By Claude Gatebuke
The New York Times published a story titled “Rwanda’s Children of Rape Have Come of Age” in March 2019 about children born to mothers who were raped during the gruesome genocide in 1994. The story explores the stigma, intergenerational trauma, and discrimination faced by these children who grew up being called “children of the killers.” The children marked thus are now around 24 years old. They are on a wide-ranging spectrum of the healing process, as are their mothers. These young people’s lives are very complex. Some have come to know their fathers who served time for crimes they committed during the genocide. All of the children in the New York Times article, at least, know the identity of their mothers.
Another group of young women and men in Rwanda have no idea who either one of their parents is. They are orphans who were picked up from among dead bodies by soldiers of the RPF during the genocide. These children were too young to remember who their parents were, if they were even old enough to know the name of either parent. Their estimated age today is between 25 and 27 years old.
In the spring of 1994, the fastest genocide of the 20th century took place in Rwanda and took the lives of nearly a million people, killed by a militia known as Interahamwe. A large majority of the victims were Tutsi people, a minority ethnic group in Rwanda. The genocide took place in the middle of a four-year brutal war in which the warring parties were responsible for large-scale massacres. Some of the deadliest battles and largest casualties of this four-year war also happened during this period. Among the survivors of the genocide of this war were newborns and toddlers who, as described earlier, were picked up by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers who won the war. The RPF is currently in power in Rwanda today with Paul Kagame as the president. The babies and toddlers who survived after being found in various areas have now come of age but still struggle with their identity. They carry the trauma of growing up without having known their parents, which has proven to be a barrier to their inclusion in benefit programs in Rwanda. They grew up in various orphanages.
Rwanda has various programs that assist genocide survivors. The Fund for Neediest Survivors of Genocide in Rwanda (FARG) provides financial assistance to genocide survivors. The National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG) advocates for genocide survivors. To date, this group of children—those who don’t know their lineage—has been excluded from any of these benefits. There are a handful of stories online, all in Kinyarwanda, discussing the plight of these children. According to the articles and officials quoted, such as Executive Secretary of the CNLG Dr. Jean Damascène Bizimana, these organizations are unable to accept these children as genocide survivors unless they can show or prove their family ties, demonstrating that they indeed survived genocide when they were rescued as babies during the genocide twenty-five years ago. This insistence on family ties is coded language asking the children to prove their ethnicity. How do orphans or non-orphans who have not seen or known a single parent of theirs since they were babies or toddlers prove their family ties? They have been in limbo for twenty-five years.
In 2016, one of these young men created an organization to advocate for this group. His name is David Ndayambaje and the organization is called Hope for the Future Family. Today David is fleeing persecution in Rwanda, persecution that stems from his advocacy for this group of young people. We have been able to communicate with David, and he would like to relate his experience from a location outside of Rwanda. David shares the following message from hiding in hopes that more of the world will know the plight of these young women and men and they will get some assistance.
My name is David Ndayambaje and I am the chief representative of Hope for the Future Family (HFF) founded in 2016 with the aim of uniting lost children from the genocide. This organization specifically focuses on orphans who lost family while they were babies or toddlers. These children do not know who their parents or siblings are. Nor do they know where they were born. Many among them were picked up by soldiers from piles of dead bodies and taken to orphanages. They were later transferred to foster homes where many were mistreated by their foster families. Many among them never completed school while a large number never even attended school, depending on where they grew up.
Consequences of the darkest hour of our country, the genocide, have left us stateless inside our own country. For twenty-five years now, we are like foreigners in our country of birth. It is very painful to live in our country without rights that other Rwandans have such as obtaining identity cards, health benefits, passports, and many other things. This leaves us behind the rest of the country. Being toddlers, we played no role during the genocide.
We formed our organization to advocate for the advancement of our group together. That is why I wrote to various government institutions to share our plight and request assistance and copied the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. This letter garnered lots of attention from parliament and the media. During the genocide memorial period in 2018, government newspaper IGIHE (www.igihe.com) released a story on April 12, 2018, about our extremely difficult conditions. The next day, I was arrested at 5:00 AM and was detained for over three months at the Kacyiru police station. I had also done an interview with Rwanda TV station TV10. I was released from jail in August 2018.
