Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population, Poverty & SDGs

RIGHTS-RWANDA: Children of the Genocide Struggle to Cope

Noel E. King

KIGALI, Jan 12 2008 (IPS) - What Gilbert Nshimyumukiza remembers most about the Rwandan genocide is that it started to rain as he and his brothers tried to carry his mortally wounded father back into their house.

The ground was slick with mud and their father was too heavy – so they covered their father with a sheet and waited for him to die.

"The rain came down," he says. "I sat and cried. I was so young. But nobody came."

Thousands of young Rwandan men have found themselves in the same predicament as Nshimyumukiza. Orphaned as boys, without parents to advise them, many hardly gave a thought to what dropping out of school might mean for their future.

Nshimyumukiza was nine years old during the 100 days of slaughter in which an estimated 800,000 of his Tutsi and moderate Hutu countrymen were butchered by militias – known as interahamwe – as well as by ordinary Rwandans who had been whipped into a killing frenzy by Rwanda’s hard-line Hutu administration.

Now, he is twenty-one, unemployed, out of school, and admits that his prospects for the future are grim. The problems are not only psychological or physical, but also his grades.

"The government offers admission into the national university for those who graduated secondary school with a 3.0 grade point average," he told IPS. "Mine was 2.8."

After the genocide, Nshimyumukiza found it hard to care about his classes or pay attention to his teachers.

"The government gave us [survivors] school fees," he says. "But we did not have food, clothes, shoes. So I got a job cutting hair on the streets. That kept me out of school for a week at a time or more."

At age ten, Noel Munyarwa was a primary school student who excelled at mathematics and mischief and dreamt of owning his own car someday.

Now, he works as a domestic – cooking and cleaning for expatriate interns, many of them his own age – at a Rwandan non-governmental organization. He earns 40 dollars a month and board.

When the killing began in the village of Nyaruguru, Munyarwa’s family fled to their local church expecting to find safety. Instead, the interahamwe surrounded the building and pitched grenades in through the windows.

"A grenade killed my mother and two sisters," he told IPS in a recent interview, his voice barely audible and his face twisted into a mask of pain. "My younger sister and I ran. We followed others to Burundi."

When they returned to Rwanda six months later, school was out of the question. The Rwandan government offered to pay young survivors’ school fees, but could not offer more.

"I needed shoes and pencils," Munyarwa told IPS. "I needed food after school was finished."

His adoptive family could not afford these extras, so Munyarwa moved into the street, selling cigarettes and biscuits along the roadside with other orphaned boys. He then found work in houses, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry.

Emmanuel Ngabanziza admits that he often longed to misbehave in his primary classes, but says his father would beat him if he did not rank at the top of his class.

When the genocide began, his mother and father were shot in front of him. He and his six siblings fled home. Four of them were mowed-down by guns. Ngabanziza and two of his sisters fled to Burundi with others from their village.

"There were about 150 of us who ran through the fields," he told IPS. "But the militias were there also, with machetes. I think about 50 of us made it to Burundi. The rest were killed."

After four months in a Burundian refugee camp, he returned to Rwanda and to school, but found he could not do well.

"I was miserable," he says. "I was heartsick. There was no one to care for me. I felt like I had been away from school for so long."

Some young Rwandan men who survived the genocide have managed to keep their lives on track.

Serge Rwigamba is a fastidious 26-year-old who thinks about his life thus far in three parts: his carefree youth before the Rwandan genocide, the horror he experienced during the killing, and now – his life in the aftermath of the genocide.

In primary school he didn’t know his ethnicity. When a teacher once asked Hutu students to stand up, Rwigamba stood with them. They were the best football players in school and had earned his admiration. Only when his teacher, a Hutu, told him sharply to sit down, did he understand that he was Tutsi.

During the genocide, 13-year-old Rwigamba cowered in Kigali’s Saint Famille church as Tutsis were dragged out and shot or hacked to death by the militias. He survived a close call with death by covering his face with a skirt to look like a young girl. His father and brother were not so lucky – they were taken outside and killed.

Now, Rwigamba is a student at Kigali Free University and a guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. He still struggles with terrifying memories.

"My father and brother are buried somewhere here," he said during an interview at the memorial, as he surveyed the 14 mass graves that hold 258,000 of the dead. "I am lucky to work here. I can visit them every day."

Like many young Rwandan men, he shows more reticence than his older countrymen when asked if he is able to forgive those responsible for the genocide.

"We are only human, not angels," he said. "When we are told to forgive, we are asked to act as if we are not human beings."

Rwigamba is luckier than many survivors. His mother survived the genocide and resumed her job with the Red Cross afterward. She has retired and cannot afford to pay his university fees now, but his job at the genocide memorial pays 240 dollars a month, which covers his expenses.

He admits he is lucky, and is empathetic toward fellow survivors, but says they must take responsibility for themselves. "They need to be encouraged to do small jobs to earn an income," he said. "They need to take the initiative."

Easier said than done, say many young survivors, who find themselves without guidance or direction. "I wish life had turned out differently," Munyarwa said. "But I don’t know where I belong."

Republish | | Print |