Rwan­dan chil­dren of mass rape come of age

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD - WASH­ING­TON POST

NGOMA SEC­TOR: An­gel was 11 the last time her mother tried to kill her. She re­mem­bers the hand­ful of rat poi­son pel­lets, the urg­ing: “Take this.” She screamed un­til a neigh­bour rushed over and pulled her away.

That was a decade ago, be­fore the coun­selling, and now An­gel’s mother is bend­ing over her shoul­der, pour­ing her a cup of black tea. They share a bed, a con­crete house with­out elec­tric­ity and a his­tory that hor­ri­fied the world.

Over 100 days in 1994, geno­cide dev­as­tated Rwanda. The as­sailants claimed roughly 800 000 lives and raped an es­ti­mated 250 000 women, which, ac­cord­ing to one char­ity’s count, pro­duced up to 20 000 ba­bies.

An­gel is part of this gen­er­a­tion in the shad­ows.

These young peo­ple are now step­ping into adult­hood, com­ing to terms with an iden­tity no par­ent would wish on a child. Yet they are de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tions that tragedy would de­fine their lives.

His­tor­i­cally, such chil­dren of­ten met an early death. Thou­sands of Chi­nese women en­dured sex­ual vi­o­lence dur­ing the Rape of Nank­ing in 1937, for ex­am­ple, but none pub­licly ac­knowl­edged rais­ing a Ja­panese sol­dier’s child. Re­ports sug­gest that vic­tims who be­came preg­nant widely com­mit­ted in­fan­ti­cide.

A Unicef study on the “war ba­bies” of Bos­nia’s 1992-1995 con­flict con­cluded that many were prob­a­bly aban­doned or killed by their moth­ers.

In Rwanda, data from sup­port groups pro­vide a clearer pic­ture. The “chil­dren of killers”, as they are of­ten dis­par­aged, tend to live in poverty, fac­ing higher rates of HIV and do­mes­tic abuse than their peers. But that’s not the whole story. “We hear ev­ery­one’s lives are de­stroyed, that they’re the walk­ing dead,” said Dara Kay Co­hen, a Har­vard Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor who stud­ies sex­ual as­sault in con­flict. “Then you talk to peo­ple and hear there’s this hope­ful un­der­belly.”

Re­searchers are just start­ing to ex­plore how chil­dren over­come such trauma. The Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment, tasked with re­build­ing a shat­tered na­tion, laid out no for­mal pol­icy to help those con­ceived in the mass rape.

Ingvill Mochmann, founder of the In­ter­na­tional Net­work for In­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary Re­search on Chil­dren Born of War, re­cently pub­lished a re­port sum­maris­ing a decade of stud­ies on the ef­fects of war on chil­dren.

“Many have coped fairly well with their lives,” Mochmann wrote.

An­gel, 22, was born HIV-pos­i­tive, so she takes free pills from the gov­ern­ment to stay healthy. She has just fin­ished high school and is wait­ing for the test score that will shape her fu­ture.

An­gel learned early how she came to be. Hutu fight­ers found Jacque­line hid­ing in a Catholic school and took turns rap­ing her. She re­mem­bers pray­ing to die.

Her hus­band and chil­dren were dead. She now had HIV and a baby on the way.

Jacque­line once poured soap and hair dye into An­gel’s bot­tle and de­cided to drink the toxic mix, too. She wanted ev­ery­thing to go black. But in­stead they vom­ited. She would hug then beat An­gel. Af­fec­tion and rage, af­fec­tion and rage.

This pat­tern held un­til they started ther­apy in 2007, run by an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Foun­da­tion Rwanda. The char­ity or­gan­ised weekly sup­port groups, and paid An­gel’s school tu­ition through grad­u­a­tion. Which has brought her to this point, this limbo.

She mostly hangs around her house, ex­cept to buy food or re­fill her medicine or go to church. She re­cently broke up with her boyfriend of five years – she didn’t want to tell him about her HIV.

But An­gel is com­fort­able in her uni­verse, al­though she is cu­ri­ous about what else is out there, and she waits for the test score.

PIC­TURE: WHIT­NEY SHEFT/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

An­gel, right, eats bread and drinks tea with her mother Jacque­line at their home in Ngoma Sec­tor, Rwanda, in the south­ern part of the coun­try near Huye, be­fore they go to church.

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