Children have borne the brunt of Rwanda's recent sufferings: 120,000 of them have lost theirl families. But for some there is a hope, if a slim one, o f being reunited with their parents
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ON THE outskirts of Ruhengeri last July, at the rear of a column of tens of thousands of refugees, a group of about a dozen children struggled to keep pace along a winding and often steep road. One little boy in particular stood out of the group of stragglers. Perhaps two years old, he was just old enough to walk confidently on his own. He held on to his oversize trousers with both hands while he hopped from bare foot to bare foot, performing a bizarre dance on the hot asphalt. His feet were blo ody andswollen, and he did not cry, but you could see the fear in his eyes as he fell further and further behind the wave of humanity fleeing the charnel house that was Rwanda.

I often wonder what became of that boy and the countless other children wandering the roads by themselves, or walking lost amid the corpses of cholera victims in the refugee camps in Zaire. In any war, seeing children suffer is always distressing, but inRwanda it seemed worse. Of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the genocidal massacres that tore through the country last April, May and June, and among the millions of refugees who fled the country, it has been children who have had to bear the brunt of the suffering. Rwanda today is dotted with orphanages full of Tutsi children whose parents were killed in the most grotesque blood-letting in the history of Africa. At the height of the massacres, orchestrated by the country's former Hutu extremistleaders against the minority Tutsis, orphanage workers told stories of how Hutu militias had arrived to kill Tutsi children so that they could "solve" Rwanda's ethnic problem once and for all. The aim was to annihilate all Tutsis - even the young, who, if allowed to escape, might one day seek to avenge the deaths of their parents. The Hutu extremists came frighteningly close to succeeding.

"Over one-third of the estimated 800,000 people killed in the genocide were children. And 80 to 90 per cent of the children who survived are traumatised," said Graca Machel, a UN researcher and the widow of Mozambique's late president, Samora Machel, earlier this month. "Some children are still unable to speak."

According to a study by the UN Children's Fund, a majority of Rwanda's child survivors have gone through hellish experiences that will almost certainly scar them for life. Of a group of 207 orphans in one Rwandan town surrounded by mass graves, a quarterof the children had been forced to dig graves and bury corpses, more than half had witnessed family members being killed, and almost all had been in fear of their own lives.

Tutsi children, however, are not the only ones to have suffered. Tens of thousands of Hutu children, like the little boy near Ruhengeri, have been separated from their families and now live in orphanages or foster homes set up in refugee camps.

Others, like 11-year-old Jean-Pierre Siboniyo, languish in jail in the Rwandan capital Kigali, accused by former playmates of having participated in the massacres. He says that his friends desire revenge on all Hutus for the Tutsis who were killed. "I aminnocent," Jean-Pierre protested to a group of American reporters recently. "I want to go home and see my mother."

Graca Machel has spoken to other children in Kigali's Central Prison, which is now brimming with suspected child killers, many of whom were encouraged to kill. She has also visited refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of Hutus, many linked with the genocide, fled advancing Tutsi rebels in July.

Of the 120,000 children estimated by the Red Cross and the United Nations to have been separated from their families by the Rwandan crisis, 40,000 are now living in refugee camps in Zaire, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. Most of the basic needs of the refugees - water, food, shelter and medicines - are now being met, and there is less of a sense of crisis than there used to be. However, the remaining members of the defeated Hutu regime view the camps as a power base which could exert pressure on the new government in Kigali, a little more than 100 miles away. International relief organisations have lost control of many of the camps to the extremists. Relief supplies meant for children and mothers are often diverted to soldiers, or stockpiled in preparation for a Hutu refugee invasion across the Zaire-Rwanda border. War is in the air again, and children - especially boys - are being press- ganged into the new militias.

Machel has warned that what the children need most is to go home. Otherwise, she says, their trauma will prove irreversible. "What they need most is human warmth," she says.

A handful of relief agencies led by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working hard to bring the lost children home and reunite them with their families. "Family reunification is the centrepiece of our activities right now," says Patrick Fuller, the ICRC's spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya. The process involved is a simple but effective one. Based in Kigali, 12 Red Cross delegates cultivate a tracing network which covers the whole of Rwanda and neighbouring countries. They visit schools, orphanages and refugee camps, photographing children who are old enough to communicate their identities with placards showing their "registration number". So far, about 30,000 children have been registered.

The nerve centre of the operation is at the headquarters of the ICRC in Nairobi, where all the information collected is screened and placed in a database by the Central Tracing Agency, an organisation which has links with the Red Cross going back over the last 100 years. There, a staff of 30 works around the clock, updating the database with new information. The database is copied on to computer discs every week and then re-distributed to Red Cross delegates in the field. The information is also shared with other UN agencies, and there are links to other relief groups, including Britain's Save the Children.

For each registered child, at least two other people have to be taken into account, the mother and the father. But in a country where hundreds of thousands have been massacred, and tens of thousands have died of disease, parents are not always alive. Forthis reason, the names of other close relations (if known) are included in the database, thus increasing each child's chances of being reunited with his or her family.

Names of parents being sought are also announced over the BBC local language service and Radio Agatashya, the station which was established by the French human rights group, Reporters sans Frontieres. And families themselves often contact the ICRC offices to find out whether their children are among those registered.

The Rwandan family reunification programme is the largest for unaccompanied children undertaken by the ICRC since its involvement in a similar project in Cambodia. The Central Tracing Agency had already been working in Rwanda for three years, following the outbreak of civil war there in 1990. But when the refugee crisis erupted this summer, it had to increase its capacity.

"This programme will probably last for several years," said Catherine Gendre, who manages the tracing operation in Rwanda. "One of the main difficulties is the continuing population movement in Rwanda and in the refugee camps. This makes it particularly difficult to locate the children and then reunite them with their parents."

Since October, the ICRC has been responsible for 140 reunions of 220 children from camps around the Zairean border town of Bukavu. Earlier this month, Gendre was able to reunite 13 children with their families in Kigali. Red Cross delegates said that these were some of the most tearful reunions they had ever witnessed, because the children had believed that their families had been killed. Some of them were particularly touching because the children owed their lives to brave Hutu neighbours who stood up to the genocidal Hutu militias, who wanted to kill the youngsters, before fleeing to Zaire - taking the children with them - when the Tutsi-led rebels of the Rwanda Patriotic Front seized the capital and routed the army of the former regime.

But not all of the children whose parents have been found by the relief agencies want to be reunited with their families. Some prefer to remain with their "adopted families". Traumatised by their experiences, they cannot bring themselves to leave what they see as the relative safety of the camps.

Two weeks ago in Kigali, Catherine Mukanyirigira, the aunt of two children who refused to leave Bukavu, had to explain to astonished family members in Rwanda why the children refused to return home. She said the children were convinced that troops of thedefeated army planned to invade from Zaire and that the war would begin again. "They said, `Why go home, only to be killed in Rwanda?' " !