Children of genocide seek lost innocence

It seems a ridiculously long name for so small a girl: Tumuhawenimana. But there it is marked on a red plastic bracelet around her wrist. She is only six years old but she seems older than that. She sits on the edge of the mattress, listening and looking, though she understands little of what we're saying. Not that there's much else for her to do in the hut: there are no toys, no games, no books.

The little girl with the impossibly long name is one of six children being looked after by 15-year-old Veronique. They came to Goma nearly a year and a half ago, part of the human tide which flooded into Zaire as killing and conflict continued in Rwanda. The father of the twin girls and of the little boy - Veronique's nieces and nephew - was killed, she says, by the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels whom they were fleeing. Soon after their arrival in Kibumba refugee camp,Veronique's parents and her two sisters died of cholera.

So now there are six of them living in a tiny shelter made from branches and grass, with a plastic sheet over it to keep out the rain. The floor is mud, the door a sodden, ragged blanket. All around them are thousands of similar huts.

Kibumba, which holds some 186,000 men, women and children, is one of five camps in the Goma area. There are more than a million Rwandans, mostly Hutus, in camps in Zaire's eastern region. This is the biggest concentration of refugees in the world and they show no sign of wanting to go home. Each day only a dozen or two mount the buses which are there to bring them across the border should they wish to go. Most say it is too dangerous, that they will be persecuted or imprisoned by the Tutsis if they go back. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence to justify such claims.

I was introduced to Veronique and her brood by a young man who works in the camp for the Irish aid agency Goal. He too is a refugee and as we walk across the black volcanic rock and mud he tells me that things in the camps are getting worse. The refugees might have settled into some semblance of a routine but what a miserable and demoralising one it is. They squat amid the lush, green hills, in sight of their homeland a couple of miles across the border, wondering if ever they will be able to return.

Strange, conflicting thoughts rattle around your mind in these camps. At one moment, your heart goes out to these people whose lives have been reduced to a pathetic daily search for food, water and firewood in a country not their own. Then you look at one of these ravaged Hutu faces and you ask yourself: is this one a killer? Did this one wield a machete and cut off the arms of his neighbour's children? Did this one butcher his friend's wife simply because she was a Tutsi?

There were child killers in Rwanda as well as adults. I have seen some of the suspects in detention centres: children as young as seven have been charged with genocide. But I refuse to believe that Veronique or any of her clan are guilty of these crimes. They look too vulnerable, too innocent. But then so did the seven-year-old (ironically called Innocent) whom I met in Rwanda a few months ago: I was told he had helped his parents chop up their neighbour's children.

But they're not all killers. Veronique is an amazing girl. She should be at school, out with her friends discussing clothes and boys. Instead she's bringing up a clatter of kids in a stinking hut with only half a bag of maize meal and beans to feed them for the next two weeks.

"I've had enough of living like this," she says. "There's not enough for the children to eat here. We might have to go back home next year. But then there's not much for us there either. And I've heard there's killing again in Rwanda."

What sort of 1996 is this family going to have?