Category Archives: Rwanda

Rwanda: The Forgotten Victims

“No one should be punished for the sin of the father.”
– Verodiane Nyirasinamenye
Amahoro Orphanage
Musanze, Rwanda

Twenty years ago today, the Rwandan genocide began. The night before, a plane carrying then-President Juvenal Habyarimana – a Hutu – was shot down, killing everyone on board, including the president of neighbouring Burundi. Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), based in Uganda, and began a well-organised campaign of slaughter in retaliation. The RPF said the plane had been shot down by Hutus as an excuse for the genocide.

Many articles today will write a variation of the following: “Over 100 days, 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred.”


Skulls in the Nyamata Church Genocide Memorial

But there are two groups of people deeply affected by the genocide that are rarely mentioned in the news, or the academic literature: the Batwa and children conceived through rape during the genocide.

Five years ago, I travelled to Rwanda to conduct research for my Masters dissertation (I was attending the London School of Economics, completing an MSc Human Rights) on the rights of those children. I had also recently completed a 3-month placement as a Gender Intern with Minority Rights Group International (MRG), working on violence against Dalit and Batwa women and girls, among other issues.

I felt that I was fairly well-versed on the Rwandan genocide before starting my research. After all, I’d been immersed in learning about egregious human rights violations since I was 1 year old, when my aunt took me to my first political advocacy meeting, on the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

But even I had never heard of the Batwa. The pygmy people of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were maybe 1-2% of the Rwandan population in April 1994, but more than 30% of their population was killed during the genocide (in comparison to about 14-20% of the entire Rwandan population and 70% of the Tutsi population). They were often caught in the middle of the violence, and accused of taking one side or the other.

I’ve watched a lot of movies on the Rwandan genocide – Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs, Sometimes in April, The Day God Walked Away  – but in only one have I noticed a Twa* character, and that was in Kinyarwanda. For more on the Batwa, see MRG’s publications.


Kibuye, on Lake Kivu

With children born of rape, they’re only just beginning to receive some attention in the popular media. An article in The Guardian this week profiled some of those children, for example.

NGOs estimate that at least 250,000 women were raped during the genocide, and possibly as many as 500,000. Rwanda’s National Population Office estimated that, as a result of this violence, between 2,000 and 5,000 children were born. Many victims’ groups state that there are 10,000 such children, while some NGOs, such as Foundation Rwanda, quote a much higher number – 20,000 children.

But when I was conducting my research, there really was very little out there. For example, in 2003 Human Rights Watch had a report on children in post-genocide Rwanda, called  Lasting Wounds: Consequences of Genocide and War on Rwanda’s Childrenand children born of rape were conspicuously absent.

Why is this the case? For one, sex is a very taboo topic in Rwanda, as it is in many countries, let alone sex outside of marriage. There isn’t even a kinyarwanda (the local language) word for “rape.” Rather, rape victims would use phrases such as “married until I couldn’t breathe” and “I had no choice but to be a wife to him.”

Secondly, and this may seem like a technicality but it is quite important, these children are not considered survivors because they were not alive during the genocide. They were born afterwards, and consequently are not viewed as survivors by NGOs such as Fond d’Assistance aux Rescapes du Genocide (FARG). While I was in Rwanda, one situation was related to me of a child whose siblings had their education paid for by FARG, but not her own, as she was not considered a survivor. Her mother was left to explain the situation of her birth.

Thirdly, and this is only relevant for some children born of rape, only Tutsis are considered survivors. Official state policy is that there are no longer any tribes or ethnicities in Rwanda. In fact, it is illegal to use the words “Twa,” “Tutsi,” and “Hutu” in public political discourse. Hutu, Tutsi, and Batwa no longer exist; everyone is “Rwandan.” However, in practice, this is certainly not the case. In order to be viewed as a survivor in Rwanda today, a person must be Tutsi. According to the RPF-dominated government, no Hutu are survivors, even if their own Tutsi relatives, such as a spouse or child, were killed.Those Hutu women who were raped during the genocide are therefore also not considered survivors. In fact, even those Hutu who have relatives who participated in the genocide, but did not participate themselves, can be labelled “génocidaires.”

