Encounters with conflict and peace

The children

Fergal Keane
I am still confronted by those small faces with their great wide eyes gazing up at me from beneath their blankets on the rough concrete floor.

There were several hundred children here, of all ages up to late teens. They had lost their parents and other family members in the massacres of the previous weeks.

Orphanage with mountain views

Rwanda's terraced hillsides near Nyaratovu

The orphanage had until a few days previously been a luxury hotel to which Rwanda's Hutu elite had come to enjoy the panoramic views and clear air of the mountains outside Byumba. The building had been left intact, but the hotel owners had taken everything they could carry when they fled south.

The new 'manager' of the hotel was a beautiful young woman named Rose Kayitesi. She welcomed Frank like a long-lost friend. Later he told us that she had been in the mountains with his unit in the early days of the guerrilla war. 'She was a good fighter against the government troops,' he said. But now, with thousands of orphaned children flooding into rebel territory, Rose had abandoned her military fatigues and set up a reception centre for the young refugees.

Trusting the world again

young Rwandan girl 2007
Here they were clothed and fed and comforted by Rose and her team of volunteers until the RPF could find substitute parents from among those who had survived the genocide. In what had once been the lobby of the hotel, there I were about fifty children between the ages of six and eight. They were not wounded, although some coughed violently, the result of having had to sleep out in the wet fields to avoid the Interahamwe.

I smiled at them and some of the children beamed back and giggled among themselves. 'They are not used to white visitors but they know that you are not here to harm them,' said Rose. 'We are trying to teach them to trust the world again, but it is very, very difficult.'

Because of the things they've seen...

Rwandan orphans
We left the room and followed Rose down a stone staircase. At the end was a wide space of ground where the brightly coloured clothes of several hundred children had been laid out to dry. Beyond the clothing was a latrine pit that the RPF guards had dug. Squatting there in the dusk were two tiny girls who looked up at me and smiled with expressions of such aching sweetness that I faltered for a moment and had to turn my face away.

Then I saw a little girl crawling around on the ground near the steps. I think she must have been four or five years old. She made no sound at all but when she sat down she rocked back and forth incessantly. Nobody knew what had happened to her parents because she had not spoken since the day the RPF soldiers had found her wandering in the bush.

Rose walked over and the child ceased her rocking and held out her arms so that she could be lifted into the comforting embrace. 'There are so many like her. So many who have lost their voices because of what they have seen,' explained Rose, as she gently patted the child's head.

I hid where the grass was high

Rwandan kids playing football
There was another girl whose head and right arm were heavily bandaged. I cannot remember her name but her story left me wordless.

'The lnterahamwe came to our house and they asked all who are inyenzi (cockroaches) to step outside. They knew that we were Tutsis, these people, because some of them are our neighbours. When we did not come out they broke down the door. We were inside and could hear them shouting. And then they came through the front door and I followed my parents and brothers and sisters out into the fields at the back and we ran.

But they ran fast and caught us and they killed my family members and they thought they had killed me too. They hit me with the machetes and clubs and then threw all the bodies together so that I was lying under my mother who was dead.

But I was not dead and at night I crawled away and hid in the fields where the grass was very high. Then after a time the soldiers of the RPF came and they helped me and brought me here.'

The children need to stay in Rwanda

Rwandan orphans Nyaratovu
Now Rose was attempting to find a family who would take the child. 'We believe these children must stay in Rwanda. They are Rwandese children and we do not want them sent abroad to other countries.' As she spoke I could see Frank nodding furiously. There had been offers from foreigners to adopt some of the children but all had been politely declined.

What would they do in a foreign country, far from their homeland with all their memories and nobody around them who really understood what had happened? There was, I suspected, another factor at work, one that had a great deal to do with the refugee memories of the RPF leadership. Having been made exiles themselves in 1959, they were not going to allow another generation of Tutsi children to be forced our of their country.

I stood to one side while Glenn and Tony filmed the children sitting with Rose. Frank came up and spoke quietly. 'You know they wanted to kill all of the children. They were sorry they had not killed all of our families back in 1959 so there would have been nobody left to go abroad and form a resistance. This time they wanted to finish the job ... get rid of the Tutsis once and for all.' This was not paranoia. There were too many eyewitness accounts of children being systematically targeted and killed. 'Don't repeat the mistake of 1959' became the catch-phrase among the militias as they went from house to house seeking out Tutsis.

Children proved much easier quarry than adults. Most did not have the resourcefulness, the knowledge of territory and the survival skills of older people. Some clung to their parents and were easily finished off. Others watched from hiding places and screamed as they saw other members of their families being murdered. The militias were always on the alert for the exclamations of small frightened voices. Once caught, children were much easier to kill. The little body frames were clubbed and hacked down within minutes.

Refusing to eat

traumatised Rwandan children 1994
Some, however, survived their appalling injuries. There were many accounts of children who hid under mounds of bodies until they felt it was safe to crawl out.

Rose said that many of the children called out at night in their sleep. Some called for dead parents; others screamed out in the grip of some nightmare whose depth of terror even she, with her experience of war, could not begin to contemplate. For some children the destruction of their entire family groups had robbed them of the will to live. Frequently as we journeyed through Rwanda, we would hear of little boys and girls who had literally died of sorrow, withdrawing from everyone and refusing to eat or drink, until they finally wasted away.

A small boy came up to the circle. He was smiling brightly and tapping his left hand against his thigh. There was a large bandage around his head smeared with the rust of dried blood. Rose said that he had been struck in the head by a spear. The boy could no longer control his bowels and seemed to have lost his mind.

It was dark when we said goodbye to Rose and her children. David, who had been so full of vigour on the way to the orphanage, was quiet as we drove back to our billet. So too were Tony and Glenn and the two drivers. We had come to the end of our first day in Rwanda.”

From Season of Blood. A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane

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