Rwanda's children born of genocidal rape look to future

Lucie PEYTERMANN
·10-min read

They grew up bearing the stigma of "children of torturers", shunned by their own communities, locked in a quest for identity that decades later remains without an end.

Nearly 27 years have passed since the genocide in Rwanda, but the children born of rape perpetrated during the country's torment are still struggling with trauma, even as the country works towards national reconciliation.

"In my heart I have many scars," said Patrick, 26.

"I don't know who my father is and my future will always be complicated because I don't know my past."

Over 100 days in 1994, around 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate members of the Hutu majority were murdered, in a campaign orchestrated and amplified by the extremist Hutu government.

A quarter of a million women were raped under a systematic campaign carried out by Hutu government soldiers and their allied militia, the Interahamwe -- and sometimes by local men, even neighbours.

From this unspeakable violence, an estimated several thousand children were born.

They were doomed to shame in a country where not knowing one's paternal lineage is deemed a dishonour.

Patrick, who asked that his real name not be used, spoke to AFP from Nyanza, a town in southern Rwanda where he is studying accountancy.

He often broke down as he recalled how he seldom mixed with other children at school.

The burden and social isolation, he said, was such that he had twice tried to commit suicide -- once at the age of 11 and again at 22.

"Up until a few years ago, society could not accept who I am because of my history," he said. "On the Tutsi side and the Hutu side, too, they didn't care about me."

- Fear of rejection -

According to UN figures, at least 250,000 women were raped during that period. Historians say many were kept as sex slaves and some were intentionally infected with HIV.

Many have never told their children they were born of rape or shared their ordeal with the men they later married, out of fear of being rejected.

But several recently agreed to speak to AFP at their home or on the sidelines of a workshop in the central town of Muhanga organised by a therapist, Emilienne Mukansoro. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mukansoro, 53, who lost her father, eight siblings and other family members during the genocide, has been working for 18 years with rape victims.

Since 2012, she has voluntarily overseen nine therapy groups across the country.

Many of the women in these groups were raped and/or mutilated in front of loved ones or their community.

"Rape was used as a means to demean and exterminate the Tutsi community," historian Helene Dumas told AFP.

"By targeting these women's bodies, those behind the genocide sought to impose a radical breakdown of parentage so that no woman would give birth to a Tutsi child.

"These were ideological rapes that were part of the genocidal campaign," she added.

She pointed to the 2011 conviction by an international tribunal of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko -- who was minister for family welfare and the advancement of women in 1994 -- for her role in the genocide and incitement to rape Tutsi women and girls.

"Up until today, the existence of these children born of rape is intricately linked to what happened to their mothers," Dumas said.

"That's what makes this genocide never-ending."

- 'Son of a murderer' -

Patrick's mother, Honorine, said she was held prisoner for four days with several other women during the genocide by a group of Hutu extremists who would rape their captives after their daily campaign of slaughter.

"They would say they wanted dessert... and the dessert was me, given that I was the youngest," said the 48-year-old, tears streaming down her face.

Once the militiamen fled, Honorine said she tried to get back to her family in the north of the country and was raped once again during her trek. That is when she got pregnant.

Despite living in denial of the pregnancy and having suicidal thoughts, she managed to raise her son, though she said she showed him no love and up until today feels guilty and blames herself for his ill-being.

She subsequently married but her husband rejected Patrick, referring to him as "the son of a murderer."

Hers is a story repeated among rape victims following the genocide that left Rwanda in tatters, with little attention initially given to women dealing with their trauma.

But in recent years, associations grouping survivors and non-governmental organisations have been conducting crucial work to help the women process and come to terms with their grief.

- 'Worst of human tragedies' -

"This has helped a country in ruins and a society stunned by the worst of human tragedies to continue to live together," said Godelieve Mukasarasi, 64, the founder of an NGO called Sevota.

Contrary to children who were orphaned, those born of rape in the small, mountainous, East African country were not recognised as survivors of the genocide.

In the aftermath, they received no specific support.

Naphtal Ahishakiye, executive secretary of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of survivors and associations fighting the legacy of the genocide, said the children did nevertheless receive indirect help through their mothers, who were given assistance from a special fund set up after the massacres.

The women who were raped, for the most part, hailed from modest families that worked the land.

Shocked and weakened by their ordeal, many were left to fend for themselves after losing the men in their family or being shunned by their community or loved ones.

Several of those interviewed by AFP recounted the struggle they faced in raising their children and paying for their education while dealing with their trauma.

Martha, 46, who lives in Muhanga, was rejected by her brothers after giving birth to a girl in 1995.

