Carrying Children of Bad Memories


Every woman raped during conflict or genocide must live with the legacy of pain. So too must the children born of those acts of violence

Shyaka’s mother doesn’t love him. He is a skinny Rwandan boy, proud of his school and playful with his friends; a young troublemaker who could not sit still until the head teacher caught him and embraced him, close to her chest. Then he wouldn’t stop crying.

“He was a problem for me. I wanted to flush him down the toilet,” said Shyaka’s mother Goretti, in an interview with the film maker Ingeborg Beugel.

Goretti was gang raped during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and Shyaka was the result. Since the day he was born he has been a constant reminder of pain beyond comprehension. In Beugel’s film, Shyaka is 12 years old and keeps asking his mother questions about his father. He doesn’t understand why she will not answer him. He doesn’t know why his mother is hurting; why she is bitter and angry towards him. And he demands truth.

They are “children of bad memories.” Shyaka is only one of an estimated 25,000 children who were conceived by rape during the genocide. Some women had illegal abortions; others killed or abandoned their newborn babies. But thousands of mothers like Goretti kept their children, and with them they kept the bad feelings associated with their conceptions. Shyaka, and his brothers and sisters of unwanted war children, grew up getting blamed for their mothers’ pain.

“I beat him a lot. I was known as the mother who hit her child,” said Goretti. The widespread sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide has perhaps been overshadowed by the high death toll, estimated between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people. In this conflict, where the majority ethnic group Hutu attacked the minority group Tutsi (along with moderate Hutus) due to decades of ethnic discrimination against Hutus that started during the colonial rule, there is a large focus on the killing itself. This reflects World War Two rhetoric, where extermination of the group is presented as the “Final Solution” to the discrimination problem. But the fact is that during the same time period of only 100 days, over 500,000 women were raped. For women like Goretti, the consequences live with them every day. But the same is true for the Rwandan society at large, and all societies that have been affected by war.

Contrary to popular belief, civilian men are much more likely to be killed during conflict than civilian women. According to Professor Adam Jones of University of British Columbia, who specialises in gender and genocide, the reason for not killing women to the same extent as men is largely grounded in traditional gender roles. Ethnicity in Rwanda, as in many other societies, is traditionally passed down on the male side. If the aim of the genocide was to wipe out the Tutsi ethnicity altogether, it was not necessary to kill women and girls because they are not carriers of ethnicity. Rape, on the other hand, was seen as a way to ‘liberate’ Tutsi women from their ethnicity and, in some cases, force them to carry Hutu children. In this sense women are targets, but not necessarily for killing.

This is not unique to Rwanda; the conflict in former Yugoslavia is another example of a war with similar practices. In 1993, Amnesty International reported that mass rape was used as a weapon on all sides of the conflict, in what appeared to be organised sexual violence towards women. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbian troops were the ones to most frequently use this tactic, and for similar motivations to those in Rwanda. Thousands of women were jailed and systematically used as sex slaves until they became pregnant. Then they were set free with the words: “Go bear our Serbian children.”

According to the Crimes of War Project, rape has been a punishable war crime for centuries, but this has rarely been observed. Since the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which spells this out in international law, only applies to international conflicts, the world was stuck in debate about whether the Yugoslavian conflict was a civil war or not, before addressing the issues within it. In Rwanda, a similar sort of debate for legal reasons was rather about whether the conflict was genocide or not. It took surprisingly long to tell. In retrospect, however, crimes of rape and sexual violence have been punished following both conflicts. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was the first one to classify rape as a crime against humanity as well as a genocide tactic, which is a welcome development for criminal justice in post-conflict societies.

This type of violence creates problems that last long after the conflict is over, not only for the victims themselves. In Rwanda, a majority of the HIV-positive population today is female due to the mass rapes during the genocide. A large number of women experienced sexual torture during the genocide, which has had a negative effect on maternal health, as many of these women have problems bearing children later in life. Rape victims often went through unsafe abortions after the genocide, because abortion was and still is illegal, which in many cases caused similar permanent wounds.

And then there are children like Shyaka, now a young man in his late teens, for whom the taboo surrounding sexuality in Rwanda has meant growing up with a stigma. Because of this taboo, rape victims do not speak of their experiences for fear of being blamed and ostracised. Because of this taboo, young Rwandan girls are still at risk of being married off to their rapist if premarital sex becomes known. Because of this taboo, mothers like Goretti do not tell their children who their fathers really are.

All stages of this cycle need to be addressed: underlying reasons for sexual violence during conflict, prevention of such conduct, and aversion of taboos surrounding the victims after conflict. Because all children deserve to be raised and treated as they should be: children of good memories.

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