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Thousands of women were raped during Rwanda's genocide. Now their children are coming of age

They were born in tragedy, but some of the children are remarkably resilient

Danielle Paquette
Friday 16 June 2017 23:51 BST
Outside the house she shares with her mother, Angel walks down the street to buy sugar in Ngoma Sector, Rwanda, in the southern part of the country near Huye
Outside the house she shares with her mother, Angel walks down the street to buy sugar in Ngoma Sector, Rwanda, in the southern part of the country near Huye (Photography by Whitney Shefte)

Angel was 11 the last time her mother tried to kill her. She remembers the handful of rat poison pellets, the urging: “Take this”. She screamed until a neighbour rushed over and pulled her away. That was a decade ago, before the counselling, and now Angel’s mother is bending over her shoulder, pouring her a cup of black tea. They share a bed, a concrete house without electricity and a history that horrified the world.

Over a hundred days in 1994, genocide devastated Rwanda, an East African country the size of Belgium. The assailants claimed roughly 800,000 lives and raped an estimated 250,000 women, which, according to one charity’s count, produced up to 20,000 babies.

Angel is part of this generation in the shadows. These young people are now stepping into adulthood, coming to terms with an identity no parent would wish on a child. Yet they are defying expectations that tragedy would define their lives.

Historically, such children often met an early death. Thousands of Chinese women endured sexual violence during the Rape of Nanking in 1937, for example, but none publicly acknowledged raising a Japanese soldier’s child, as far as historians can tell. Reports from the time suggest that victims who became pregnant widely committed infanticide.

A United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) study on the “war babies” of Bosnia’s 1992-1995 conflict, meanwhile, concluded that many were probably abandoned or killed by their mothers. The number of survivors remains unknown.

In Rwanda, data from support groups provide a clearer picture. The “children of killers”, as they are often disparaged, tend to live in poverty, facing higher rates of HIV and domestic abuse than their peers.

But that’s not the whole story.

“We hear everyone’s lives are destroyed, that they’re the walking dead,” said Dara Kay Cohen, a Harvard University professor who studies sexual assault in conflict. “Then you talk to people and hear there’s this hopeful underbelly.”

Angel, who declined to let us use her first or last name (Angel is her middle name), puts on make-up before going to church (Whitney Shefte)

Researchers are just starting to explore how children overcome such trauma. The Rwandan government, tasked with rebuilding a shattered nation, laid out no formal policy to help those conceived in the mass rape.

Ingvill Mochmann, founder of the International Network for Interdisciplinary Research on Children Born of War, recently published a report summarising a decade of studies on the effects of war on children.

“Many have coped fairly well with their lives,” Mochmann wrote. “The interesting question is – what makes the difference?”

Interviews with three families, just before the massacre’s 23rd anniversary, offer a clue.

Angel and Jacqueline

Sunlight streams through Angel’s window, catching her metallic hoop earrings. She sits at a wooden table next to her mother, Jacqueline. They split a loaf of bread for breakfast and wash it down with tea. Jacqueline sprinkles brown sugar into their cups.

“Murakoze,” Angel tells her in Kinyarwanda. Thank you.

They live together under a tin roof in a rural village, where a Catholic church pays their monthly rent, the equivalent of £4. The cracked walls are painted turquoise. A mosquito net dangles above their full-size bed. A rooster outside crows.

Angel is 22 now, with a quick grin and braids down her back. She was born HIV positive, so she takes free pills from the government to stay healthy. She has just finished high school and is waiting for the test score that will shape her future.

High marks would net her a scholarship. The results will appear online in a couple of weeks. Angel and her mother will pray before heading to the internet cafe.

Tourism is her dream career. Her back-up plan is selling tomatoes.

“We don’t have money,” she explains.

Angel learned early how she came to be. Jacqueline would tell her: “You’re not my real daughter.”

“Whenever she would go somewhere, and if I asked her to let me come with her, she always refused and locked me inside,” Angel says softly through an interpreter. “She would also not permit me to play with other kids.”

