How the pain of geno­cide is be­ing turned into hope

Rwanda’s chil­dren of rape are slowly com­ing of age. Danielle Pa­que­tte meets the scarred moth­ers and their strug­gling off­spring

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly review -

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 with no elec­tric­ity and a his­tory that hor­ri­fied the world.

Over 100 days in 1994, geno­cide dev­as­tated Rwanda, a small east African coun­try. 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. Many Chi­nese women en­dured sex­ual vi­o­lence in Nan­jing in 1937, for ex­am­ple, but none pub­licly ac­knowl­edged rais­ing a Ja­panese sol­dier’s child, as far as historians can tell. Re­ports from the time 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. The num­ber of sur­vivors is un­known.

In Rwanda, data from sup­port groups pro­vides 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. 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, hav­ing to re­build a shat­tered na­tion, laid out no for­mal pol­icy to help those con­ceived in the mass rape.

Ingvill Mochmann, founder of a group called the In­ter­na­tional Net­work for In­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary Re­search on Chil­dren Born of War, 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. “The in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is – what makes the dif­fer­ence?”

In­ter­views with three fam­i­lies, just be­fore the mas­sacre’s 23rd an­niver­sary, of­fer a clue.

An­gel and Jac­que­line

Sun­light streams through An­gel’s win­dow, catch­ing her me­tal­lic hoop ear­rings. She sits at a wooden ta­ble next to her mother, Jac­que­line. They split a loaf of bread for break­fast and wash it down with tea. Jac­que­line sprin­kles brown su­gar into their cups. “Mu­rakoze,” An­gel tells her in Kin­yarwanda. Thank you. They live to­gether un­der a tin roof in a ru­ral vil­lage, where a Catholic church pays their monthly rent, the equiv­a­lent of $5. The cracked walls are painted turquoise. A mos­quito net dan­gles above their full-size bed. A rooster out­side crows.

An­gel is 22 now, with a quick grin and braids down her back. She 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. High marks would net her a schol­ar­ship. The re­sults will ap­pear online in a cou­ple of weeks. An­gel and her mother will pray be­fore head­ing to the in­ter­net cafe.

Tourism is her dream ca­reer. Her backup plan is sell­ing toma­toes. “We don’t have money,” she ex­plains. An­gel learned early how she came to be. Jac­que­line would tell her: You’re not my real daugh­ter. “When­ever she would go some­where, and if I asked her to let me come with her, she al­ways re­fused and locked me in­side,” An­gel says softly through an in­ter­preter. “She would also not per­mit me to play with other kids.”

Jac­que­line weeps when she thinks of this. Be­fore the geno­cide, she was some­one else’s mother. They were in fourth and sixth grade, her girls. They com­plained about bul­lies hound­ing them for be­ing Tut­sis, a mi­nor­ity eth­nic group.

She was on her way to Ki­gali, the cap­i­tal, to se­cure spots for them in a new school when the vi­o­lence started. Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment lead­ers had com­manded the ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion, the Hu­tus,

‘We hear ev­ery­one’s lives are de­stroyed. Then you hear there’s this hope­ful un­der­belly’

to ex­ter­mi­nate the Tut­sis. Neigh­bours slaugh­tered neigh­bours. Hutu fighters found Jac­que­line hid­ing in a Catholic school and took turns rap­ing her. She re­mem­bers pray­ing to die. But three months passed and a Tutsi rebel army over­threw the gov­ern­ment, and there she was, fol­low­ing a UN sol­dier out of the rub­ble. 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, and Jac­que­line re­luc­tantly de­cided to keep go­ing. She would hug An­gel, then beat her. 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 the other moth­ers in­spired Jac­que­line to be­come a Chris­tian. She be­gan to feel that An­gel had come from God. Foun­da­tion Rwanda paid An­gel’s school tu­ition through to 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 – he wanted to get mar­ried, and she didn’t want to tell him about her HIV.

Be­yond her plank fence, the hills burst with ba­nana trees. Adobe homes dot the horizon – tiny from here, like Mo­nop­oly pieces. Men play check­ers out­side a shut­tered dive bar. Some­one’s cow moos. An­gel is com­fort­able in her uni­verse, but she is cu­ri­ous about what else is out there. She waits for the test score.

