Rwandan Youth Bridge Divide, Talk of Future

RWANDA'S young people offer some hope for the future of their country.

In an abandoned warehouse here, several hundred Rwandan children of different ethnic backgrounds, separated from their parents by the war, are living together as friends.

Altogether, some 100,000 Rwandan children, most of them still in Rwanda, have either lost their parents in the massacres or lost track of them in the panic of flight from war zones, according to UNICEF consultant Everett Ressler. He predicts most will be reunited with their parents or relatives.

While Rwanda's current ethnic rivals - Hutus and Tutsis - have been snared in a civil war involving what UN officials have declared to be genocide, young people such as Fidel Umwanankabandu, a Hutu teenager, and Cecile Dusabe, a Tutsi teenager, get along fine.

``I had a lot of Hutu friends,'' says Cecile, one of the approximately 300 youth living in the warehouse under the care of relief agencies.

The recent months of killing in Rwanda have obscured the fact that many Hutus and Tutsis once lived as neighbors on the same hills, farmed beside each other, were friends, and often intermarried. And their children played together.

Cecile's parents, she says, were probably killed in her family's home in Butare, Rwanda, by Hutu neighbors while she was away at boarding school. But that has not turned her against Hutus, she says while sitting in a small cluster of Hutu and Tutsi children telling survival stories.

``The problem of Rwanda is not Hutus-Tutsis,'' she says. ``The problem is with politics.''

``You have to have hope for the future,'' Fidel says. He smiles, but there are tears in his eyes as he speaks.

``I don't know if my parents are dead or not,'' he says. ``I think they are dead; they were handicapped, too.'' Fidel, who wears a leg brace, was living in a center for the handicapped in Butare when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front attacked the town on July 3. Large numbers of Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutus before the RPF attacked.

As Fidel talks, Alecia Mukankwzi, a Tutsi girl, casually drapes an arm across one of his shoulders to balance herself as she squats to join the cluster of children. Alecia, who has a captivating smile, barely escaped death in Butare.

``People came to the house,'' she says. ``I heard voices at the door. I leaped out the window. It was at night. I went to the orphanage in Buatre.''

Damas Dukundane, a Tutsi, has one of the saddest stories. ``We were in a chapel at Gikongoro,'' he says, referring to a town in the southwest. Hutu mobs armed with machetes and sometimes grenades attacked the chapel, as happened in many instances in Rwanda.

Damas puts his hands to his head as he recalls the events. ``They killed my parents with machetes,'' he says in a quiet voice. The children in the cluster listen intently. The rest of his family was also killed, he says.

Damas fled to another church where he was hidden for two weeks until the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) took him to Butare.

Asked what he wants to do in the future, he sits quietly for a moment, playing with a stone, then looks up with a smile: ``I want to study math.'' He would also like to return to Rwanda when it is safe, he adds.

Elsewhere in the compound, children sit unsmiling and quiet. They are probably still in shock from the war. A visitor who sits down with them, however, is quickly surrounded by those most in need of a simple hug.

Pierre Damien Nzabakira, who ran the orphanage in Butare where most of the children were staying, says he hopes the example of cooperation among the Hutu and Tutsi children and staff is a good example for Rwanda.

Another sign of hope for Rwanda is that the extended family structure, battered by war, still shows signs of strength among survivors.

Of the more than 600 children brought here from war zones in Rwanda, more than half have been claimed by relatives, says Alexis Briquet, the emergency officer for the Swiss Charity Terre des Hommes, who brought the children here. The ICRC completes detailed forms on each child before they are released to family members so that they possibly can be traced by the parents later.

The same practice is happening all over Rwanda, says Mr. Ressler of UNICEF. The care of Rwandan children goes beyond just family. ``Many of the displaced are taking care of children other than their own,'' he says.

The RPF, which officially inaugurated its new government on Tuesday in the capital, Kigali, was at work even earlier training staffs and seeking outside financial assistance for the orphanages.

In addition to the government appointments of Hutus Pasteur Bizimungu as president, Faustin Twagiramungu as prime minister, and Alexis Kanyarengwe as deputy prime minister, Tutsi RPF military chief Paul Kagame was named vice president and defense minister.

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