Children of Rwanda

In 1994 almost a million people died in the Rwandan genocide. There are now 300,000 orphans and brothers and sisters stand in for mother and father. Some of the children are killers, all are victims. Photographs by Nicola Kurtz. Words by Mary Braid
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Rwanda. Tiny but breathtakingly beautiful, a country of a thousand lush, green hills, a veritable promised land in parched and often famine- ridden central Africa. Four years on, it is still hard to comprehend what happened here, impossible for the outsider to imagine the one hundred days it took to turn these green hills crimson with the blood of more than 800,000 Tutsis, and the smaller number of Hutus who found that, when extremists reign, death is the price paid for moderation.

It was on the night of 6 April 1994 that the Rwandan government, dominated by Hutu hardliners, called for the majority Hutu population to rise up and exterminate the Inyenze (cockroaches). Genocide began. Tutsis, who make up 15 per cent of the population, were rounded up in villages and at hastily erected city checkpoints and ferreted out from desperate hiding places by machete-wielding mobs. Men and women: few escaped. The bodies were everywhere, left were they were killed.

The children of Rwanda have no trouble imagining the madness. Those "lucky" enough to have survived, lived through it. Few, if any, emerged psychologically or emotionally unscathed. But for this devastated generation there are no Western-style squads of trauma counsellors. Instead, Rwanda limps along, post-genocide, with pitiful resources. There is just one national trauma centre, in the capital, Kigali, where child survivors draw pictures of their pregnant mothers with their stomachs ripped open. Others draw their parents lying dead, dripping with red ink.

It was a planned and systematic extermination. But there was nothing clinical about its execution. In the rural areas, Hutu peasants took up the only available weapons - machetes, hoes and spades - driven to hysteria by political leaders who claimed the tall, thin Tutsis, traditionally wealthier and better educated, were once again poised to enslave them.

In Germany's dispatch of the Jews few Germans actually murdered. The reverse was the case with the Hutu genocide in Rwanda. The killers crawled out from every social level: judges, politicians, peasants and even nuns. That was by design: with everyone guilty, who would later raise his voice against another?

Children were not spared. Those who did not see parents killed invariably saw mum or dad wielding the machete. In the midst of viciousness, no innocence was permitted. The young were blooded by adult members of the mob and hundreds of children, some as young as six, took part in massacres.

In a shabby but tidy mud hut near Gitarama, 45 minutes drive from Kigali, Julienne, 15, takes care of Eugene, 12, Chantal, nine, and Francoise, five. She became mother when she was 11 and Francoise was two. That was the year her real mother died of malaria, two years after their father was swallowed up by the genocide. Looking into the distance, Julienne says she last saw her dad on his bicycle at a Hutu roadblock.

Julienne is pretty. But her childhood is now lost and each day is hard. In her torn, dirty dress she can talk about the genocide without crying. But the tears spill over when she turns to shattered personal dreams.

Her responsibilities, she says, have forced her to give up school. She is clever and the loss of education has been a blow - her every hope has evaporated with it. The champion vegetable grower at a Unicef-sponsored project to help child-headed homes, she now labours just to keep her brothers' and sisters' heads above water.

Children now make up almost 50 per cent of the population, and many of Julienne's friends are similarly burdened. Their determination, despite the odds, to keep their brothers and sisters together, is humbling. A few hundred yards down a dirt track, in a clearing in dense forest, Venuste Higiro, 24, is helping his cousin Jean-Claude, 14, raise Marthe, 12, and Rosette, 10 (pictured above).

On the walls of their little living room is a faded poster which declares J'Adore Mon Fridge - though of course there is no fridge or electricity. A figurine of the Virgin Mary sits alongside treasured passport pictures of their dead parents. They smile broadly as they explain the photographs. But they whisper as they tell how their father disappeared during the genocide, and that their mother died two years later.

Voices are lowered so that they cannot be overheard by another brother, Jean-Pierre, 15. He sits outside, his legs and arms withered. He cannot speak. Jean-Claude says their mother carried Jean-Pierre on her back for miles to save him from the Hutu militiamen, the Interahamwe, in 1994.

The children live in fear of the killers returning. The Interahamwe is still launching attacks from across the border in Congo. Earlier this year Rwanda's fragile sense of security was shattered when militiamen launched an attack just outside Gitarama. Venuste claims that the killers have again since emerged from the forest to demand food. Terrified locals complied though they risked victimisation by the Rwandan army.

Amazingly, hope and love survive. Venuste supports the whole family thanks to the bicycle he uses to ferry neighbours around. He fights shy of praise. "There is not always enough money for food," he says, looking at his feet. "But I have taken up the responsibility and though it is not easy, I believe I can do it."

