Rwanda's Bind: Trying Children for Genocide

Prosecuting more than 2,000 minors raises acute moral problem

Claude is like most other eight-year-old boys. He likes a good game of soccer and a cuddle from his mother.

But the boy is not a typical youngster. He is accused of taking part in Rwanda's genocide, murdering his neighbors by throwing a grenade into their house.

Claude is one of 2,137 minors held in Rwandan detention centers as genocide suspects. In 1994, up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in ethnic fighting.

For up to 2-1/2 years, Claude and the others have languished in detention centers without being formally charged - under conditions appalling even for adults - posing a complicated moral issue for children's rights' activists watching from the sidelines.

"This is the first time in contemporary history, certainly since the Second World War, that we have children accused of crimes against humanity," says Ray Torres of UNICEF's children's protection unit in Rwanda.

"Children have certainly been involved in such crimes in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. But they were never arrested or accused of it. And certainly not in such staggering numbers."

The crux of the moral problem is that Rwandan law, while providing leniency for minors, does not provide for punishment of juvenile crimes of such magnitude. And there are few precedents from elsewhere in the world to guide decisions.

And, as Save the Children officials point out, the implication of minors in such crimes challenges the traditional interpretation of childhood and youngsters' capacity to break the law.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, defines childhood as below the age of 18. But in Rwanda, children as young as 7 are entrusted with adult responsibilities such as tending cattle and younger siblings.

The crimes include acting as informants for the Hutu militias that orchestrated the genocide, arson, rape, theft, and murder. Without a doubt, many children were encouraged to follow the example of the adults who led the terror.

But while groups such as UNICEF do not advocate impunity for the children who took part, they question how to teach right from wrong without ruining a young life. They argue that keeping children in jails where it is widely recognized that they are sexually abused by adults may not be the right answer.

The situation was deemed so grave by UNICEF that it took the unprecedented step of building prisons and special wings for minors to separate them from the adults. "This is the first time UNICEF was confronted with something like this," Mr. Torres explains. "Normally, we advocate deinstitutionalization for such children. But we felt we had to do something in this case because there was a life-threatening situation."

The boys receive little sympathy from Rwanda's largely Tutsi authorities, who are overwhelmed by an inadequate judicial system that has only 16 trained lawyers and no juvenile experts. Authorities argue that they have enough trouble coping with prisons overcrowded with some 90,000 genocide suspects. They say they cannot make special allowances for children, some of whose ages are difficult to verify for lack of records.

In addition, some Rwandan authorities harbor hatred of the Hutu majority, which carried out the genocide, and have little sympathy for those sitting in festering jails. "The conditions may not be the best. But we do not have any resources," says Francois Mugernanganga, director of Gitarama prison where 42 minors are housed among the 6,688 adult prisoners.

Gitarama is deemed one of the "better" prisons because it is less overcrowded. But the overpowering stench of urine and feces and years of unwashed bodies assaults the nose. Thousands of shirtless men sit on the filthy floor because there is nothing else to do. Their meager belongings - thin blankets and cardboard boxes donated by the Red Cross - hang on the wall because there is no other space.

There is a separate quarter for minors. But it has no door, and even warders admit that grown men can sneak in at night to rape and abuse the boys.

Innocent children?

Two boys, who say they are 16, protested their innocence, saying that envious neighbors denounced them as murderers to steal their cattle and property.

"I was at home when the murders took place," insists a boy named Barundi.

"I don't even know the names of the people who I supposedly killed," says the other, named Sebahire.

Before he can give more details, the nervous guards abruptly end the interview, which has lasted only five minutes. "That's enough," one says, marching the boys back to the courtyard that serves as a giant cell.

Back at Gitagata, young Claude is among the fortunate 197 who stay at the reformatory detention center 25 miles south of the capital, Kigali. Inmates were under 14 at the time of their alleged crime and thus deemed not criminally responsible. Some are as young as 8 now.

A further 109 boys who were also under 14 at the time of the genocide should have also been transferred to Gitagata, but are still detained in prisons or jails. Authorities cannot say when their transfer will take place.

At Gitagata, the children live better than some free Rwandans, eating regular meals of porridge, beans, and peas. They attend classes with children from the nearby villages. They play sports. In fact, word got out in the prisons that life was so much better in Gitagata that some teenagers lied about their age to get in. (They were found out and transferred back to prison.)

Four to a bunk

But there is a downside, which director Louis de Montfort finds so demoralizing that he thinks of resigning from his job. The boys sleep four to a bunk bed, with rats scurrying in the dormitory. Bigger children pick on the littler ones. The boys live with constant uncertainty of when they will be freed. Their parents often are too scared of reprisals to visit them.

Worse, Mr. De Montfort suspects that many of the boys may be innocent.

Like the adults interviewed in the prisons, nearly all the minors insist on their innocence. The closest any one of the dozens interviewed came to admitting guilt was a depressed 11-year-old in an oversized red sweater that came down to his knees.

Asked why he was at Gitagata, he replied simply: "War is bad."

In theory, the first trials of minors are to begin in March. But with the judicial overload, many say the beleaguered judicial system cannot cope.

Impunity is out of the question. And experts like Montfort say the children may be safer in jail in some cases than outside. He cites a Save the Children report released last year that surveyed views of survivors of the genocide.

Many surveyed say the fact that children participated in the genocide meant that they could not be considered children anymore. In others words, the children could face severe ostracization and possible attacks if they were released from prison.

"Reintegration is a 50-50 thing," Montfort says. "Fifty percent, the child has to be ready. Fifty percent, the community has to be ready. The problem is, when do we really know if the child is safe?"

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