The “Life without Life” of Rwandan Children Born of Rape in Genocide

The “Life without Life” of Rwandan Children Born of Rape in Genocide©Flickr/Julien Harneis
A rape victim testifies in Rwanda
3 min 15Approximate reading time

In Rwanda, children born of women who were raped during the 1994 genocide are often rejected by the community and receive no specific aid. Their mothers, who are also stigmatized, are often their only support in what one of them calls “a life without life”.

Twenty-two years ago Maria was raped, damaged in her body and soul. Four months ago Fiston, the child born of her rape, hardly noticed his 21st birthday. What could have been a joyous occasion for the young man and his mother served rather to bring back the worst memories for Maria, now 40. “A part of me died with what happened to me,” she says. “And even hearing my son’s name reopens my wound.” Fiston is rejected by her entourage.

How many children are there like Fiston, born of their mother’s rape during the genocide? Although it is hard give statistics, it is certain that they are many. Rejected by their mother’s family, their fate worsens with age when they learn of their origins. The deprivation they suffer is then made worse for many by existential angst. Their mothers often wish they had not survived.

“Some women were lucky enough to be killed after being raped and others had the courage to get an abortion,” says Maria. “But I was not killed and I hated the idea of an abortion (…). For us, these children are an indelible mark of rape, and until the end of my days I will bear this mark on my forehead.”  

Infected with AIDS

SN was also raped during the genocide, several times, she says. Like many women who went through this torture, she was also infected with the AIDS virus. But despite her health, she refuses to give up. “My daughter Fifi who was born of this rape is free of the virus. I must fight for her, because she is still my daughter!” She was speaking to at the hospital in Kabgayi, central Rwanda, where she had come to collect her antiretroviral medicines.  

According to genocide survivors’ associations, nearly 250,000 Tutsi women and girls were raped during the April-July1994 genocide and 65% of them were infected with the AIDS virus. In a very patriarchal society where children are proud to bear their father’s name, the children born of rape often bombard their mothers with questions such as “Mum, who is my father? Why does he never come to see us? Doesn’t he love us?”. Some mothers like Maria admit that they can only answer such questions with tears. “I will only smile again when you tell me who my father is,” Fiston threatened in retaliation. Maria says it was only later he understood from other sources “why the village called him child of hate or child of unhappiness”.

Since then Fiston avoids company and isolates himself, often taking refuge in alcohol. From his grandparents, who hardly tolerate him, he knows he will not inherit a scarp of land, nor a goat and certainly not a cow. And like all the children born of rape, he cannot go knocking on the door of the government fund for the most needy genocide survivors (FARG), nor get any kind of specific state benefits.

What is Mimi thinking about?

Pretty Mimi, also a child of rape, is about to finish secondary school. “But she has hardly any friends, neither girls nor boys,” says her mother, who married after the genocide, as she feeds grass to two cows in the family stable. “I finally told her she was the daughter of a genocide perpetrator, as I didn’t want her to learn it from someone else.”

Huddled in the corner of their earthen-walled house, Mimi appears absent. What is she thinking about? Is she wondering where the man is who imposed this life without life, as her mother calls it?

Former neighbours recently returned from exile have told her mother that the man in question died of cholera when he fled to Zaire in July 1994.

And if like other killers he had come back to Rwanda, would the victim have had the courage to denounce him to the judicial authorities? “What would have been the use?” she says. “My husband knows what happened to me. He already accepted when he married me that he would bear a heavy cross. Denouncing the man who raped me to people among whom I know some would scorn me would make my husband a double victim of what happened to me.”

Many girls who were raped during the genocide do not dare go to the judicial authorities, especially if they subsequently married.

Some local NGOs including SEVOTA encourage them to do so, but with few results so far.  This NGO, founded after the genocide in 1994, offers space for frank dialogue between mothers and children, so as to break the silence on the crime of rape. Some of its 168 women testified in 1997 against former Rwandan mayor Jean Paul Akayesu, the first person indicted and convicted by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for rape, amongst other crimes.

However, most of the rapists of the genocide continue to profit from the silence of their victims and to roam free.