And somehow faith in God also endures. The family finds joy in small things. Until a few months ago Jean-Pierre was forced to sit for hours in the doorway, unable to get around. In the past few months a local charity has given him a wheelchair. He has always smiled. Now he beams from his wheelchair at everyone who passes.

Some might ask where God was when the killers came. But, like Julienne, Jean-Pierre's family still puts its future in God's hands. Only God, say the children, can decide if the Hutu militiamen will return.

With so many "deserving" child victims, Gitagata, a re-education centre for young killers, south of Kigali, struggles for public support. In the bare, dusty compound, surrounded by a high wire fence, no one admits to being a killer, but some of these sweet-looking little boys with shy downcast eyes, who try to cadge a cigarette, have killed not once but several times, and raped.

"They say I killed a child," says one. "But how could I be a genocidaire?" Social workers claim that in private counselling sessions, however, stripped of peer group and male bravado, the boys claim that their fathers made them kill neighbours and school friends.

More than 350 boys live at the centre, built after international pressure to have them removed from Rwanda's adult prisons which are now crammed with thousands of men and women awaiting trial, and execution, for genocide crimes. There is another separate smaller centre for the girls who killed.

In the dank dormitories the air is heavy with the smell of urine. Gitagata is also crowded, four to every set of bunk beds, two up, two down, and hundreds more boys will soon arrive from adult prisons. But the boys say it is paradise compared with what they left behind. At least here they are clothed and fed, and are safe from the sexual attacks. The staff here do their best but the task is awesome: to somehow prepare children who four years ago lost all their moral bearings, for a return to their families, and to communities where they created havoc.

For many boys here the genocide was just the beginning of their turmoil. When the Hutu population, terrified of retribution, fled into neighbouring Congo (then Zaire), their children, some half-crazed by then, were warned by Interahamwe leaders never to speak of what they did and saw. According to trauma centre staff that only compounded mental distress.

The long-term plan is to return the boys to their old communities, but in most cases those communities do not want them. Only a fraction - usually the youngest offenders - have so far been reintegrated.

The Gitagata project, like all the rest, relies heavily on international donors. Rwanda was dirt-poor before the genocide. That, at least, has not changed. Incredibly, now that the "emergency" is judged over, the funds that follow international crises are drying up.

At the Kigali Trauma Centre the staff believe all children - killers or orphans - are genocide victims. (But it is easy to understand why the Rwandan government - now dominated by the minority Tutsis whose raison d'etre is survival and whose insecurity is at the root of the current crisis in neighbouring Congo - have difficulty seeing it that way.) In a study of more than 3,000 Rwandan children, trauma centre psychologist Augustin Gasovya found that 80 per cent lost relatives in the slaughter, 40 per cent lost both parents and 50 per cent their brothers and sisters. The vast majority of children witnessed murder, half saw massacres take place.

It is impossible even to meet the needs of those orphaned by the killers. An estimated 250,000 children have lost both parents. They are being raised in 65,000 poverty-stricken homes throughout Rwanda, where a child - usually a girl - now carries the burden of responsibility for four or five younger siblings. As one nurse at the trauma centre puts it: now poverty is making victims of these children all over again

Unicef is appealing for funds to help support child-headed households in Rwanda. You can send donations to Unicef, Room INDS2, Freepost, Chelmsford, CM2 8BR; appeal code 98830302P.

Top, from left, Demetrie, 17, and Solange, 12, in Kivye, in northern Byumba The girls live with their 15-year-old sister, Epiphanie, and their two brothers, who were away at the time of the photographer's visit trading across the border into Uganda. The children originally came from two families but with the same father - polygamy is common in the area. After their parents died of cholera in the refugee camps the children returned to the village. Their homes had been destroyed and some of their land occupied. They got the land back and built a new house on the site of one of their former homes. Conditions are squalid, with animal faeces on the floor. The girls sleep in one bed, the boys in another. The eldest girl, Demetrie, has learning difficulties, Epiphanie works as a maid.

Above, from left, Alfred, 9, Jeanne Ndabateze, 18, and Jeanne Urayeneza, 15, in Rubungo The three children live together with two others siblings in a small house with two bedrooms. The only furniture the orphan family have is two chairs. Their nearest water source is 30 minutes away and is unreliable. The eldest, Jeanne Ndabateze, suffers from recurrent malaria and has anorexia which has also resulted in the loss of pigment in her hair. Anorexia is a common feature of trauma victims in Rwanda but it was almost unheard-of prior to the events of 1994. Other self-destructive behaviour patterns in children now regularly encountered by aid workers include alcoholism, and glue- and petrol-sniffing. Jeanne has received no medical help.

