Twelve years after the massacres of 1994, Rwanda’s younger generations are struggling to cope with their lives. More than half of the country’s population is under 25-years-old, with 15- to 24-year-olds accounting for nearly a quarter (UNFPA). With one of the world’s highest proportions of orphans and youth-headed families, the difficulties faced by youth in Rwanda are extensive. The killing of almost one million Rwandans during the 100-day massacres deeply affected the country’s social fabric, especially at the family level.
The Rwandan minister in charge of youth, sport and culture, Joseph Habineza stressed at a recent press interview that “today, there is an emphasis to involve young people directly into the national development, as a main force of the nation”.
The massive involvement of young Hutu people in the genocide has led to an increasing awareness of the challenges that Rwandan youth face. The government has launched various initiatives to allow young people to take part in the reconstruction of the country and the reconciliation process between communities. Policies are aimed at those aged between 14 and 35 – more than a third of the total population.
Persuading the country’s youth to take part in rebuilding Rwanda has not been difficult. There is a widespread feeling among the young that the country needs to move on from its past, and that everyone should focus on the future. Young people in Kigali regularly take part in ‘Muganda’, mandatory community work every last Saturday of the month. They told IRIN that they happily took part because they wanted to ‘improve’ their country and make it more beautiful.
Another initiative is the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission’s (NURC) ‘Ingados’. NURC, created in 1999, targets youth through temporary camps where different youth groups are taught how national unity and reconciliation should take place. Courses include history and civic education aimed at ‘eradicating the consequences of years of exclusionary ideology that led to the genocide,’ says Geoffrey Murangwa, legal officer at NURC.
Youth facing justice
Exact figures of the number of young people that took part in the genocide are not known – whether their involvement was voluntarily, under peer pressure, or forced. They are, however, all facing justice for their role in the atrocities.
The country’s prisons are overcrowded, and the justice system has become overburdened bringing perpetrators to justice, so a new system – the Gacaca courts – was set up in July 2006. The structure, inspired by the pre-colonial Rwandan justice system, is currently trying genocide suspects in the communities where their crimes were committed. After the genocide, an estimated 120,000 people - adults and youth - were in put in prison. Tens of thousands waited for years until the new courts were established.
Another means of relieving prison congestion was implemented by the government in 2003. Those aged between 14- and 18-years at the time of the genocide were released from prison in return for a confession and pending a trial at a later date. Confessions carried the promise of a reward of a significantly reduced sentence, half of which could be spent doing community service or Travaux d’Intérêt Général (TIG).
Those taking part in the genocide have been classified into three groups: the planners, instigators and masterminds behind the genocide; the perpetrators, conspirators and accomplices causing death; and, those who stole and looted but did not kill.
Emanuel Twagirumukiza, the Executive Secretary of TIG at the Ministry of Justice told IRIN that an estimated 300,000 suspects falling under the second category could serve a part of their sentence in the TIG at some future date.
The first TIG camp opened in September 2005, but it was not until October 2006 that a further seven were opened, admitted Twagirumukiza.
Boniface, 29, spent four years in prison and decided to confess his guilt in 2000 after which he was temporarily released. He was 17 at the time of the genocide, and after having been tried by his local Gacaca, his sentence was commuted to three years community service at the Mageragere TIG in the Nyarugenge district of Kigali. He said the majority of his 200 fellow workers, commonly called tigistes, were in their late twenties and early thirties.
While most of the imprisoned young adults are now looking forward to the end of their sentences, their future is not very bright. Most of them have never received an education, and as a former tigiste can only look forward to a job in the construction industry.
The chief coordinator of Mageragere camp, Leopold Burangayija-Mugarura, disagrees. Burangayija-Mugarura argues that after having spent so many years in prison, the tigistes have had an opportunity to acquire new professional skills. At Mageragere, the convicts have been able to learn stone quarrying, and have built 64 houses for vulnerable people, many of whom are genocide survivors. Other efforts to rehabilitate tigistes include events such as football matches.
More than 7,000 people are still waiting to enter the TIG programme, said Twagirumukiza, and that figure will rise as the Gacaca process continues. However, it is still not clear how many young people remain in prison, as the official line states that all 14- to 18- year-olds at the time of the genocide were released on confession. The League for Human Rights in the Great Lakes Region (LDGL) revealed that in 2005 there were still some 861 minors, allegedly convicted for genocide, being held in the country’s 12 largest prisons.
Living in the shadow of genocide. The plight of the survivors
Life was never meant to be hard for Gervais, 19, who was born into a relatively wealthy family in Kigali. His mother worked at the Rwandan National Bank in 1994 at the time of the genocide. When the Interahamwe - the extremist Hutu armed gangs - first came on 7 April 1994, a day after the start of the genocide, she gave them money in exchange for their lives. However, it soon appeared that money was not enough. The family fled to nearby Gitarama province where all were killed except himself, his sister and his brother. Gervais was just seven-years-old, but remembers that time well: “My brother was 12 and he suffered a great deal. He had to work hard to make us live.”
Claude Rutagengwa, Regional Coordinator of the Great Lakes Peace Initiative (GLPI), found, in a survey conducted in 2005, that approximately 195,000 youth under 20 years of age are the heads of households in Rwanda. Although they might have not suffered directly from the atrocities, their lives have been deeply affected by the death of their relatives, from years of exile in neighbouring countries, the effect of war delaying their studies, and the trauma of witnessing atrocities at such a young age.
Gervais told IRIN that at no point in his childhood had he been taken care of by adults. He and his siblings are now living on their own in a house given to them by the new Tutsi-dominated government. The FARG (Victims of Genocide Fund) later financed his brother’s and sister’s studies in secondary school, but Gervais has been told it will not be possible for him. Nevertheless, he considers himself lucky.
“A lot of young people like me don’t even have the chance to have a house, they are wandering in the streets. You often meet these young people who are working in somebody else’s house although they are bright and could have pursued their studies,’’ revealed Gervais.
Many of Rwanda’s youth do not get the opportunity to complete secondary school. According to UNICEF statistics, the secondary school enrolment ratio in Rwanda is among the lowest in Africa and the world, amounting to 15 percent for boys and 14 percent for girls.
Eric, 25, who witnessed the death of both his parents in April 1994, complained that the government did nothing to help him and his two brothers after the genocide. Although they were initially taken care of by a Belgian priest, the problem of their food and shelter continued after the priest died.
Eric recently obtained a short-term contract at the German Red Cross in Kigali to look after young orphans. He said many come from the streets but often return to it and become delinquents. Traumatised by the past and with little adult guidance or care, they slip back to the life they know - which will in turn lead them to theft, violence and drug trafficking. But, Eric added, “A lot of young people living in the streets also take drugs themselves, to keep their spirits up, to win the force.”
In the Gatenga district of Kigali, the Don Bosco centre provides education and vocational training for vulnerable children and youth up to 25-years-old. Skills taught include carpentry, leatherwork, sewing and farming. There is also a possibility for young people who have fallen behind in their studies for whatever reasons (refugee returnees, orphans, youngsters who lost trace of their parents) to undergo a one-year catch-up course so that they can take official exams.
Father Jean-Pierre at the Don Bosco centre told IRIN that the main problem young people face in the centre is not entirely related to their professional orientation. “For most of them, the trauma of having lost their parents and having no family at all is very heavy, even if we provide them with food and care, we will never replace that.”
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]