She said she was raped over several days during the genocide by militiamen who found her and several other women hiding in a forest.

"I won't waste my time on you," she recalled one of her brothers -- who fought with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front which ended the genocide -- bitterly saying, on learning she was pregnant. "Even if you die, I wouldn't waste time burying you."

Her brothers, she said, had planned to kill the baby at birth, but they never carried through with their pledge and left her destitute and in poor health.

When AFP met Martha in December at her modest home surrounded by banana and eucalyptus trees, her 26-year-old daughter Diana was helping her 15-year-old stepbrother with homework. The teen was born after Martha's wedding to a Hutu man.

Diana was nine years old when she began asking questions about the circumstances of her birth, said Martha, who appeared frail in her long dress and a scarf covering her hair.

"I told her at the time 'you have no father, he is dead'," she recalled.

But thanks to therapy, Martha said she was finally able to look at herself "as a human being" and has managed to tell her daughter the truth about how she was conceived through violence.

"That's all, we never spoke about it again," Diana whispered softly.

"I must come to terms with the fact that my father was a torturer and killer," added the slender young woman with a beautiful face and almond-shaped eyes.

She said she considers her mother "very courageous" after having heard stories of women undergoing abortions or abandoning their babies born of rape after the genocide.

But dealing with her own trauma on learning how she was conceived has been challenging.

For years, Diana said, she blamed herself for the breakup of her mother and uncles.

Today, however, she knows "she is innocent" of wrongdoing and has connected with her cousins through a WhatsApp group she initiated.

Though her uncles refuse to let the children see each other, she hopes that time will help mend their relationship.

- Open wound -

For some of the children born of rape, the pain they "inherit" from their mothers is unbearable and cutting all ties is often the only way out, Mukansoro said.

That was the case for Paradine, 57, who spoke with AFP during one of the therapy workshops in Muhanga.

Despite her hardened face, she had a melancholic gaze as she told her story to the group.

Her daughter has shut her out for three years.

Paradine said she went to visit her daughter recently when she gave birth to her first child but "she wouldn't let me hold the baby" -- a disclosure that made the other women in the group gasp in sorrow.

"She accused me of giving birth to her, even though she was unwanted, of not having an identity and for growing up without a father," said Paradine.

She said although she had managed to overcome her rape ordeal and had raised her daughter on her own, being rejected by her child had plunged her once more into depression.

"The wound is always there and it's like it's still bleeding," she said.

In a poor neighbourhood of Muhanga, the mood is heavy at the home of 53-year-old Greta, who still needs daily tranquilisers nearly 27 years after her ordeal.

She was a newlywed and pregnant with her first child when she lost the baby and was severely burned after her house caught fire at the start of the genocide, while her husband was away visiting his family.

She said she "lost her mind" for weeks after the tragedy and was subsequently raped but she and her husband decided to keep the baby -- a boy -- and not share their secret with anyone.

However in 2010, Callixte learned that the man he had called dad all his life was not his biological father following a heated dispute over the family's struggle to pay his school fees.

- 'My queen' -

He said he was in denial at first but has learned to live with the truth thanks to support from the NGO Sevota, which has helped pay for his schooling.

"My mother told me that in any case she did not know the identity of her rapist and so I've just had to cope with it," said the tall, young man, whose self-confidence is betrayed by a slight stutter.

"It's not a subject open to discussion," he told AFP, adding that still today, only close family and the NGO know he was born of rape.

Another challenge facing many young people born of genocidal rape in Rwanda is the question of marriage and relationships.

"When you manage to tell someone that you have no origin, they become suspicious," said Diana, who broke up with her last boyfriend two years ago when he learned of her story.

"One must confide... but it becomes a problem when you say you are the child of a militiaman," added the young woman, who said she no longer believes in marriage.

Ahishakiye, of the Ibuka help group, said it would still take decades to overcome the disastrous consequences of the genocide.

"Rwandans are rebuilding unity day by day," he said. "But we must continue to sensitise the population on how to integrate these children born of rape."

Callixte feels that ethnicity today should no longer play a role in society.

"I am Rwandan, that's all," he said. "When I will meet someone who loves me, that person will not ask me about my ethnicity," he said.

Patrick, for his part, said he was working on "accepting" his painful past and was finding it easier to share his story with fellow students and friends.

"Slowly, slowly, people are accepting who I am," he said, stressing that there was an ongoing process of "reconciliation" in Rwandan society.

His dream? To one day raise a family and make enough money to help his mother.

"She is my queen, my everything," he whispered.

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