Rwanda's children born of genocidal rape look to future

Published by France 24 on March 3, 2021.

Rwandan citizens at a Umuganda service, a monthly community service that forms part of the country's peacebuilding efforts. (Megan Specia / The New York Times)

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