Angel eats bread and drinks tea with her mother Jacqueline, left, at their home before they go to church (Whitney Shefte)

Jacqueline tears up when she thinks of this.

Before the genocide, she was someone else’s mother. They were in fourth and sixth grade, her girls. They complained about bullies hounding them for being Tutsis, a minority ethnic group. Jacqueline was on her way to Kigali, the nation’s capital, to secure spots for them in a new school when the violence started. Rwandan government leaders had commanded the majority population, the Hutus, to exterminate the Tutsis. Neighbours slaughtered neighbours. Colleagues murdered colleagues. Hutu fighters found Jacqueline hiding in a Catholic school and took turns raping her. She remembers praying to die.

But three months passed, and a Tutsi rebel army overthrew the government, and there she was, following a UN soldier out of the rubble. Her husband and children were dead. She now had HIV and a baby on the way.

Jacqueline once poured soap and hair dye into Angel’s bottle and decided to drink the toxic mix, too. She wanted everything to go black. But instead they vomited, and Jacqueline reluctantly decided to keep going.

She would hug Angel, then beat her. Affection and rage, affection and rage. This pattern held until they started therapy in 2007, run by an organisation called Foundation Rwanda. (The Washington Post agreed to a request from the foundation and the families interviewed for this article to withhold their last names, so they can avoid discrimination and harassment.)

The charity organised weekly support groups, and the other mothers inspired Jacqueline to become a Christian. She began to feel that Angel had come from God.

Foundation Rwanda paid Angel’s school tuition through graduation. Which has brought her to this point, this limbo.

She mostly hangs around her house, except to buy food or refill her medicine or go to church. She recently broke up with her boyfriend of five years – he wanted to get married, and she didn’t want to tell him about her HIV.

Beyond her plank fence, the hills burst with banana trees. Adobe homes dot the horizon – tiny from here, like Monopoly pieces. Men play draughts outside a shuttered dive bar. Someone’s cow moos.

Angel is comfortable in her universe, but she is curious about what else is out there. She waits for the test score.

Albert and Agnes

Albert, 21, stands in his family’s field, hacking saplings with a machete. His leather flip-flops sink into the red dirt. His forehead shines with sweat. He graduated last year from a boarding school near Kigali and feels a little out of place here in the rural Mukura sector, with his smooth hands and Puma track pants.

Albert grew up in an orphanage, a four-hour bus ride from home, leafing through French and English dictionaries, dreaming of a future in politics. College pamphlets now litter his concrete room (Michigan State University, St Leo University in Florida).

For now, he is helping his mom with her 2½ acres of hillside – trying to help, that is. He is gathering sticks to feed her cow. She waits for him in their back yard, knifing pale kernels from corn cobs.

Agnes was a Tutsi teenager when the streets began filling with bodies. A Hutu man from the village offered her shelter. Then, she says, he kept her as his sex slave, threatening to kill her if she tried to leave.

When the war ended and the militants fled Rwanda, the man forced Agnes to join him over the border. She gave birth to two babies in Tanzania, each healthy: Albert and his younger brother.

Agnes finally escaped and returned to her old neighbourhood. People asked about the babies: did they come from the killers?

Agnes put both boys in a government-run orphanage, where she could afford to visit them once a year. She married an old friend, moved into a cottage beside rows of banana trees and started to rebuild.

Still, the separation broke her heart and confused Albert.

“I told her, ‘I want to be with you’,” he recalls in English. And she said, “I’m trying to get money for you.”

Albert didn’t know he came from rape. He found himself among children who had lost both parents in the genocide. He felt lucky to have one.

“There were 2,000 of us,” he says, “with different backgrounds and different stories. Other people had struggled more than me.”

At age 17, he learned about his father.

The man returned to Rwanda years ago and was sentenced to life in the Mpanga prison, about 30 miles north of the family’s land. Albert wonders what it would be like to meet him. He hasn’t worked up the nerve.

“It shocked my heart, the way my mother met him,” he says.

Still, Albert says: “I don’t think he is inhuman. I want to see his face.”

