It led him back to Rwanda and across a journalistic line - from observer to activist. Within a year, he and filmmaker Jules Shell would launch Foundation Rwanda to aid the children and their mothers.

 
Slyvina with her daughter Marianne
"Slyvina with her daughter Marianne" / Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

"Before I started looking for information, I hadn't heard or read about these women that live with these consequences in such a severe way," said Torgovnik. "So I went back in October of 2006 to research and to photograph them. I wanted to give them a voice, to give them an opportunity to talk about what happened to them, and for the world to know."

With the help of local social service agencies, Torgovnik found other women like Margaret. It was difficult. Very few people in Rwanda will speak of them, but most can easily spot them.

"If you have a single mother with a 14-year-old child that has mixed Hutu and Tutsi features, it's easy to draw the conclusion," said Torgovnik.

Torgovnik documented dozens of women and recorded their stories. Shell filmed them. In most cases, it was the first time the women had spoken of experiences during the genocide, in which Hutu militia killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.

"They are really eager to speak about it, but they can't speak about it with anyone in their country. It's taboo," said Torgovnik.

Eager to do more, Torgovnik solicited donations from friends and family to support the mothers he interviewed. The Israeli-born photographer felt a connection to the women. His grandfather was a victim of the Holocaust. But he said the desire to help came from something deeper.

"It was very organic. It just happened. This project transformed me as a photojournalist and as a human being," he said. ". . . For the first time in my career, I just felt a need from within to do something directly."

 
Annet with her son Peter
"Annet with her son Peter" / Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

In 2007, Torgovnik's modest plans mushroomed. Germany's Stern magazine published his photo essay and $150,000 in donations poured in.

"It was really shocking. I was hoping that if we raised maybe $5,000 it would be great," he said. "Then I realized we have something here that people are responding to and feeling and wanting to do something about. So suddenly I saw how we could use photography to create social change. We decided to create a foundation."

His nonprofit organization has three goals. First, it aims to cover secondary school tuition and expenses for 1,500 children of rape victims, at an annual cost of $350 per child. Second, it works to link the mothers to mental health and medical services that many are too ashamed to seek. Finally, it seeks an international response to the situation through the "Intended Consequences" exhibition and accompanying book and DVD.

The first 150 children started school on Jan. 15 and their mothers are receiving social services. The photo essay garnered the United Kingdom's 2007 National Portrait Gallery's Portrait Prize, and Amnesty International created a curriculum for the exhibition, which opens at Aperture Gallery in New York on March 5 and at the United Nations on April 7.

"I am committed to get these kids into school and I'll do anything in my power to keep them there the full six years," said Torgovnik. ". . . Most are eligible for secondary school right now and next year. So we need to get the word out now. We are trying to get as much attention on the subject as we can get."

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Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape
Through April 9
Kniznick Gallery, Women's Studies Research Center
Brandeis Unversity
515 South St., Waltham
781-736-8102

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