The Batwa continue to live in extreme poverty, most are landless, and Tutsi and Hutu continue to discriminate against them. They are also invisible. In a February 2009 response to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, when asked about Pygmy (Twa) children, the government of Rwanda’s response was, “The country of Rwanda does not have Pygmy children.” When dealing with a government that refuses to acknowledge a victimized minority group, it is extremely difficult to achieve change. How does one advocate for a group that does not exist? This makes life especially difficult for children born of war to Twa mothers.

This sentiment, that only Tutsi are survivors, is also found in state laws, such as Law No 69/2008 of December 30, 2008, regarding the establishment of the fund to assist survivors of the genocide (FARG). Throughout the law, and in its title, survivors are called “survivors of genocide against the Tutsi.” There is a disconnect between the state’s attempt to eradicate ethnicity from the public discourse, and a discriminatory policy that only helps Tutsi survivors, but not Hutu or Twa. The children born to Hutu or Batwa mothers are doubly affected; not only are they not survivors because of when they were born, but their mothers are not considered survivors either.

And lastly, these children are usually considered to be their rapist fathers’ children, both by their families and by wider society. They are called such things as “children of hate” and “little interahamwe.” There are fears that the children will “rise up and join their fathers.” Many newborns were abandoned on the steps of government buildings, their mothers saying they were “the state’s problem.” According to the Family and Promotion of Women Ministry of Rwanda in 1995, more than 80 percent of mothers were abandoning their babies. In other cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing, such as Bosnia, there were reports of women killing their babies shortly after birth. I have not read about any such case in Rwanda, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Others were kept by their mothers, with both mother and baby driven out by the mother’s family because the child was a “child of the enemy.” There are cases, as well, of children being kept by their mothers and raised in loving extended families.

I won’t get into the details that consist of my Masters dissertation, but suffice it to say that children born of war in Rwanda faced stigma and discrimination due to the circumstances of their birth, which often lead to violations of their rights to life, security of the person, education, health care, an identity, and birth registration. But there are some great organizations like Foundation Rwanda working to rectify that situation (in Foundation Rwanda’s case, its focus is on education).


Kigali Genocide Museum Memorial

Some people talk about Rwanda as the “great bastion of democracy in the heart of Africa.” This is false, in my opinion. There are countless stories of political dissidents, opposition leaders, and journalists being killed or “disappeared.” Does anyone wonder how or why Paul Kagame is still in power, twenty years later?

And as stated above, people cannot speak openly about ethnicity in the country. For a persecuted minority like the Batwa, this is extremely problematic. How can organizations work to further Batwa rights (e.g. land, poverty, the belief that sleeping with a Twa woman cures backache) when they can’t look at the Batwa as a separate group?**

Yes, Rwanda has come a long way, but it’s not all the way there yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done.


Verodiane Nyirasinamenye, the Mama of Amahoro Orphanage in Musanze, Rwanda, with some of the children in her care. She takes care of a few abandoned children born of rape; I interviewed her for my dissertation

* Twa is for a single person; Batwa is plural. Technically, Hutu should be Bahutu and Tutsi should be Batutsi when speaking about groups. I decided to use the more common Hutu and Tutsi instead.

** I met with a representative of a Batwa organization in Rwanda while conducting research there; we had to be very careful, and he ended up meeting me at my hotel as a tall, blonde, white woman like me would have caused too much unwanted attention by showing up at their office.