The orphanage in the northern city of Gisyeni gave Albert an advantage. Public funds covered his educational expenses. He tested into the country’s top-ranked high school. He got a perfect score on the Rwanda equivalent of the SAT.

One warm February afternoon, Albert sat across from a college adviser at a Kigali company called Globe Education Consult, which helps Rwandan students get into international schools. Albert had put on his khakis and taken the bus there.

“With your grade, it’s going to be much easier,” Godfrey Nkurunziza said, grinning. “It gives us a picture of how you would perform in school.”

Albert wanted to apply to colleges in the United States and Canada. He had no strong preference, just a desire to explore.

Nkurunziza told Albert to budget between $10,000 and $20,000 a year for housing, books and tuition. They would hunt for scholarships, of course.

Albert, who declined to use his last name because of the stigma surrounding his situation, rides the bus from Huye to Kigali (Whitney Shefte)

Just one thing first...

“To apply with us,” Nkurunziza said, “bring in $200, for the application fees.”

Albert slumped forward. He didn’t even have the bus fare – about $5 – to get back home.

But the world had carried him this far. He would nudge a friend to lend him some cash. Then he would return to the house and his glossy pamphlets.

Ntare and Assoumpta

When the thoughts start, Ntare writes. He scribbles in a notebook, on stray pieces of paper, whatever he can grab. It’s a way to blast gloom from his head and trap it on a page. Lately, it has been turning into more – a song.

He could record it on a computer at his boarding school and send it to a Kigali radio station. A DJ there plays homemade tracks free of charge. The idea excites and scares him.

Right now, Ntare is finishing a construction internship outside the southern city of Gitarama. But inside, he is an artist, a lover of music and film. After work, he ditches his bright orange coveralls, slips into a fuzzy pink robe and watches the American hip-hop series Empire.

With his creativity, though, comes confession. This song is autobiographical. Many of his friends, including his girlfriend, don’t know his story.

On this recent afternoon, Ntare, tall and toned, is practising in his back yard, next to a rabbit pen he built with chicken wire. He bobs his head and raps in Kinyarwanda:

Some of them on the streets,
Others jailed because of their crimes.
But sometimes consequences come over us.
For instance, I am among those called “Interahamwe”.
But we don’t worry about it.
We look forward.

His biological father belonged to the Interahamwe, the Hutu militants who helped carry out the genocide. Some survivors see him as a child of the killers, including his mother’s family. They won’t look at him.

He didn’t learn why until he turned 12.

Assoumpta remembers the day she told him. Her son was a troublemaker back then, starting fights with other kids.

Would this revelation make things worse?

She willed herself not to sugarcoat it. She told him about the genocide. The militants who found her in a school and raped her. The relatives who kicked her out of their home once her belly started showing.

That was why she would snap easily and hit him.

Ntare kept quiet. He didn’t look her in the eye for a week. Then he started doing extra chores. He stopped getting into brawls. He brought her fruit, saying she needed the nutrition.

The way Assoumpta tells it, he started acting like the man of the house. He no longer blamed her for the beatings or for the people who called him a bastard.

Ntare recalls feeling relief. So this was what he was. His mother had had no choice.

He practised swagger. Am I a bastard? Yes, I’m a bastard.

Ntare met other kids like him at a camp organised by Foundation Rwanda. He wrote a play about a mother telling her son the truth and got some of his new friends to help him perform it.

That stayed between them, but his song, it would be public. He might have to tell his girlfriend, an accountant. They’ve been dating for nearly two years, and he’d like to marry her someday.

He has revealed his secrets to her slowly – “step by step”, he says. All she knows now is that he doesn’t have a dad.

But he’s got to come out at some point. He wants the children of killers to hear his song and feel less alone.

He’s calling it “Son of Rwanda”.

Update: Months after taking her exams, Angel received her score. It was not high enough to win a college scholarship. Albert never found the $200 to apply to schools through Globe Education Consult. He has applied to be “sponsored” by the Rwandan government for international colleges. As for Ntare, he will graduate from high school in November. He is still hoping that his song will be played on the radio.

© The Washington Post

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