In Rwanda, April is a time of remembrance, a time of collective mourning for the 1994 genocide. Some 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were killed in a deadly rampage that lasted 100 days.
Every Friday this month, WYPR News will air a series called “Rwanda’s Next Steps: A Generation Living in Genocide’s Aftermath.” We’ll bring you reports from the land that saw the most violent massacre of the 20th century ““ about how life has changed and what the future holds.
WYPR’s Mary Rose Madden has this first installment.
Rwanda’s history of war is written all over its youth. There are scars on the faces of young men and women and there is the trauma that’s left behind a trail of problems.
We’re with Rwandan journalist Fred Mwasa. He’s taking us to a place for women who were raped during the genocide.
“Tutsi women were believed to be a source of the problem they gave birth to the inyenzi, the cockroaches.”
“Cockroaches” is what many in the country’s majority Hutu population called minority Tutsis. In 1994, ethnic hatred which had been whipped to a fevered pitch by Hutu extremists spilled over. Hutu militias were slaughtering men, women, and children. Rape was widespread and systematic. Statistics are hard to come by in Rwanda, but estimates say anywhere from 250,000 to 700,000 women were brutally raped.
“They have been raped but in 100 days ““ day after day. Not by one man but by men and men and men and men.”
Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s Minister of Health, says eighteen years later the women are reminded of the violence every day.
“The survivors of the genocide most of them have been infected to kill them slowly ““ they kill the husband and rape the woman with people who are HIV positive.”
Thousands of women contracted HIV through genocide-rape. Their attackers, at times men who were their neighbors, saw rape as an act of war, sometimes using sharp sticks or guns. Many of the women who survived lost their homes, their husbands, their children and over the years, have watched in humiliated silence as their rapists prospered.
We’re at a guesthouse on the outskirts of Kigali. The morning sun pours through open windows and open doors into a concrete white room. Women sit close together, holding each other’s hands. They wear vibrant yellow, red, and blue cloth wrapped around their hair. But, as they sing this uplifting song, their faces look somber, they’re bodies are still. Their children ““ mostly teenage boys here- sit clustered in the back of the room. No one knows just how many children were born of the rapes that occurred in 1994. Some estimates say 2,500 to 3,000. Another goes as high as 20,000. They are now in their late teens and their lives have been tough.
These women and their children are supported by a non-profit called Sevota. It was started by Godelieve Mukasarasi.
These young men spoke about what life has been like as children born of genocide and rape.Photo: Mary Rose Madden
“I hid myself even my children we hid in the bush. We would eat uncooked potatoes, then would go to their families to look for food at night and beg others would look for rainwater ““ they would stop for rainwater.”
Godelieve’s daughter was raped while they were on the run. She decided to start this organization to help others facing sexual violence from the genocide. Godelieve saw a gaping hole in the services that were provided. The Rwandan Government has a fund for genocide survivors. It provides some financial assistance for housing, healthcare, and education. But here’s the catch – children of genocide rape are not considered survivors. The genocide occurred in the Spring of ’94, they were born in ’95. It’s a technicality that many see as an injustice. Sevota tries to assist the mothers and their children. The children are often stigmatized ““ their neighbors know they live in single-parent households ““ which on its own is frowned upon. And they are considered to be “children of the enemy”.
About a dozen or so young men grab folding chairs and sit down in one of the guesthouse’s small rooms. They look down, into their laps, the way any teenage boy would. After much hesitation, Desire Hatungamay begins to speak – so softly, we must lean in to hear.
“All along I was asking my mom, who is my father why is not my father with you? Where where exactly could he be living? At first she would keep quiet and harass me with bad words and my mom would get angry at me fast and I wouldn’t know why.”
The young men were born into an ultimate test of a mother’s love.
“After being counseled in Sevota she came and told me the whole story. She told me they raped her. And then instead of myself I started consoling her.”
Consoling his mother brought them closer, Desire says. In the eyes of their communities, these families are pitied, they’re considered to have “lost blessings”. But at the same time, they are often outcast by members of their own families. Many of these children are mysteries, even to themselves. Another young man stands up and raises his voice to speak. Denny Murindarbee says before he knew the truth, he resented his mother because they were so poor.
“Sometimes I would go to school when at night I didn’t eat ““ why have I spent the whole
night and day without eating?”
Most of the mothers can’t afford secondary school fees which total 150 U-S dollars a year. So their children only attend primary school. Denny’s school experience was made even more difficult by other students.
“Why all the others ““ my fair student go to school why are they laughing at me? And I would go to school with this feeling like ANYONE who would come to me I would step to them. Because I am lonely. They have mothers and fathers and I don’t have a father.”
He eventually stopped going to school and ran away from home.
“My mom when she joined Sevota ““ she told them about my behaviors at home and they told her to go and look for me – to bring me back home.”
They say life is much better with the support of Sevota – the group pays Denny’s secondary school fees. But it’s still very very difficult to live through the challenges of poverty in Rwanda. Denny is back at school now, but tries to spend his time helping his mom.
“I work so that I could support my mom because my mom has HIV ““ cleaning/ washing cars, mopping homes. And if an old person sends me for something I go running and when I come back he gives me tips to take to mom. Because of respecting my elders, and working with very closely with the people – the work I do – they love me.”
Denny is trying to see himself in a new light.
“That gives me hope that I should become a better man in the future.”
Denny and the other young men are looking to see if the darkness of the genocide is over. Meanwhile, their mothers take on the past ““ the trauma, the physical effects, and the social stigma with the help of each other ““ and with their children by their side.
Mary Rose Madden, a senior news producer and reporter for WYPR, traveled to Rwanda as an IRP Gatekeeper Editor.