Jonathan Torgovnik, Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape (Aperture, 2009)
Philomena sits on a concrete step in a muddy Rwandan backyard. Her daughter, Juliette, no older than fourteen, sits next to her, her arm draped over Philomena’s knee. The girl wears pink flip-flops and a dress patterned of multi-colored daisies. The mother’s hair is stylishly straightened. They may have dressed up for this portrait, but neither smiles. Philomena stares wearily and Juliette’s brow is tense.
“I don’t love this child,” Philomena will tell the photographer. “Whenever I look at this child, the memories of rape return.”
This month marks an uneasy anniversary, fifteen years since extremist Hutus and elements of the Rwandan military systematically massacred 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus while the international community looked away. For thousands of women survivors, the most immediate legacy of the genocide is not the decimation of their communities, nor the personal experience of kidnapping, mutilation, and sexual enslavement. It’s learning how to mother the children they conceived as a result of wartime rape.
Newsweek photographer Jonathan Torgovnik first encountered these women in 2006 while shooting an assignment in East Africa on the 25th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. He returned to Rwanda on his own time to record their stories in interviews and color photographs. Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape presents thirty cases, each a mournful three-part harmony comprising a portrait of the mother and child at home, a close-up of the child against a dark background, and a first-person account of the mother’s ordeal.
The project ostensibly focuses on the plight of Rwanda’s estimated 20,000 children of rape, who are identified as militiamen’s offspring and treated as enemy property. Referred to as “children of bad memories” and “little killers,” they’re unable to avoid persecution, receive a proper education, or emerge out of poverty. But Intended Consequences is more powerfully an exploration of motherhood, of what happens to a woman when her maternal instinct is violently damaged. A woman’s ability to love her children is taken for granted, but most of these survivors had to choose, or learn, to do it. Furthermore, half the mothers Torgovnik encountered had contracted HIV when they were raped. Unsure that they will live to see their children reach adulthood, they simultaneously prepare to leave them behind.
Josette’s surviving uncle wouldn’t let her in his home when he learned she carried a militiaman’s baby. She left the newborn in a forest, but quickly returned to collect him. Now, she poses barefoot on ground covered in dry leaves and branches, her arm slung around the boy’s neck. “I must be honest with you,” she tells Torgovnik, “I never loved this child. Whenever I remember what his father did to me, I used to feel the only revenge would be to kill his son…I forced myself to like him, but he is unlikeable…It’s not because he knows that I don’t love him; it is that blood in him.”
Stella, too, wished her son would die when he was born, but now she holds him protectively, one hand pressed against his belly and the other around his shoulder. Claude self-consciously tucks his chin and dangles his arms at his sides, likely wishing he could escape the photographer and play with the kids who scamper along the village road behind him. “He is like a tree without branches,” Stella says. “He is my life. He is the only life I have.”
Torgovnik’s portraits are steady and gracefully composed. Paired with the women’s words, they are vivid conduits for their stories. The only hitch is his occasionally awkward use of light, which causes his subjects to stand out sharp and bright against their softer, natural backgrounds, as if they were photographed before a studio backdrop. The effect is a touch slick and threatens to disrupt the careful bond that Torgovnik establishes with his viewer.
But most of the accounts and images are simply too affecting for this distraction to linger. Take Bernadette, who lost her left leg after her rapist instructed other militiamen to punish her “arrogance” and reduce her height. Her frail body belies the ferocity of her love for Faustin. “Today, if you want trouble with me,” she says, “show me that you hate my child.”
“If there is anything that tortures me,” she continues, “it is the future of my son.” Bernadette, like the others, can’t afford her boy’s pencils and books, so he missed a year of school. Ineligible for government aid because her son doesn’t have a father and therefore fails to qualify as a “vulnerable child,” there is little a mother can do.
Most of these kids have only ever had a single advocate. Studying Torgovnik’s portraits, and searching the sweetness and wariness in their young faces, their mothers’ words resound: What will happen to this child when she is gone?
Elizabeth Monaghan is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.