Genocide stole their parents, so these families of children struggle to survive alone

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The Independent Online
IN THE lifting morning mist, the Nyanza genocide site - one of many memorials across Rwanda to the 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered in 1994 by Hutu militiamen - rises up suddenly from a clearing in the banana trees.

Hundreds of anonymous little wooden crosses carpet the earth in front of a large polished stone that bears the names of a few of the tens of thousands who were corralled here, then attacked with machetes and guns by Hutu killing squads and dumped in mass graves.

Further along the cratered dirt road, past the rubbish tip that serves the nearby capital, Kigali, live Clemence Uwamahoro, 16, her two younger sisters and her brother. Every day, though the world's attention may have drifted to newer conflicts, they face one of the genocide's most terrible legacies - the fight to survive, without parents or guardians, in one of the world's poorest countries.

There are an estimated 300,000 children like them in Rwanda - children whose parents perished in the 1994 massacres or in the chaos that followed. The physical battle to live is hard enough. But these children carry the additional burden of all that they endured and even participated in during the 100 days of killing in 1994.

Few children did not witness the barbarity that swept the land. Nine out of 10 children saw corpses and body parts piled high, a third witnessed rapes and other violent assaults, three out of five were threatened with death and nine out of 10 thought they were going to die.

Clemence's mother died of malaria just months after the genocide. Aged 12, Clemence was left with sole responsibility for her brother, Hitimana, then nine, and her sisters, Digwiza, then 11, and Nyirambarushimana ("one of God's favourites"), then just three.

Before the genocide the family was well-off. Their mud house was large compared with their neighbours', and the income from their tiny banana plantation meant they seldom went hungry. Clemence says things were good when her enterprising parents were alive.

It was a talent they might have passed on with time. But when her mother died, three years after papa was killed by robbers, Clemence knew little of planting and harvesting. In any case, she and her siblings were too small to work the land properly.

The children farm a fraction of what they own. Their banana trees are neglected. And though Clemence, Digwiza, now 15, and Hitimana, now 13, all work the land, they are often hungry now. They are particularly vulnerable this season - the rains are late and there have been outbreaks of famine. They have never ventured to Kigali, only 13 kilometres (eight miles) away, or even seen a television, but they know they are poor. "We have seen children with shoes," says Clemence.

Their emotional deprivation can only be imagined, but Nyirambarushimana clings hungrily to any adult who visits. Their material deprivation is obvious. The girls all sleep on one mattress, and their entire wardrobe - no more than rags - is strung across a rope above. The dingy bedroom's dirt walls are bare except for four fading black-and-white snaps the girls have pinned above the bed. "That one is of my father," Clemence says proudly, before adding, a little deflated, that they have no pictures of mum. Below the photos is a straw hat. Who does it belong to? "We take turns to wear it," says Digwiza.

Hitimana sleeps next door on a rough rush mat. His treasured possessions sit neatly on the floor - 20 playing cards, two candles and a little Oral B dental floss dispenser. The floss was already gone when he found the container but he guards it jealously. It is an exotic object in the rural backwaters, where possessions are few. There is no other furniture and not a single creature comfort. No water and no electricity. Two further rooms lie empty and bare. Two years ago things were so bad that the children spent some time in an orphanage. When they returned, the furniture had gone.

There is pressure on all four children, but it falls most heavily on the eldest, and there is a simmering resentment in Clemence. Annette Mugwaneza, 28, who works for the charity War Child's on-the-ground partner, the Refugee Trust (Ireland), says she has caught Clemence bawling at the children when she visits.

"It is hard being in charge," Clemence says, "In the beginning I could not imagine how I would look after my brothers and sisters." Her mother's sister came to bury her mother and stayed on for two months to help. But she had to return to her own fatherless children.

"Our relatives do not like us," says Hitimana, and that must be how it seems to his young eyes. But it is clear that relatives, like neighbours, are often just too exhausted with their own survival to offer help. Clemence says her childhood disappeared the day her mother died. She talks of heavy responsibilities. A few years ago, when Nyirambarushimana had malaria, Clemence refused to let her stay in hospital overnight because it would have meant both of them being absent from home, where her other two siblings were alone.

Ms Mugwaneza says Nyirambarushimana was lucky that daily malaria injections at a nearby rural clinic were arranged. Two years ago, she says, another "mother", aged 10, pulled a drip from the arm of her malarial three-year- old sister and smuggled her out of hospital because she was worried about her three other siblings, left alone at home. The three-year-old died.

Child survivors generally do not speak of the genocide. Some are traumatised by loss. Others, such as Hategekimana, 17, who lives a few miles away from Clemence with his brothers Uwihanganye, eight, and Nshimiye, six, are also ashamed and afraid, for their Hutu parents took part in mass murder.

The past forces such children to lie. Hategekimana says he became "father" to his brothers when he was just 12, after his mother and father died from illness. In fact, his father is among the hundreds of thousands languishing in Rwandan jails, awaiting trial. Ms Mugwaneza says that the boy fears he will be blamed for his father's sins and denied assistance in a nation ruled by a Tutsi-dominated government. "I have told him to hide nothing, that he is innocent," she says. But Hategekimana, like so many others, appears to trust no one. "Why should children trust adults?" asks Patrick McLeish, of the Refugee Trust. "They have seen adults butcher each other."

Hategekimana and his brothers are even poorer - and less organised - than Clemence and her siblings. There is not a stick of furniture in his tiny hut except for the mattress donated by War Child and the Refugee Trust. But it is paradise compared with their old accommodation. Until the British embassy built this shelter in the summer, the boys were living in a ramshackle construction of branches covered with banana leaves.

War Child and the Refugee Trust only began to help these families, and 80 others like them, a few weeks ago in the expansion of an aid and income- generation project for child-headed households. Mattresses, blankets and basins have already been distributed, and small rabbit-rearing and goat- keeping projects have been launched to produce meat and milk that the children can sell locally and in Kigali. At least 400 other orphan families need help in this immediate area.

War Child/Refugee Trust grants are also allowing the youngest members of families to attend school. But the hard truth is that older children such as Clemence and Hategekimana must work if the younger ones are to survive. The annual fee for the schooling that could one day set these children free is $4, well beyond what most can afford.

THE RWANDA FILE

n In 1994, in a genocidal attack on the minority Tutsi ethnic group, 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by Hutu militias. At the height of the genocide, an estimated 10,000 people were being shot, burned or hacked to death every day.

n Since the genocide, thousands of unarmed people, including whole communities, have been indiscriminately killed and forced from their homes by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), that drove out the Hutu militias

n The RPA is reported to have been responsible for the massacre of up to 8,000 men, women and children, in October 1997, in a cave in Nyakamina where they had fled after the random killing of hundreds of civilians by the RPA.

n Hundreds of people have "disappeared" across Rwanda, typically after mass arrests carried out by the RPA.

n Armed Hutu-led opposition groups are reported to have carried out numerous atrocities, including the massacre of at least 300 Congolese refugees in December 1997 in a camp in Gisenyi.

n Despite international efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons in Rwanda, both the RPA and armed opposition groups have been able to arm themselves with ease.

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