Al­bert and Agnes

Al­bert, 21, stands in his fam­ily’s field, hack­ing saplings with a ma­chete. His leather flip-flops sink into the red dirt. His fore­head shines with sweat. He grad­u­ated last year from a board­ing school near Ki­gali and feels a lit­tle out of place here in the ru­ral Mukura sec­tor, with his smooth hands and Puma track­suit trousers. Al­bert grew up in an or­phan­age, a four-hour bus ride from home, leaf­ing through French and English dic­tio­nar­ies, dream­ing of a fu­ture in pol­i­tics. Col­lege pam­phlets now lit­ter his con­crete room (Michi­gan State Univer­sity, St Leo Univer­sity in Florida).

For now, he is help­ing his mother with her hectare of hill­side – try­ing to help, that is. He is gath­er­ing sticks to feed her cow. She waits for him in their back­yard, knif­ing pale ker­nels from corn cobs.

Agnes was a Tutsi teenager when the streets be­gan fill­ing with bod­ies. A Hutu man from the vil­lage of­fered her shel­ter. Then, she says, he kept her as his sex slave, while threat­en­ing to kill her if she tried to leave.

When the war ended and the mil­i­tants fled Rwanda, the man forced Agnes to join him over the bor­der. She gave birth to two ba­bies in Tan­za­nia, each healthy: Al­bert and his younger brother.

Agnes fi­nally es­caped and re­turned to her old neigh­bour­hood. Peo­ple asked about the ba­bies. Did they come from the killers? Agnes put both boys in a gov­ern­ment-run or­phan­age, where she could af­ford to visit them once a year. She mar­ried an old friend, moved into a cot­tage be­side rows of ba­nana trees and started to re­build.

Still, the sep­a­ra­tion broke her heart and con­fused Al­bert. “I told her, ‘I want to be with you’,” he re­calls in English. “And she said, ‘I’m try­ing to get money for you’.” Al­bert didn’t know he came from rape. He found him­self among chil­dren who had lost both par­ents in the geno­cide. He felt lucky to have one. “There were 2,000 of us,” he says, “with dif­fer­ent back­grounds and dif­fer­ent sto­ries. Other peo­ple had strug­gled more than me.”

At the age of 17, he learned about his fa­ther. The man re­turned to Rwanda years ago and was sen­tenced to life in the Mpanga prison, about 50km north of the fam­ily’s land. Al­bert won­ders what it would be like to meet him. He hasn’t worked up the nerve. “It shocked my heart, the way my mother met him,” he says.

Still, Al­bert says: “I don’t think he is in­hu­man. I want to see his face.”

The or­phan­age in the north­ern city of Gisyeni gave Al­bert an ad­van­tage. Pub­lic funds cov­ered his ed­u­ca­tional ex­penses. He tested into the coun­try’s top-ranked high school. He got a per­fect score on the Rwanda equiv­a­lent of the SAT test used for ad­mis­sions to US col­leges.

One warm Fe­bru­ary af­ter­noon, Al­bert sat across from a col­lege ad­viser at a Ki­gali com­pany called Globe Ed­u­ca­tion Con­sult, which helps Rwan­dan stu­dents get into in­ter­na­tional schools. Al­bert had put on his khakis and taken the bus there.

“With your grade, it’s go­ing to be much eas­ier,” God­frey Nku­run­z­iza said, grin­ning. “It gives us a pic­ture of how you would per­form in school.”

Al­bert wanted to ap­ply to col­leges in the United States and Canada. He had no strong pref­er­ence, just a de­sire to ex­plore. Nku­run­z­iza told Al­bert to bud­get be­tween $10,000 and $20,000 a year for hous­ing, books and tu­ition. They

would hunt for schol­ar­ships, of course. Just one thing first … “To ap­ply with us,” Nku­run­z­iza said, “bring in $200, for the ap­pli­ca­tion fees.” Al­bert slumped for­ward. He didn’t even have the bus fare – about $5 – to get back home.

But the world had car­ried him this far. He would nudge a friend to lend him some cash. Then he would re­turn to the house and his glossy pam­phlets.