*** For more photos of my time in Rwanda, see my Facebook album


The Craziest Day Yet in Rwanda…or in My Life, Really

Before I get into the crazy antics of yesterday, I will fill you in on life in Rwanda so far (it’s already been a week! I can’t believe it!). 
It is seriously one of the most amazing countries I’ve ever been to. I mean, obviously it has such a horrible history, and that’s almost what makes it even more amazing – the fact that people here are trying to heal, and to forgive. I’m mainly staying in Kigali and then doing some day trips (to places like Gitarama, Butare, and possibly Kibuye). Next weekend, though, I’m relaxing in Gisenyi, Rwanda’s “resort town,” which is on Lake Kivu and is supposed to be beautiful!! I’m staying near the Hotel Mille Collines (of Hotel Rwanda fame), and I’ve eaten dinner there once. It was neat to see because of the history, but the hotel itself isn’t that spectacular. It might also have been the fact that the pool (people drank the water from the pool during the genocide in order to survive) and main restaurant were closed. My hotel is very cozy, with a  small swimming pool and garden. The staff are really nice too. The city is SO much bigger than I thought. It’s pretty much impossible to walk all around it – it could take 4 or 5 hours to walk from one side to another, I think. I had an interview in Remera district and had to take a taxi, and it was about a 15 minute ride (with no traffic), and that wasn’t the edge of Kigali. I’m located right in the centre, which is great. I’m pretty proud of myself, as I’ve figured out where the best supermarket is, I’ve located a coffee shop (that also serves great lunches), and I’ve got a Rwandan cell phone. The city is built on many hills, so the views are spectacular (though personally I enjoy the countryside more).
I’ve pretty much mastered the public transport system, although I’m still a tad hesitant to go on the motorcycle-taxis. Walking is better anyway. But the buses are great – the most expensive one is about $3 for the 3-hour trip to Gisenyi. I’m always the only muzungu on them, so I get lots of attention and stares. Usually I can bond with moms and their babies, which is fun even with the language barrier. And sometimes I get special treatment, with bus drivers wanting to know if I want a better seat up front, but I like sitting in the back with everyone else. It’s more interesting.
I arrived about a week ago, and have started my research. The interviews are going well – though I’ve only done 3 so far. But, to be fair, I did need a few days to figure out Kigali, get to a bank, get a Rwandan phone number, buy some groceries, etc. I plan to do more next week.

And  now I’ll get to one of the craziest days EVER! On Friday, I took the bus to Musanze (which was supposed to be 90 minutes but took about 2.5 hours as we kept stopping to let people off at different places, and we stopped at a small mall for a few minutes. But it was an adventure!). I walked the entire town (which isn’t that big) and visited a small genocide memorial/cemetery. Then yesterday, the craziness began!  It took as about 2 hours to trek to the gorillas, then we had an hour with them, and then trekked back out. We literally climbed a mountain – it was SO high! And I got a little altitude sickness (we were at almost 3000 metres above sea level) when we were at the gorillas, so I sat down for a few minutes so I wouldn’t faint. The group I saw was Group 13, and it has 26 members. It was amazing – we saw the huge silverback, a few females, and about 10 babies who were jumping and swinging and playing. The silverback was amazingly patient. He just lay there while all his kids jumped on him and around him. The guide said “he’s a good dad.”

And then I went to an orphanage where I met the “Mama” (the woman who takes care of all the kids), who is seriously one of the most amazing woman I’ve ever met! I fell totally in love with her – she is awesome! But she only speaks Kinyarwandan so I couldn’t really convey my admiration. But she was just so warm and sweet to me, even with the language barrier, and you could see how much she loved her kids. It was SO sweet! THe kids all sang and danced for me when I arrived, and then did so again as I left. When I arrived, they all came running up to the car (and I felt bad because I didn’t have any gifts for them, but I did give a donation to the Mama, which will likely be used for food, my translator said). Then as we went inside, one of the littlest kids took my hand as we walked inside. It was so cute! I fell in love with those kids and wanted to stay much longer than my timing allowed, as I traveled back to Kigali the same day. The translator I had for this (arranged by the tour company that also got me my gorilla permit and took me to the park this morning), wasn’t the greatest. He didn’t understand a lot of my questions, and as he was relating her answers, they didn’t always make sense. I had to keep clarifying, but I think I got a few good points out of it for my dissertation.

