Rwanda Copes With Babies of Mass Rape

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ZILIPE MINDAMAGE was so ashamed to be carrying the child of a Rwandan Hutu militiaman who raped her last year that she gave a false name at the hospital and left the infant behind after giving birth.

She said she hated the child -- the bitter fruit of the attack by the man who also slaughtered her parents and brother. Midwives found out Ms. Mindamage's real identity when she made a furtive telephone call to friends, who coaxed her to tell what happened.

But like thousands of other women under similar circumstances, she could not be convinced to keep the infant and returned to her village alone.

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''She despised the baby,'' says Joy Atwine, an administrator at Kigali Central Hospital in Rwanda's capital. The baby ''was a symbol of her suffering and shame.''

Following last year's ethnic genocide in Rwanda that resulted in an estimated 500,000 to 1.2 million deaths, the youngest victims of one of the century's worst atrocities are now being born.

The genocide began with the assassination of Rwanda's Hutu President Maj. Gen. Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane was mysteriously shot down a year ago on April 6. Violence quickly swept through the country as militant members of the Hutu majority attacked moderate Hutus and the Tutsi minority.

The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) eventually gained control of the country, but now the RFP government is overwhelmed with the social problem of traumatized women and abandoned children.

''There is social pressure to reject these children,'' says Odetta Murare, director general of the Family and Promotion of Women Ministry. ''We have a severe social problem, which will affect generations to come.''

Legalized abortion

Ms. Murare said she feared thousands of children would grow up unloved in orphanages that lacked the financial resources to deal with the new flood of unwanted babies. She said the issue has sparked debate over legalizing abortion in Rwanda, where about 70 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and opposition to reform comes mainly from the Church.

The government and foreign nongovernmental agencies held a seminar in March on how to deal with the problem. Although the government is still studying the issue, one favored solution is to encourage widows and women who lost children in the civil war to adopt the unwanted infants.

''Legally the institutions here are not prepared to cater to this situation,'' says Murare.

''Most importantly, we must educate society not to condemn the innocent victims, who are the women and their children,'' she adds.

The Ministry says that up to 5,000 Tutsi women are bearing children conceived by rape during the killing spree. More than 80 percent of the mothers are deciding to abandon such babies.

In many cases, the sole survivors of families were women, as young as 13, who were raped after witnessing their attackers kill their relatives or partners. Often they knew their attackers, who generally came from the dreaded Hutu militias called the Interahamwe, which means ''those who kill as one.''

Countless others did not become pregnant but may have contracted the AIDS virus, experts say. Catherine Bonnet, a French psychiatrist who did a survey across the country, says she believes nearly every woman who survived the slaughter was raped. She says rejection of the infants was similar to that seen in another study she did in Bosnia.

Rape -- a taboo subject

At Kigali's main hospital, nurses report three to four such births a week. In the maternity ward, women lie dejected and incommunicative, staring into space. Midwives, aided by social workers and therapists, try to counsel them to keep the children and transcend their hate -- but generally do not succeed.

Rape is a taboo subject in Rwanda at the best of times. And the trauma and stigma of bearing the enemy's baby often keep these women from talking about their circumstances. They generally come to the hospital alone or with a female friend. The first hint that they have been raped comes when they register at the hospital and say they have no husband. It is often during labor that they reveal their secret.

Emile Rwanasurabi, Kigali Central Hospital's director, says there is no way orphanages can care for all the abandoned children, and adoption is not normally the custom in Rwanda. But he remains hopeful, saying that in several cases the family, usually the woman's mother, comes forward and insists on claiming the baby.

''This is the best solution, because a women may change her attitude in three to four months,'' he says.

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