When Kids Commit Genocide

Rwanda jailed thousands, now must decide who's innocent, who to punish

AS the international tribunal investigating Rwanda's genocide prepares to publish its first arrest warrants next week, Rwandans are still hard put to balance demands for retribution with calls for reconciliation.

On every level of society, Rwanda seems stuck in a circle of accusations and denials. Children are no exception.

More than 1,000 youngsters are among the more than 57,000 individuals detained on suspicion of participating in last year's genocide. Whether because of a shortage of resources or a lack of will, authorities have made little progress in sorting out who among the accused is guilty, and who among the guilty is responsible for their actions.

Kubwimana is a seven-year-old in detention in the southern town of Gitagata. He's one of about 150 youngsters serving time in the Gitagata Children's Reeducation Center. The dilapidated buildings and a dirt courtyard, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, house young inmates accused of joining in the mass killings.

''I don't know exactly what genocide means,'' Kubwimana mumbles, staring down at his gray shirt. ''I don't know why I'm here. I was just told at the police station that I was going to be imprisoned.''

Neighbors accuse children

None of the children in Gitagata will say they have killed. Most have been placed under arrest on the basis of an accusation from a neighbor or a soldier. Authorities have yet to establish files for most of them.

Under Rwandan law, children under 14 aren't criminally responsible for their actions. But the desire of genocide survivors for punishment has won out over laws that judge children separately.

Youngsters were undoubtedly among those who took up machetes and clubs to slay neighbors. Gangs of roving thugs used children to find the hiding places of victims and to ''finish off'' those the militias had tied up. A study conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that 56 percent of youngsters surveyed saw children killing other children during the genocide.

Ethnic Hutus from nearly every walk of life took part in the violence that swept Rwanda for several months beginning in April 1994. Hutu militias and intellectuals had enlisted tens of thousands of Rwandans to carry out the slaughter of an estimated half-million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. More than a year after the mass killings, not a single individual has been prosecuted.

Many Rwandans say punishment for children, as well as for adults, is essential to prevent a repeat of the genocide and to break a decades-old cycle of criminal impunity, says Ray Torres, UNICEF project director here.

''You will hear Rwandans say very often that if a child was able to kill, if a child was able to discriminate between two ethnic groups, to decide who was a Hutu moderate and who wasn't, and was able to carry out murder in that way, why should that child be considered differently from an adult? And therefore the punishment should be the same,'' Mr. Torres says.

Chrispin Sindayigaya directs the Gitagata center. His office is a dingy, barren shack that lacks electricity. Mr. Sindayigaya argues that many Rwandan children killed, or aided the killers, because they were told to or because they hoped to receive a gift or praise. ''I don't think a child of seven or eight years would have the consciousness to commit genocide,'' Sindayigaya says. ''To kill is possible; genocide is something else.''

Rwandans are having trouble distinguishing children who are guilty and responsible from those who are innocent and have been made scapegoats by genocide survivors seeking retribution.

''At least half those people sitting in jail, including the children, are innocent,'' estimates one Rwandan human rights monitor who fears to give his name.

In many respects, the children in Gitagata are well-off. They have been rescued from Rwanda's mainstream prisons, where more than 1,000 other youngsters remain mixed in with an adult population in filthy, cramped conditions.

Better off here

At Gitagata, children sleep on blankets on concrete floors and work in the fields for part of the day. They eat porridge and beans they cook themselves and attend classes where some are learning to read and write. International aid agencies, including UNICEF, are providing material aid and some counseling.

Relief groups like UNICEF are uncomfortable aiding a facility that incarcerates children. But Torres says the youngsters must be institutionalized for their own safety. ''They can't be released immediately,'' Torres says. ''Acts of revenge are a real possibility. Kids that have not been detained have been killed by genocide survivors.''

Sindayigaya says many local residents resent the resources and time authorities and international aid agencies are spending on these accused children, when most orphans of the genocide are destitute.

He says in coming years most of these children will be set free. Eight youngsters have been released from Gitagata so far, but only after social workers visited the children's communities to try to ensure that the freed children would not be harmed.

''Eight months ago it would have been impossible to release anyone. Now it's clear that some children were arrested unduly. We are slowly seeing an evolution in the public opinion,'' Torres says.

He adds, ''Until now, the number of kids released is small. But in terms of what is demanded, in terms of rebuilding a whole judiciary system, and in terms of speaking out, it is huge. It is an enormous step forward.''

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