Rwanda: The miracle children

Johannesburg, South Africa
Rwandan children orphaned in the 1994 genocide are preaching reconciliation.

By DAVID GOUGH in Kigali

Florence Gasinzigwa believes in miracles. Only a miracle, she says, could explain how she survived what she has been through, and how she has subsequently found the strength to tell her story with candour and a smile that spreads from one side of her terribly burned face to the other.

She says that when the burns on her face, hands and arms cause her to double up in pain her thoughts dwell on that unseasonably cold April night five years ago when the militia came to the school in which she, then 14, and her family were hiding.

Florence is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that lasted 100 days and claimed as many as 800 000 lives. The lives of people like Florence's mother, her father, her two sisters and a brother.

"The killers came at night. They threw hand grenades into the classroom where we were hiding and then came in wielding clubs and machetes to finish us off," Florence says.

Once the band of Rwandan army soldiers and makeshift militiamen were satisfied their work was done, they poured petrol on the more than 1 000 dead or dying and dropped a match.

Florence doesn't think the memories of that dreadful night will ever go away, but with the help of Mwana Ukundwa, a Rwandan charity established by another genocide survivor and funded by the British charity Tearfund, she is rebuilding her life. Under the umbrella of a new campaign called Listen, Tearfund is asking people to listen to the people like Florence and the children at risk around the world.

In the 10 years to 1995 more than two million children were killed in wars, five million were disabled, maimed or blinded, and 12-million were left homeless.

"Our world is an increasingly dangerous place for children," says Paul Stephenson, Tearfund's child development consultant. "If we act now we may be able to avoid history repeating itself."

Another victim of the savagery in Rwanda was Florence's friend Micheline Mukayitesi, who was the only member of her family to survive. The rest were thrown into a pit latrine and left to drown in excrement. They had arrived in Rwanda from their home in neighbouring Congo to visit Micheline's grandmother just days before the genocide started.

Rose Gakwandi established Mwana Ukundwa after making a promise to God that if she survived the butchery she would dedicate herself to the wellbeing of other survivors. And it was when she was organising the burial of her parents and realised she was an orphan that she decided to care for the country's newly orphaned children.

Mwana Ukundwa - the name means "loved child" - now supports 825 orphans by finding foster homes for the homeless, paying school fees for the destitute and running vocational training programmes for survivors who have passed school age.

There are an estimated 350 000 orphans in Rwanda out of a population of seven million, so severe was the devastation rained down on Rwanda's minority Tutsi tribe by Hutu tribal militias in their "final solution" campaign of slaughter, which also targeted Hutus considered too moderate for the extremists' tastes.

In Murambi, 50 000 people were massacred in an orgy of killing that lasted just three days. Tens of thousands of Tutsis had been sent to the half-built compound of what would have been a technical college by a Roman Catholic bishop from whom they had sought protection. Now the 72 classrooms are the final resting place of 27 000 bodies that have been exhumed from the mass graves in which they were dumped.

The mummified remains lie neatly on slabs of white wood like pieces of dried meat in a butcher's shop. Arms and legs are frozen in exclamations of fear and the knowledge of imminent death. Some of the victim's hands are locked together in prayer, the jaws of others stretched open mid-scream. One adult body cradles a tiny one in the last embrace of life.

The smell of death still lingers in every building. The Murambi memorial stands as testament to the alleged handiwork of a former Rwandan army colonel, Tharcisse Muvunyi, who commanded genocidal forces in the area before fleeing the country and by some circuitous route of deception now lives on state benefits in the London borough of Lewisham.

Visitors to the memorial can only wonder how humans are capable of such wholesale descent into evil, much less how survivors of the genocide - whose dreams are still scarred by the screams of their relatives as the machetes rained down - have found the capacity to forgive.

Children like Marie Claire, whose life was spared when her executioner, who was preparing to swing his machete down on her neck, suddenly recanted. "I have killed enough today," he said, and laid down his weapon.

Now Marie Claire and the other children under the care of Mwana Ukundwa preach reconciliation. The scale of popular involvement in the Rwandan genocide was such that as Marie Claire addresses the congregation at the Presbyterian church in Butare, it crosses her mind that perpetrators of the genocide are probably among them.

In a clear and steady voice she tells her story and calls on members of the congregation to reconcile and forgive: "Soon after the genocide I hated all Hutus. I used to go to their houses and tell them that I was coming after them with my army.

"But after time I realised that revenge was not the solution. We have to learn to live together again."