Silent scream of Rwanda's youth

Mary Braid, in Kigali, finds a generation in torment; child killers and witnesses alike locked into genocidal memory
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The Independent Online
JEAN PETER, 16, looks through his lashes with huge brown eyes, fingers the plastic rosary beads around his neck and offers a shy smile. "They say I killed a child," he whispers. "But I didn't. I was only 12. How could I be a genocidaire?"

On bare dirty feet, he stands in the middle of a dusty compound, south of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, which he shares with 350 boys - the country's youngest genocidal killers. One little boy was just six when he took part in what came to be the murder of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, at the incitement of Hutu extremists.

Near the high-perimeter wire fence, draped with the children's drying ragged clothes, Jean Peter's tiny friend, now 10, also tries logic. "They say I am an Interahamwe [the Hutu extremists which led the genocide]", he says. "But I am too young to be an Interahamwe."

Another boy tells a garbled story. "We had a baby in our house who disappeared. His mother accused me but I know the baby is not dead. People have seen it at its mother's house."

The genocide in Rwanda contaminated every sector of society. Judges, politicians, peasants, even nuns and priests, manned the infamous roadblocks to trap fleeing Tutsis. They wielded machetes until the bodies of Rwanda's minority - 15 per cent of the population to the Hutus' 85 per cent - were piled high. Women and children played their part in the collective madness; and some were stars, not mere bit players.

Four years on, the child killers of Gitagata re-education centre have started to return to their home villages. It is a slow, painful process, says Gitagata's director, Jean-Baptiste Rudasingwa. The first 12 left the centre last month. Though they were the youngest, it was still hard to persuade their old communities to take them back.

To leave Gitagata you must confess your crimes and appear to understand their gravity. There are no hard-faced thugs here, only kids in cut-off jeans and faded, torn American T-shirts who try to cadge a cigarette or a Biro. But they have slaughtered and raped. Many specialised in ferreting out victims hiding from the mob. Among those released early was a child who killed three other children.

If release relies on public confession before one's peers, then no one here is going anywhere. "Not one of us has confessed to genocide," says one older boy. According to Mr Rudasingwa it is a different story in private sessions with social workers.

"They admit they killed," he says. "They were used particularly to kill other children. They say their fathers told them to. If they asked why they had to kill neighbours their fathers said the government had issued orders."

In the build up to the genocide, intricately planned by the extremist regime, national radio spewed out anti-Tutsi propaganda instructing Hutus to kill the inyenze (cockroaches). The victims were so vilified that when the killers stripped them they fully expected to find tails. The brothers and fathers of these boys are among the 130,000 accused genocidaires swelling Rwanda's adult prisons.

Until last year the boys of Gitagata were also held in adult jails where human-rights groups condemn the conditions as "appalling". Mr Rudasingwa says the children were sexually harassed.

At Gitagata, opened last year by a government under pressure from international agencies, there is comparative luxury; more than 50 boys to a dank, dirty dormitory with four sharing each set of makeshift bunkbeds (two up, two down). There are daily group counselling sessions but no schooling after primary. Though the boys are locked up at night, by day the compound gate is open and they mix with local children. That is a minor triumph considering the initial hostility of locals.

It must be hard for Rwanda's new Tutsi-led regime to concede that the young genocidaires are victims too. There are so many other obvious child victims, and so few resources to go round.

On the wall of Rwanda's only trauma centre, outside Kigali, is a drawing by an eight-year-old boy. In The Killing of My Parents his mother lies dead, red ink oozing from slashes to her face. His father is bound and covered in crimson cuts. The knife held by the killer is grotesquely exaggerated in size and dominates the page.

On the same wall, Alice, 11, writes that her mother begged to pray before she died but her killer, a neighbour, would not let her. Alice tried to forget the pain, she says, but the memories keep flooding back. "My mother liked to sing," she remembers. "I stopped singing because it reminded me of her."

Few children in Rwanda have escaped unscathed. In the three months it took to kill 800,000 people almost every child witnessed violence; much of it unbelievably brutal. Some children saw their pregnant mothers sliced open and the foetus slaughtered; boys were forced to rape their mothers.

In a study of more than 3,000 Rwandan children, Augustin Gasovya, a psychologist at the trauma centre, found that almost 80 per cent lost relatives in the war; 40 per cent lost both parents and 55 per cent their siblings. Almost 70 per cent said they witnessed murder and 80 per cent remembered hearing screams for help. More than 9 per cent believed they would also die while 50 per cent witnessed massacres and 35 per cent saw other children kill or injure. The horror continues. Some children still live in villages with their parents' killers, because there is too little evidence against them, or the children are too terrified to tell.

Mr Gasovya, who grew up in exile after a previous massacre of Tutsis, has returned with thousands of other long-term exiles to help rebuild a nation, most of whose professionals are dead or in jail. He admits that the trauma centre barely skims the surface of a deep pool of need.

He treats children who killed as well as those who had families massacred. All, he argues, are victims. Though Mr Rudasingwa says his boys show few signs of trauma, Mr Gasovya says both groups of children exhibit the same symptoms, though it is harder to help the killers as their emotions are blocked.

"Those who escaped with the Interahamwe to refugee camps in Zaire were instructed by leaders never to speak about what had happened. That suppression was reinforced by Rwandan culture in which feelings are generally not expressed."

The psychiatric nurse Doreen-Rose Bamureebe, another Tutsi raised in exile, says that despite the efforts of the trauma centre, Rwanda's poverty has made victims of the children all over again. The genocide has left more than 65,000 children raising younger siblings. Nigel Marsh, of World Vision, says: "These kids are heroes. Can you remember being 11? Can you imagine being 11 and looking after four other kids?"

In Gitarama, south of Kigali, Julienne Uwonkunda, 14, takes care of Eugene, 12, Chantel, 8, and Francine, 4. She has been mother to them since she was 11 and Francine was just two. She last saw her father at a Hutu road block in 1994 and her mother died of malaria two years later.

Julienne is clever; a champion vegetable grower in a Unicef-sponsored scheme for child mothers like her. In her tidy backyard, surrounded by her siblings she struggles for composure as she remembers the horror of 1994. But tears flood her eyes when she says being a mother forced her to leave school. International aid is drying up in Rwanda now that the "emergency" is over. Try telling that to Rwanda's children.