Rwanda's Orphans Find A Home -With One Another

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It takes a village to raise a child, according to the famous African adage. But in many places in Rwanda these days, it seems the children are raising a village.

In this war-torn nation, where an estimated 800,000 people were killed four years ago, orphans are the norm and children often take care of children.

There are more than 60,000 child-headed households in Rwanda, according to a recent report by World Vision and UNICEF. The figure represents 300,000 children living on their own, fighting for food and for each other.

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In the hills of Rwanda, an hour's walk from the nearest village, 23 kids sit in the shade of a red-brick house. It is a school day, but they are not in school. The rules here are few. There are no parents here among these four families.

Emanuel Nsanzumuhire steps out of the shade. A scrawny 15-year-old, he saw his parents, aunts, and uncles killed in the 1994 genocide, leaving him in charge of seven siblings and nephews. He was 12 at the time.

Now, normal questions are out of place. When asked if they ever have fun, Emanuel has to stop and think. "Sometimes after dinner," he says, "we talk to neighbors or among ourselves."

"For adults it's difficult, so you can imagine for children," says Huguette Rutera of UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. "They were just learning to be children, and now they've had to change their roles to be adults. It must be very difficult for them to survive."

But they are surviving, and so too is this small central African nation. Backed by nongovernmental organizations, the people of Rwanda are slowly healing the wounds of war.

Many say they have seen signs of long-awaited justice and redress emerging in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the former Rwandan prime minister pled guilty to charges of genocide. The confession, the first of its kind, came a week after 22 Hutus were publicly executed for their roles in the killings.

Weeks before, President Clinton visited Rwanda, apologizing for international inaction four years ago, when extremists in the Hutu ethnic majority killed about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Last week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also expressed regret during a visit. "We must and do acknowledge that the world failed Rwanda at that time of evil," he said.

Still, the struggle for reconciliation is far from over. There are 130,000 Hutus in fetid, overcrowded prisons awaiting trial - most without any legal representation.

And fighting in the country's northwest between Hutu insurgents and Tutsi-led government troops is spreading, leaving thousands of refugees terrorized and displaced. Many are orphans.

Three out of four child-headed households in Rwanda are run by girls, often living on their own, far from others. They are particularly vulnerable. Rape and theft are not unusual, according to the UNICEF/ World Vision report.

Sixteen-year-old Jeanette Ayinkamiye leaves her three siblings with Emanuel while she walks an hour away to the market. There, in a crowd selling scraps of rubber, potatoes, and clothes, is where Jeanette works. "Business is OK," she says, sitting next to a pile of rice. "It's enough to buy small things for my siblings back home."

But work is scarce and few of these children go to school or have the chance to learn a trade - making integration into society all the more difficult.

Aid organizations like World Vision are trying, but they say only 30 percent of child-headed households are being reached.

Some are trained in places like the Atrab carpentry shop. Under a split tin roof, 13 boys are busy sanding window frames, part of an apprentice program.

Sixteen-year-old Patrick Rutangengwa looks more like 13, his lanky frame barely clinging to a man's shirt. "It's hard to find food for my three siblings," he says. "But I hope knowing carpentry will change that."

"I'm never scared," he adds. But his eyes say something different.

For most of these children, dealing with the trauma of genocide gets lost in the struggle to simply get by.

"This picture they saw - when their parents and relatives were being killed - they find very hard to wipe from their minds," says Rachel Miuru, program coordinator for World Vision. "Many times they just have expressionless faces."

Down a red road near a mass grave, 40 boys pile through a heap of smoldering trash. They search for money and food, waving fists at anyone daring to approach.

"The biggest challenge, says Ms. Miuru, "is how to have these children trust the same community that put them in the situation they find themselves in."

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