Right, from left, Jocelyne, 11, Elrane, 13, Zerbabel, 17, and Joel, 15, in Rubungo Zerbabel's family, despite the loss of both parents, is relatively well off: they live in a large brick-built house. Zerbabel has attended a woodwork training course for six months and has made a table and a stool for the house, which they have also decorated. Joel stays at home and looks after the household. He lost the end of his thumb from an infection and is unable to do any skilled craft-work. Eleven-year-old Jocelyne is in charge of meals, which mainly consist of stews of plantains or sweet potatoes cooked over an open fire. They are photographed singing hymns: like most Rwandans, they are deeply religious.

Above, from left, Marthe, 12, Jean-Pierre, 15, Jean-Claude, 14, and Rosette, 10, in Gitarama Jean-Pierre, the head of the parentless household, is severely disabled but is mentally well. He stays at home, guards the house, and delegates work to his brothers and sisters. A figurine of the Virgin Mary sits alongside treasured passport pictures of their mother and father. Their father disappeared during the genocide, and their mother died two years later. Jean-Claude says their mother carried Jean-Pierre on her back for miles to save him from the Hutu militiamen. Jean-Pierre is thrilled with the wheelchair, donated by a local charity. Before that he was forced to sit for hours in the doorway, unable to get around.

Left, from left, Claudine, 9, Manvelie, 2, Francoise, 16, in Gitarama Their father was killed in the genocide and their mother died earlier this year while she was still breast-feeding Manvelie. Francoise took over the care of Manvelie but there were problems weaning the baby so rapidly and she had malnutrition for a while. When their mother died the children were offered a coffin to bury her in for 3,000 Rwandi francs ($10). As they didn't have any money they were persuaded instead to hand over a piece of land in exchange. In fact the land, where they grew coffee, was worth 100,000 Rwandi francs, but the children had no idea of this. This kind of exploitation of parentless children by neighbours, friends, even relatives, is common. In this case, however, there was a happy outcome: a charity intervened and got the land back for the children.

Above, from left, Nshimiyimana, 2, Florence, 8, two of their friends, Francois, 9, and Florentine, 5, in Nyarutarama, Kigali There are two other children, Jacqueline, 18, and Francoise, 17. The baby, Nshimiyimana,

is Jacqueline's - she was raped. Rape of children has been widespread since the genocide. The children make easy targets and there is little likelihood of retribution. The orphaned children share the household tasks. Signs of malnutrition are evident and there is recurrent malaria in the family.

Below, from left, Claude, 8, Fabrice, 7, and Francoise, 17, in Rubungo Francoise and her other sister Pelagre, 16, were attending a needlework workshop, but Pelagre had to drop out to look after the family and to earn money fetching water for construction sites. Both Francoise and Claude suffer from respiratory diseases and Francoise also has a skin infestation. The two boys are pictured in their school holidays making wire cars to sell. Francoise says that her dream is to own two sewing machines so that she and her sister can make things to sell.

Right, Dizzmbe (on bed),10, in Gitagata Re-education and Production Centre Dizzmbe was six at the time of the genocide. He claimed that he hadn't killed anybody but that his siblings and parents - who were subsequently killed - had. However, he is familiar with guns. He says his favourite is an SMG. He has been in the centre for a month - for the previous three and a half years he was in an adult prison.

Left, from left, Josiane, 16, Materno, 15, Marie-Claire, 12, in Nyarutarama, Kigali These children, by contrast, are relatively well- off. Their parents, because they were middle-class intellectuals, were among the first to be targeted in the genocide, but the children are well- dressed and their tidy house is brick-built and has glass windows. Materno has a bicycle and earns money doing deliveries when he is not at school. They also take in washing.

Left, Vanessa, 8, in the National Trauma Centre, Kigali When Vanessa was four she watched her father being hacked to death with a machete. Her immediate family were all killed. She lives with an aunt and is attending the centre as an outpatient. The children there are encouraged to explore their experiences through talking and drawing (above). When Vanessa first went to the centre she drew pictures of her father's head and legs without the torso, and of her family hiding behind a bush from a machete-wielding militiaman. This is the only trauma treatment centre in Rwanda. Its main role is in educating teachers and community workers in child-trauma treatment. It claims to have trained 300,000 so far. Children attend the centre for a maximum of three months. Trauma symptoms range from hallucinations and flashbacks to catatonic states, aggression, eating disorders, substance abuse and chronic depression.