Women were brutally raped during the Rwandan genocide and the children they bore have now come of age. The teens share their stories as they struggle to come to terms with their identity.
TWENTY years ago on April 6, a plane crash in Rwanda touched off the deadliest genocide anywhere in the world since 1945: three months of killing that left an estimated 800,000 dead, ignited an entire region in a generation of war and brought about a new western internationalist credo: that military intervention to save lives is not just an option but an imperative. During the carnage as many as 500,000 women were raped. Up to 20,000 children were born as a result. This generation is now coming of age. Here are some of their stories:
Abera has a winning smile and the louche comportment of a confident teenager. She has quite long hair and a pen is nestled in its mass. We chat in a teacher’s office with bright blue walls, in dim light with the door closed against the midday sun.
“During my childhood I lived with other children whom I took to be my siblings. When I was young I didn’t know what had happened and I could be like the others but when I found out, it all changed. My childhood was not easy because of what other people in the community would say about the man I thought was my father, things like ‘this one is not yours’. I heard many rumours, I knew something was wrong.
“When I found out, it was very shocking to find out the man you thought was your father is not. I felt a lot of anguish and it led to problems. I found out the truth about a year ago. I cried, I could spend a week without talking to anyone. It was lonely. Having this status that is abnormal was hard, but as time went on you feel you must accept it.
“But I feel very patriotic and feel I can contribute to the future of my country. I am studying hoteliery and I like tourism, so I would like to work in a hotel – first in Rwanda and then maybe somewhere else.
“It is not an easy life in Rwanda. We learn about the genocide in school, all the nasty terms. But it is different now. I pray that the genocide will not happen again.”
Olivier Mbarushimana, 19: “I realised I had no father during my childhood, but my mother said: ‘Although you have no father, you must behave well.’ I came round to it, but it is hard. I live with my mother and my stepfather but it is a big issue: when I need pens or books I do not go to him, because I know he will not help. I go to my mother. Of course, I passed through a phase of sadness and anguish, but I realised you can’t be happy all the time, sometimes there are problems. You grow up. You can’t change things by thinking about these problems.
“I like school. You expand your knowledge, you learn more about the world. We are taught to be creative, that you can’t expect the government to do everything for you – you have to create your own opportunities.
“We learn about the genocide in school. It is hard to think about it ... thinking about it makes me feel bad. When I do I wonder about the people who did this. Were they people like us? That’s a very big question I still have.
“It is difficult, but the most important thing is that it never happens again. I want to do my best to make sure genocide never happens again, either in Rwanda or anywhere else. I think I can contribute by talking to people stuck with these ideas, and to people my own age.
“The way I see it, people are now working together, we are a democratic country. I praise God, because even though we went through a bad time, the government is creating a good image for its citizens. Of course, I love Rwanda, it is my mother country. Things happened, but now we have to do what we can for it. We have a president who loves us and he has plans for us young people.
“I want to be a doctor, but it is very difficult. The project that paid my school fees – about 55,000 Rwandan francs (RM270) a term – has stopped and I am worried about not being able to go to school. I used to dream I could be a doctor and care for people, but since this drastic thing happened maybe I will join the military and become a soldier. In 20 years’ time, I think Rwanda will be a paradise; we have already moved forward by leaps and bounds.”
Diane Mrosa, 19: “I live with my mother and my little sister. I never had the chance to meet my father. My childhood wasn’t at all good. It was hard to get by because there was only my mother to provide for everything, food, school books ... it was a real struggle.
“Before my mum told me how I was born, I asked myself many questions. All of my friends knew who their fathers were, but I did not and I understood that I was different from the rest. When she first told me, I didn’t accept it at first. I was very sad, but we had some help and bit by bit I understood.
“I wanted to understand what had happened to her, because I know that hiding something for 17 years is also very hard. I think it’s better to know, it’s important to know your history. We can’t hide what happened – it’s part of Rwanda’s history. I study hard because I want a better future, I want to be an important person in society, in my family and in my country. I’m not scared about the future.”
Marie-Jeanne Mushimiyimana, 19: “I was born in the Congo after the genocide. My mum was taken as a sex slave by the Interahamwe (the ethnic Hutu militia), but escaped during a battle. She doesn’t like to talk about what happened, but she told me I was born of rape by the Interahamwe.
“I don’t remember exactly when she told me, but I think it was after I came back from school and everyone had been talking about their fathers. I went home and pestered her about who my father was. She didn’t reply, but then one day I refused to go to school unless she told me. The neighbours had said he was in Congo and I wanted to know why he wasn’t living in Rwanda.
“When she did tell me, I felt very sad, not just about knowing about my father but also for pestering my mother. I said to my mother these people were very bad, very unkind. We don’t talk about it now.
“I think Rwanda has changed a lot. When I was younger, going to school was very hard, things were difficult and sometimes there wasn’t enough money so I had to drop out, but then I started getting support from Foundation Rwanda and I can go more regularly.
“I think compared to where we are today, Rwanda will be a very beautiful country in 20 years’ time, if our leaders continue to develop it.”
Patrick Nbungutse, 18: “My best subject in school is history, I like learning what happened in the past in the world and in Rwanda. I like listening to the people in the village talking. We learn about the genocide in a module of history at school; we learn that the tribes of Rwanda were divided and that one tribe killed the other.
“Learning about it made me think about two things: first, the experience my mother went through during the genocide and secondly, it made me imagine all the people – all my family and friends – who would be alive if it hadn’t happened.
“My mum told me I was born of rape during the genocide about three years ago. I was always asking: ‘Why is there no man in the house?’ Then one day I came home from school and my mother called me into the house and shut the door. She told me about the genocide, that many people had fled the country and many women had been raped – and she was one of them. She didn’t go into detail but she was very upset, she was crying. I told her to take courage, and I left the room.
“I didn’t cry but I felt very bad. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was a product of rape. I was worried what people would think about the way I had come into the world. I just don’t understand why they did such things.
“Sometimes when I think about it, I just sort of want to be alone. But when I am sad I get my books out and read, because if I study I will get a good job and have a good life. I want to study law so I can help people who cannot get justice. I’d like to move abroad and study to get more knowledge but I will come back to Rwanda because I love my country. I want to help people here, not anywhere else.
“In 20 years’ time, I see myself as a prominent lawyer. I will be very proud to be a Rwandan. The genocide will never be forgotten, we will always remember the past – even if Rwanda became a small heaven.” — Guardian News & Media
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