Ntare and As­soumpta

When the thoughts start, Ntare writes. He scrib­bles in a note­book, on stray pieces of pa­per, what­ever he can grab. It’s a way to blast gloom from his head and trap it on a page. Lately, it has been turn­ing into more – a song. He could record it on a com­puter at his board­ing school and send it to a Ki­gali ra­dio sta­tion. A DJ there plays home­made tracks free of charge. The idea ex­cites and scares him.

Right now, Ntare is fin­ish­ing a con­struc­tion in­tern­ship out­side the south­ern city of Gi­tarama. But in­side he is an artist, a lover of mu­sic and film. Af­ter work, he ditches his bright or­ange cov­er­alls, slips into a fuzzy pink robe and watches the Amer­i­can hip-hop series Em­pire. With his cre­ativ­ity, though, comes confession. This song is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Many of his friends, in­clud­ing his girl­friend, don’t know his story.

On this re­cent af­ter­noon Ntare, tall and toned, is prac­tis­ing in his back­yard, next to a rab­bit pen he built with chicken wire. He bobs his head and raps in Kin­yarwanda: Some of them on the streets,

Oth­ers jailed be­cause of their crimes. But some­times con­se­quences come over us. For in­stance, I am among those called In­ter­a­hamwe. But we don’t worry about it. We look for­ward.

His bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther was a mem­ber of the In­ter­a­hamwe, Hutu mil­i­tants who helped carry out the geno­cide. Some sur­vivors see him as a child of the killers, in­clud­ing his mother’s fam­ily. They won’t look at him. He didn’t learn why un­til he had turned 12.

As­soumpta re­mem­bers the day she told him. Her son was a trou­ble­maker back then, start­ing fights with other kids. Would this rev­e­la­tion make things worse? She willed her­self not to sug­ar­coat it. She told him about the geno­cide. The mil­i­tants who found her in a school and raped her. The rel­a­tives who kicked her out of their home once her belly started show­ing. That was why she would snap eas­ily and hit him.

Ntare kept quiet. He didn’t look her in the eye for a week. Then he started do­ing ex­tra chores. He stopped get­ting into brawls. He brought her fruit, say­ing she needed the nutri­tion.

The way As­soumpta tells it, he started act­ing like the man of the house. He no longer blamed her for the beat­ings or for the peo­ple who called him a bas­tard. Ntare re­calls feel­ing a sense of re­lief. So this was what he was. His mother had no choice. He prac­tised swag­ger. Am I a bas­tard? Yes, I’m a bas­tard.

Ntare met other kids like him at a camp or­gan­ised by Foun­da­tion Rwanda. He wrote a play about a mother telling her son the truth and got some of his new friends to help him per­form it. That stayed be­tween them, but his song, it would be pub­lic. He might have to tell his girl­friend, an ac­coun­tant. They’ve been dat­ing for nearly two years, and he’d like to marry her some day.

He has re­vealed his se­crets to her slowly – “step by step,” he says. All she knows now is that he doesn’t have a dad. How­ever, he’s got to come out at some point. He wants the chil­dren of killers to hear his song and feel less alone.

He’s call­ing it Son of Rwanda.

Up­date: Months af­ter tak­ing her ex­ams, An­gel re­ceived her score. It was not high enough to win a col­lege schol­ar­ship. Al­bert never found the $200 to ap­ply to schools through Globe Ed­u­ca­tion Con­sult. He has ap­plied to be “spon­sored” by the Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment for in­ter­na­tional col­leges. As for Ntare, he will grad­u­ate from high school in Novem­ber. He is still hop­ing that his song will be played on the ra­dio. This ar­ti­cle was sup­ported by a grant from the In­ter­na­tional Women’s Me­dia Foun­da­tion

Al­bert needed $200 for his col­lege ap­pli­ca­tion fees. He didn’t even have $5 for his bus fare home

Whit­ney Shefte/Wash­ing­ton Post

Next stages … An­gel, 22, hopes to pur­sue a ca­reer in tourism. Her backup is sell­ing toma­toes

Whit­ney Shefte/Wash­ing­ton Post

‘Step by step’ … As­soumpta bathes a baby at her home. Shar­ing her past with her son, Ntare, gave him a sense of re­lief

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.