Monday, April 12, 2004

RWANDA: THE GENOCIDE'S ORPHANS


From: UNICEF. Caption: Rwandan children pose for a photograph outside their classroom.


As is the case in most wars, Rwandan children were the primary victims. The fact that survivors also lived through a genocide complicates the present even further. According to an article at World Press Review: A 1999 UNICEF study found that 96 percent of Rwandan children had witnessed the 1994 massacres. 80 percent had lost at least one family member* and added that this nightmare is being further aggravated by HIV-AIDS pandemic.

[*-This shows how much Hutus and Tutsis were really one group and how much intermarriage had occurred between them. Tutsis only represented 15% of Rwanda's pre-genocide population yet 80% of ALL Rwandan children had at least one family member killed.]

Many children saw their families slaughtered before their very eyes. Some managed to survive by remaining still for over a week under their relatives' decomposing corpses, noted a Radio Netherlands report.

Many children lost their entire families to the genocide or to illness in refugee camps. Others now find their families imprisoned for having participated in the genocide; even as of a year ago, over 120,000 Rwandans remained in prison. In traditional society, orphans would be assimiliated into the village and be taken care of collectively. But with so many people killed or imprisoned, traditional notions of community were shredded.

As a result, UNICEF reports that 613,000 Rwandan children between the ages of 0 to 14 years old are orphans. There are an estimated 101,000 children heading up some 42,000 households. Astonishing numbers for a country with a TOTAL population of less than 8 million.

Think about it. Over 100,000 children are living in households headed by children. Some of the heads of household are as young as 11 years old. [Note: UNICEF reports some as young as 9] There are usually three to eight children per household, according to Radio Netherlands.

They quoted a report by World Vision which added: "child-headed households are deprived of love, security, sense of belonging, acceptance and care. They have no one to turn to and live in very difficult circumstances, without the basic necessities of life. This forces them to engage in a variety of casual jobs to earn a living. They are usually exploited or taken advantage of, hence the loss of trust in the society that is supposed to protect them. This compels them to grow up overnight to face adult responsibilities and the harsh realities of life: caring for younger siblings, with hardly enough to survive on. Most of the property left behind by their parents has been taken away by relatives or neighbours."

Not surprisingly, one of the results has been a great increase in the number of street children. They live in appalling conditions and are often vulnerable to sexual violance.

Sometimes you get so caught up in the "big picture" aspects of such tragedies like the genocide, you forget that they are lived every hour of every day by people stuck in the middle. One girl named Charlotte Mupfasoni told Radio Netherlands:

In the city of Gitarama, they stopped me and while they were hitting me, a young woman came and took pity on me. She didn't know me. When they finished beating me, she took me with her. She was Hutu. When we came across a barrier and they stopped us, she would tell them, "this is my child." They would let us continue. When we arrived at the Pentecostal Church of Nyabisindu, I saw that there were many refugees there. But our numbers diminished quickly because they would come regularly to select young boys and young girls to kill. Whenever they came, I put myself next to the Hutu girl and she'd say I was her younger sister.

**

Tommorrow: how Hate Radio fueled the genocide

Recommended reading: UNICEF dossier on Rwanda and World Press Review article on Rwandan street children.

Recommended listening: Radio Netherlands documentary 'Deep Scars, Tender Lives' available via Real Audio. Click the above link and scroll to the bottom of the page.




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