Upon release from jail, I continued to advocate with the government to help resolve our issues. In September 2018, another story came out in the media. This time it was about CNLG being summoned to parliament to address the issue of children who do not know their ancestry since we were picked up by ourselves and too young to remember or recognize our ancestry or even where in the country we are from. Members of parliament demonstrated the various barriers we faced in daily life in Rwanda given that we do not have identity cards and therefore are excluded from public services. CNLG’s response was that they are still trying to determine our ancestry in order to include us among genocide survivors receiving government support. Some members of parliament suggested that DNA tests be carried out. However, there was no resolution.
In November 2018, I did an interview on BBC in Kinyarwanda, on a program known as “Imvo n’Imvano.” After this interview, various government members started accusing me of staging a confrontation with them and added that it’s not the BBC that will resolve our issues. On the other hand, this interview was a blessing as Rwandans who live abroad discovered our plight and began to assist us with living expenses such as rent and paying for our medical care whenever one of us got sick.
In April 2019, I did another interview on TV1, a TV station in Rwanda, speaking about our situation and our day-to-day life. After the interview, a minister in the government stated that the story was false and that our issues had been resolved and that we are being taken care of. When the media asked me, I stated that our issues had not been resolved and the minister’s claim was untrue. The very next day, I was summoned to the Kacyiru police station for recurring interrogations starting that day.
During interrogations, they focused on the people living abroad who were providing us with assistance. They accused me of working with them to bring insecurity in the country. Before I entered the interrogation room, the policeman who arrested me asked, “Young man, why did you get involved in politics at such a young age?”
The interrogation was on a Friday and I was asked to return the next Tuesday. I spoke to someone afterwards who advised me to flee before I get imprisoned or worse. That’s how I decided to flee Rwanda. Since I have no family, I was afraid that no one would ever find me given that I have no parents, siblings, or anyone who may know what ends up happening to me. In fact, I had already experienced it when I was detained for three months, and no one knew where I had disappeared to. I am still in fear for my life, given the Rwandan government’s long record of assassinations and abductions of perceived critics outside of the country. I need to get to a country where I’m a bit safer and further from Rwanda.
Both FARG and CNLG have said that they cannot assist children whose parents and birthplaces are unknown. I also heard them discuss that some of the children who were left alone were left behind by parents who fled to other countries. They said that in fact, FARG does not assist anyone without confirmation of their ancestry since that would open the door to assisting children of Hutu ethnicity. FARG assists only those whom they can confirm as belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group. The secretary of local government Dr. Mukabaramba told us to start in our areas of residence who in turn told us that they cannot solve an issue that the local government ministry is unable to resolve given their resources.
Given the spate of disappearances and mysterious murders around the country, especially of critics or those accused of political crimes, David made a wise decision to flee and must be helped to reach a country where his safety is guaranteed by rule of law. He needs a good Samaritan, a government that will offer him travel documents and asylum so he can start life in a safe place.
It is also important that donors and donor nations who support genocide survivor initiatives in Rwanda be made aware of the survivors’ plight in hopes that supporters will push the government of Rwanda to stop discriminatory policies against those who were lost as toddlers during the genocide. During the genocide and the war during which the genocide happened, people survived in various manners. Some people fled in distress and left children behind, while others died and their children ended up among dead bodies and were rescued alive. Taxpayers of donor nations must demand from their governments that assistance to the government of Rwanda and programs in Rwanda include programs that end discrimination against this group of people, among whom some may indeed be Hutus but are still survivors of the genocide. As a US taxpayer, I call on the general American public to raise voices in calling for inclusion of this group of young women and men in the services the US supports in Rwanda.
Claude Gatebuke is a survivor of the war and genocide in Rwanda. He is the executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN). He can be reached via [email protected] or @AGLANGLR.