MARTINE was tall and graceful, sporting a white sari and an afro wig. A French-speaking Tutsi from Burundi, she came to us as an au pair 15 years ago when she was 24 and our children were very small. She was imperious and beautiful with a dignity that could sometimes dissolve in giggles.

She told us of the troubles she had suffered in Rwanda where she had fled as a refugee because of the hostilities between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Burundi. We had never heard of either at the time. Like so many suburban Brits, wewere ignorant of the troubles facing Africans on the other side of the globe. She showed us family photos; mother and father, younger sister, glum teenage brother. And the youngest, a four-year-old boy whose picture she would lovingly trot out for us.

Although we shared much jocularity together, Martine was not happy. Months later we discovered her true plight. Far from being an English student she was the wife of a colonel who had been deposed and imprisoned for 25 years by the leaders of the latest coup d'etat. The adored four-year-old brother turned out to be her son.

Though her husband was in prison, she was not permitted to bring the child out of the country. Her parents were caring for him instead. When we offered help for her through aid organisations and contacts on foreign news desks, she begged us to do nothing out of fear of reprisals against her family. Her marriage, we understood, had not been happy, but while the husband languished in prison, both his wife and son remained prisoners of a marriage from which there was no parole.

We would dread the post arriving, for when it did, Martine would curl up into a tight little ball and wail. Sometimes she would reveal the latest family misfortune - sometimes not. Eventually she secured a divorce and left us to marry her cousin, a doctor living in Strasbourg. She sent me two radiant photographs of her, one as a bride, the other as the mother of a baby daughter. My last letter to Strasbourg was returned to sender, address unknown. I never heard from her again. The fate of her first child remains a mystery. I wonder if she ever went back to her home country, if she ever won custody of her son? And as tribal genocide grips Rwanda and as the death toll rises in the Goma refugee camp, I think of that four-year-old separated from mother and father; now, who knows, a soldier, a liberator, a victim or a persecutor, perhaps all of these things, perhaps dead.