“I was 12 years old when I was raped. I did not understand what was happening.”
Nelle is now 36 years old. But in 1993 when war broke out in Burundi, armed men came to her village near the capital, Bujumbura. They killed her mother and father and six siblings. She was raped, but she survived.
“I saw people were killing each other. They were running away and killing each other. I hid myself under dead bodies for five days,” she said.
Nelle’s story of survival was long and difficult to tell. After living through years of instability, she told VOA that she left for South Africa in 2004 when a new government came to power in Burundi.
“I was scared,” she said. “I was afraid war was coming and I did not want to go through the same thing as in 1993. I did not want to be raped again. So, I quit the country and became a refugee in South Africa.”
Nelle is one of 25 rape survivors from South Sudan, Mali, Colombia and 12 other conflict-affected countries around the world who attended a four-day retreat this week in Geneva.
They came to share their experiences and to devise strategies for the creation of a global movement to end rape as a weapon on war.
“These 25 women have suffered unthinkable things and developed remarkable powers,” said Esther Dingemans, director of the Mukwege Foundation.
“They have experienced the cruelest violence. But the perpetrators did not succeed in breaking them,” she said.
The foundation is headed by Denis Mukwege, a renowned surgeon from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has treated thousands of survivors of sexual violence in Congo.
“We hope that this week will be the beginning of a large long-term movement that leads to a global platform of survivors,” said Dingemans, “and that their voices will finally be heard.”
In 1992, after the atrocities committed in the Bosnian war, especially against Muslim women, rape, for the first time was recognized as a weapon of war by the United Nations Security Council.
In 2000, the Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which was the first formal and legal document that required parties to a conflict to “protect women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict.”
It also was the first U.N. resolution to specifically mention women.
Ulrike Lunasek, vice president of the European Parliament, who spoke at the ceremony honoring the 25 women survivors, said it is “important to break the vicious circle of shame and silence” that women usually feel when they are raped.
She said women raped in war must be supported, helped to heal and then “be encouraged to speak up, but also to tell the truth about what military conflict and war means for women.”
Women did speak up at this conference. Several survivors presented searing testimony about their ordeals.
Solange Bigiramana, who survived the horrors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, now lives as a stateless person in South Africa.
“My situation of being a survivor, that comes from a situation of war. It happened for me to face rape. I know what rape means,” she said.
“And I am here with a story of hope,” she said. “I once was under a shadow. I want every survivor to be out of the shadow and to be into the light.”
Another survivor, Farida Abbas-Khalaf, a Yazidi girl from the Iraqi village of Kocho, described the torment to which she and other members of her community were subjected by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in her book The Girl Who Beat ISIS.
She spoke movingly and in agonizing detail about being raped, beaten, insulted, and forced to pray and read the Koran.
“Young boys were brainwashed and sent to ISIS training camps to become ISIS fighters while women and young girls were taken as sex slaves and sold at slave markets,” said Abbas-Khalaf.
She said that she was able to heal because of support from her family, her community and her spiritual leader who she said made a statement “that the surviving girls are an important part of the Yazidi community and that what happened to them was against their will.”
She added, “It is time that survivors break the silence. But mostly it is time for the world to hear their voices.”