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Garden of Children Grows in Rwanda

An American woman opens a home for those orphaned by genocide

By Sui Hin LeeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1997



MUTURA, RWANDA

In the middle of Rwanda's ethnic strife, an American octogenarian has created a flower-filled oasis for orphaned children.

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Rosamund Carr, who left New York to come to Rwanda with her late husband in 1949, has dedicated herself to helping those orphaned during the country's 1994 genocide. Her seven-acre plantation is awash with flowers, which the locally famous florist sells to buy food, clothes, and medicine for her young charges.

During the genocide, in which Hutu extremists murdered about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Mrs. Carr fled to the United States, leaving behind all of her possessions. She says when she learned that Hutu soldiers had murdered her Tutsi workers and "cleaned up" her house, she thought, "I will never [go] back to Rwanda anymore."

A few days later, watching TV with her family in New Jersey, she saw a story about thousands of Rwandan orphans at a refugee camp just six miles from her house that changed her mind. There are about 45,000 children in Rwanda who have been orphaned or separated from their families, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

After Tutsis took over the country later that year, Carr returned, with a mission. "I wanted to bring these kids to my place, and open an orphanage," she says.

With help from friends and relatives in the US, she remodeled an old warehouse near her house and opened an orphanage called Imbabazi (Care) for refugees.

Carr says all expenses for the orphanage come from the profits of her flower business and financial support from friends and relatives in America. "I want [it] to be independently run," she says.

Since opening three years ago, Carr has taken in 150 children. Of these, 75 have been reunited with their parents through the help of the Save the Children Fund and the ICRC. Currently, Imbabazi has 74 children. Most lost their parents during the 1994 genocide. Others were separated from their families during the mass refugee returns from the former Zaire last year. Still others are here because their parents fell victim to the ethnic strife that is still going on today. Last week, for instance, Hutu rebels killed 37 Tutsis in the northwestern town of Gisenyi, 20 miles away.

The surrounding violence can make a simple task like feeding the children a challenge, Carr says. Children six years and older attend primary school next door. Every day, she brings the children to play in the gardens around her house. On a recent afternoon, as she was handing out donated clothes to the children, a bomb went off nearby, illustrating the orphanage's precarious position.

Despite the violence, Carr's children have ordinary wants. "I want to play, I want to go school," one boy says.

Carr's English-style villa is right in the killing zone. A few miles away is the Mudende Refugee Camp where on Aug. 22 more than 148 Tutsi refugees were killed by Hutu rebels. After the massacre, many Tutsis retaliated. Dozens of Hutu houses were burned to the ground just outside Carr's home.

"Things have been getting worse for the last two months," Carr says, noting that tensions between her Tutsi and Hutu staff are growing. (At Imbabazi, no one is allowed to discuss their ethnic background.) One staff member, a Hutu who asked not to be identified, said his home was burned by the Tutsi in August. Another said his family of seven was killed.

Carr doesn't have a phone, and the dirt road - the only link from her house to the main highway - is no longer safe. Every week she hires Tutsi porters to send flowers to Kigali, the capital, for sale. "Only Tutsis are safe on this road now," she says.

Carr recalls that when she went back to Rwanda three years ago, she thought the country would be able to rebuild again. But since the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide returned along with the refugees last year, the killings have started again. "I am so pessimistic now," Carr says with shaking hands. "I don't see any short-term solutions."

Although Carr receives Army protection, she has been a target for the rebels. One night in late August, a group of Hutus with guns attempted to rob her house, but were stopped by the military. A shootout started outside her door. "I thought we were all going to die," Carr recalls. Three weeks later, one of the soldiers guarding her house was killed.

Last week, Carr was advised by the United States Embassy to move her children to a safer location, a step she is reluctantly considering. But she refuses to leave Rwanda or the children. "This is my home," she says, "and I will stay with my children."