What happened to the children born of rape?

Samuel Munderere, Chief Executive of Survivors Fund, with women survivors of the genocide who have children born of rape
Samuel Munderere, Chief Executive of Survivors Fund, with women survivors of the genocide who have children born of rape

In the Sunday 8th April edition of The Sunday Times Magazine, a feature was published on “The Rwandan genocide 24 years on: what happened to the children born of rape?“in which journalist Christina Lamb meets Rwanda’s lost generation, whose Tutsi mothers were raped by Hutu militia, and features the work of Survivors Fund (SURF). The article is available through registering on the website, though a short extract is shared here:

This month marks 24 years since the Rwandan genocide. As every year, sombre memorials will be held and outsiders will marvel at how a country that saw more than 800,000 people slaughtered within 100 days — 10% of the population — mostly by neighbours and people they knew, could ever move on. The Rwandan government has attempted to legislate away animosity between the Tutsi minority and the Hutus who tried to exterminate them, by declaring everyone is Rwandan now. Identity cards no longer carry ethnicity and when you ask people if they are Hutu, Tutsi or Twa, they look away.

For one group of young people, the pain looks back at them in the mirror every day, for they are the product of one of the most shocking sprees of sexual violence the world has seen.

In those bloody 100 days between April and July 1994, at least 250,000 women were raped in attacks so brutal that some had wooden stakes driven through their vaginas, and many died. Of those who became pregnant, many aborted their babies or even killed them at birth, but the Survivors Fund — a British charity working in Rwanda — believes there are about 20,000 children of rape alive today. They are now young people trying to find their way in the world, but it is not easy.

“I’ve grown up knowing my conception meant the destruction of my mother’s life,” says Solange Imbabasi, 22. Her name means forgiveness, but when her mother, Athanasie, discovered her rapist had left her pregnant, she could not imagine bringing such a child into the world.

“When I gave birth I didn’t want to live with the child, but I didn’t kill her,” says Athanasie Mukakimenyi, 40. “I knew every life should be loved. But it was very difficult. She looked so much like the killer, that same nose of the Hutu …”

Athanasie lives with her daughter in a village called Masaka, outside Kigali, in a small hut with a mud floor and tin roof. A large woman who is all whirls and twirls in her voluminous purple and pink skirt and brown patterned blouse, she intones a prayer, then sits on a sofa, shaking and crying as she recounts her story.

“Everything started on April 7, the day after the plane was shot down,” she says. The presidential jet carrying the Rwandan premier Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, exploded as it came into land in Kigali, triggering the killing campaign, but the genocide must have been long planned.

“That same evening, a big group of people came to our house with machetes and clubs — the Interahamwe [militia] shouting, ‘We must kill those cockroaches!’ They meant us Tutsi. We fled into the woods, everyone in different directions.

“The next day, I tried to find my parents and siblings, but instead saw the Interahamwe. I ran into a house and hid under the bed. I heard a man, but he didn’t find me. Then I ran into the potato fields and another man came who was a family friend. I was in a short dress and he forced me to the ground and raped me. I was 17.”

Eventually she found her mother, who told her that her father and brother had been killed. Athanasie did not tell her about the rape, even when she discovered she was pregnant. “I felt broken within,” she says.

On the run, her mother fell ill and died. When the genocide finally ended, Athanasie was left supporting her two younger sisters, all that remained of her family. Since Solange’s birth, mother and daughter have struggled.

Survivors Fund pays Solange’s school fees and Athanasie has scraped a living selling “small things” — clothes brought from Uganda, or tomatoes, potatoes and rice. But in 2002, Athanasie discovered she was HIV positive, as are more than half of those raped. “I stayed in bed a week and wanted to die,” she says. To her relief, Solange was not infected. Many of the children are.

A couple of years later, Solange started high school and began to ask questions. Athanasie told her that her father had died in the genocide. “I couldn’t tell her the whole truth,” she says. “The truth is she is born from a killer — how do you tell a child that?”

Solange was baffled. “I didn’t understand why we never met any of his relatives,” she says. “Children at school would ask me why I had the name of my grandfather.”

When Solange was 12, she learnt the real story. “Mother told me he was a Hutu, the killer,” she says in a quiet voice. “I could see that my questions upset her, so I just accepted that. I can’t blame my mum because it wasn’t her fault. She was always there and showing me mother love, so I didn’t feel rejected. But I didn’t know what she was feeling about me inside.”

Solange, a slender, serious girl with glasses, dreams of being a businesswoman so she can look after her mother. “I kept asking myself if I’d had a better chance at birth, could I have a good life. But I can’t let my mum know I am unhappy because of what she has been through.”

“Many of the children of rape feel they are responsible for their mother’s ill health or difficult economic circumstances,” says Samuel Munderere, head of Survivors Fund, which organises support groups and camps for the children. “Many mothers have problems with parent-child attachment,” he adds. “Often normal teenage behaviour is interpreted as the result of being fathered by a perpetrator.”


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