It is five years since Rwanda, a tiny state in central Africa, was taken over by a genocide in which the Interahamwe, Hutu extremists, hacked and bludgeoned to death 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The hundred days of bloodshed which began on 6 April 1994 placed the country in the international consciousness as a place where hell ruled on earth.
Bosco wakes up and clings to his mother as she tells her story. He is a sleepy bundle in red jumper and dungarees, and Caroline wraps her arms around him, saying he is too young to understand. "I come from Kibuye," she begins. Though no settlement was too small to be passed over by the Hutu militias, Kibuye, in western Rwanda, was a particularly infamous killing field. Caroline, from a fairly comfortably off Tutsi family, recalls hearing the national radio station urging Hutus in every corner of the country to rise up and kill the minority Tutsis. Her Hutu neighbours came to the house and murdered her parents and her five brothers and sis- ters. They made her watch the killings, and afterwards they raped her. For more than two months she was kept alive to "service" one of the killers.
This story is one repeated all over Rwanda. Some of the women who, like Caroline, had been kept alive by their Interahamwe captors, were later butchered by them when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front advanced. But Caroline was spared. "I go back to Kibuye sometimes," she says. "Though there is no one left to visit. And then I realise again that I have no one and I cry a lot. When that is over I am resigned." The man who kept her prisoner fled the country, but his family still lives in Kibuye. Bosco is his child.
At first, Caroline thought she would never be able to accept the baby, although he was all the family she had left. When she was breastfeeding him, all she could see was his father. "Then he smiled his first smile," she says, suddenly laughing. "And I realised he was smiling just for me." Now, she says, she loves him "too, too much".
In post-genocide Rwanda, reconciliation is the main objective, and the newly formed Tutsi-led, mixed government is attempting to forge a nation in which the terms "Tutsi" and "Hutu" become obsolete. But the odds are stacked against success, since the government's reconciliation strategy is thwarted by continuing insecurity. Rebels (some of whom were responsible for the recent murder of eight tourists, including four Britons, in neighbouring Uganda) continue to launch attacks into Rwanda from bases across the Congolese border. Meanwhile, as the government labours at the national level, ordinary Rwandans cannot escape the legacy of the massacre.
The position of those Tutsi women who survived rape and slaughter only to give birth to Hutu killers' children is a difficult one. "Rape was a weapon of war," explains Jeanne Mwililiza, who runs Mbwira Ndumva ("Speak to me, I'm listening"), Rwanda's only project for rape victims. Mwililiza lost her husband, mother and sisters but her children survived. She is blessed, she says, compared to the women whose stories make her cry in her sleep. The organisation is so strapped for cash that it is able to help only the most traumatised women, and its 375 clients have been left mentally ill, permanently disfigured or infected with Aids. But there are many more rape victims struggling to cope alone.
The Interahamwe's aim was the annihilation of the Tutsis, and rapists often tried to destroy a woman's reproductive organs. "Women were raped with broken bottles and whips," says Mwililiza. "Some were raped to death. Acid was poured into women's vaginas." Some rapists told their victims they were passing on Aids, so that if the women managed to survive they would infect future partners. Mwililiza tries to persuade families of the victims that the children born of rape are innocents. But this is a country where single motherhood is shameful, and not everyone has compassion towards the Interahamwe's reluctant concubines and their children.
"If I could find someone who would love my son as well as me, I would like to get married," says Caroline wistfully. Few men want a woman with an Interahamwe child. Small wonder that so many rape victims - often only children themselves - went to terrible lengths to abort. "I have a girl who was just 14 and away at school when the genocide broke out," says Mwililiza. "She was raped by the man who killed her brothers and sisters. Her parents' joy at finding her alive disappeared when they discovered she was carrying an Interahamwe's baby. Her parents rejected their grandchild because its father had killed their other children. They insisted their daughter have an abortion, but she refused. She went away to have the baby. Now she and the child have returned home. But no one is happy."
This all-too-common story has led some rape victims to abandon their children in orphanages, and of those women who could not let their children go, many still feel ambivalent towards them. "Young girls still feel their children have ruined their lives," says Mwililiza. "They cannot even go back to school because the men who raped them killed the relatives who could take care of the baby."
The fear of those who keep their children, of course, is that ethnic divisions will not disappear, that time will not heal. What, they wonder, will become of their offspring? Mwililiza counsels a woman whose husband was killed by a man who raped her and made her pregnant. Her older children have no idea that their adored little brother is the son of the man who killed their father. The woman is in despair. "She asks me what she will do when the older children figure it out," says Mwililiza.
Rwanda's newly appointed minister for women, Angelina Muganza, is sensitive to the plight of the rape victims. In her office in Kigali, a few miles from Caroline's home, Muganza reveals that her own niece was taken hostage during the genocide, and gave birth to a "beautiful" baby girl. Her niece has accepted the baby. Now 24, she lives in a convent with 50 other raped women and girls, and their children. A nun is trying to teach the women skills which could make them financially independent, which is crucial, since few are expected to marry. Muganza says that the raped women, like the legions of other genocide victims, are being victimised all over again; this time by poverty. Now, five years after the genocide, many women are still without proper shelter or regular food.
In a country with so little, Caroline is considered lucky: she and Bosco at least have a home. The tiny settlement of 44 houses where she lives was built by the Barakabaho (Good Health) Foundation for female genocide survivors, which also provides a pitiful but life-saving weekly allowance for the women. The residents - widows, raped single mothers, the disabled and disfigured - have become each other's support. Across the road from Caroline lives a middle-aged woman who was left for dead after a machete attack in which her husband and two of her children were killed. Though she is covered in deep machete scars, she says the invisible injuries - "those inside my head and heart" - are worse. One of her two surviving sons shows the terrible scars from wounds inflicted when he was four.
In this suburb of women and children, no one singles out the raped or their offspring (the age of a child does not give a mother away - plenty of pregnant women lost their husbands in the genocide). The residents who were raped have learned to talk among themselves and are learning to shed shame. "In Rwanda we say when a dog bites you, you don't hide it," says Mwililiza. "We help each other," says Caroline. The richer residents (a relative term) employ the poorer to do laundry, and while Caroline and the other able-bodied women are looking for work in the local fields, disabled residents look after their children.
Rwanda is one of the world's poorest countries. Even in the aftermath of genocide, the old daily battle to survive continues. No one can predict the future of children like Bosco. For some, they are an unwelcome reminder of barbaric times. But for others, they symbolise hope - just a glimmer - about what might be possible: the mother who once shrank from her son has come to love him, unconditionally.
What will Caroline tell Bosco when he asks about the past, and about his father? "I will tell him that he is my child, and that he does not have a father," she says. "That I am here for him, in everything." 2Reuse content