I then got on another matatu, and the next incredible thin happened! The bus stopped and I saw a man running towards it, carrying a child in his arms. THe boy had been in a bad accident and was bleeding (he was probably around 5 or 6, and his father was carrying him and an older brother (I think) was with them.) So I whipped out my antiseptic wipes and some kleenex and set to work communicating with the brother what to do, and then stopping the bleeding myself from the rather deep wound from his head while cradling his head and trying to soothe him (while another girl about my age had to keep looking away from the sight of it all. I kinda thought I would be like that, but then I just sprung into action. Not that he was bleeding THAT badly anymore – but still). And don’t worry – I didn’t come into contact with any blood! THe wound was rather deep, but small circumference-wise, so I didn’t touch any blood (and it wasn’t bleeding very profusely by the time they reached the bus). So yeah, it was a pretty crazy day! 

But that is why I love Rwanda so much.

First Full Day in Kigali

Yesterday was my first full day in Kigali and it was…interesting. Well, it was much better than Sunday, the day I arrived, when I was a tad overwhelmed and had no idea where I was going!! The top three things I dislike in Kigali are:

1. The fact that there are NO street signs. Perfect.
2. People staring at me because I’m a muzungu (white person)
3. The lack of sidewalks. I swear I’m going to be hit by a car at some point.
So yesterday, my first port of call was the ORTPN – tourist office. There, I was lucky enough to be booked on the 2pm city tour since another couple was going too (and you need at least 2 people for it to run). So I then bought some dry goods at a gas station and then found a supermarket, which also only stocked dry goods, so I bought some water and a knife to spread the peanut butter I brought from Canada (well, my parents brought it from Canada to London and then I brought it from London to Rwanda) on my digestives. Yum!
I then went to the bank, where I was charged 90 USD to buy cash off of my VISA. Whoever said Africa was cheap has NOT spent a lot of time in Rwanda!!
Then I went back to ORTPN for the city tour. It was pretty good, albeit a bit overpriced at $20 since the two places we actually visited have free entry. We first visited the building where, in 1994, 10 Belgian UN soldiers were killed by the Interahamwe, in  a successful attempt at getting the Belgians, and much of the UN, to withdraw. It was a very moving site. There was a blackboard where Belgians had written messages – such as “why did you kill the innocents?” Surprisingly, there was a skull-and-crossbones cartoon of Romeo Dallaire, asking him where were his ears and eyes. I was really shocked by this, considering how much Dallaire tried to do during the genocide and how affected he still is today. Our guide told us that Rwandans don’t blame him or draw cartoons of him, since they understand that he couldn’t do much on his own.
Then we drove around a bit, while our driver talked about the movie Hotel Rwanda and how it is fake. He said it was maybe 2% true. I’ve heard before that Rwandans aren’t particularly impressed with the movie, but our guide was pretty adamant that Paul Rusesabagina was not a good guy, that he charged people to let them stay in the hotel when he was told to give out any goods for free, and that he used the money to go to America. (But really, he’s in Belgium). I’m not sure which story is true, but the fact of the matter is that he did save a lot of people. He could have turned them over to the Interahamwe, like many did, but he did not. That, at least, is admirable.
Then we went to the Kigali Memorial Centre, where about 300,000 genocide victims are buried. The number keeps growing as bodies continue to be found, even 15 years later. It was a very moving museum, but I did find parts fairly simplistic. It is small though, compared to something like the Simon Wiesenthal Centre or even the Holocaust exhibit at the Imperial War Museum, so it can’t really cover everything in depth. The hardest things to see was the exhibit on child victims, which included such intimate details as their favourite foods, best friends (often a parent or sibling), last words, and the way they died. There was also an exhibit of skulls, clothes, and possessions found with the bodies. One room is entirely dedicated to family photos of victims; family members can come and put one up in the room. It was haunting.
We then drove some more, into the rich areas of Kigali – the estates. Some of these houses were HUGE, and cost around $500,000 USD. HERE, there were street signs! And there were security guards at many of the house entrances. We also caught glimpses of some slums, that are being torn down, the people moved, in order to build more of the monstrous houses.
Well, that was my first day. Today I’m catching up on some secondary research by the pool while hoping that my translator finally contacts me. If not, I’m going to start calling organizations tomorrow and hope for the best. I do have some independent contacts from my translator, but he has contacted orphanages for me so I need to visit them too. Plus, I’d like to actually have a friend/contact here.
Will write again soon – see everyone in Canada soon!!