Rwandan children of mass rape come of age
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.
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.