One Saturday afternoon in 2013, I was at home in Kigali, Rwanda watching television when I randomly came across a documentary by filmmaker Ingeborg Beugel on Al Jazeera English. The film, titled “Rwanda: Children of Bad Memories,” was a poignant and moving story about a 12-year-old Rwandan boy named Shyaka. Shyaka’s mother, Goretti, was gang-raped by unknown men during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and as a result of this act of sexual violence, she became pregnant with him. Following the birth of her son, Goretti began the arduous journey of raising him. Like other Rwandan women rape survivors in similar circumstances, she struggled to love her child because of the circumstances surrounding his conception.1I thank the African Peacebuilding Network of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for funding my research on selfhood among young Rwandans who were born out of genocide rape in 1994. I have used the concept of “genocide rape” in this essay to emphasize the fact that rape was used as a tool to commit genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.

In the film, she gives an account that reveals her sense of ambivalence towards her son. Goretti battles with psychological pain caused by her experience during the genocide and regards Shyaka as a living reminder of her painful past. In turn, Shyaka sometimes becomes angry and aggressive towards others and gives his teachers a hard time at school. He is also uneasy and uncomfortable around his mother. When the head teacher finally intervenes, Shyaka gets an opportunity to communicate his feelings to his mother by writing her a letter. In it, he demands to know the truth about who his biological father is. At the end of the film, it is unclear if Shyaka has gotten the answers he is seeking.

Shyaka’s life depicts the reality of many young adults in Rwanda who were born in similar circumstances. Recent studies suggest that these young adults are stigmatized by their families and communities because of the violent circumstances of their conception.2Hogwood, J., Mushashi, C., Jones, S., & Auerbach, C. (2017). “I learned who I am”: Young people born from genocide rape in Rwanda and their experiences of disclosure. Journal of Adolescent Research, 33, 549-570. For most communities, these young people are a permanent reminder of the terror that the Interahamwe, along with other génocidaires, inflicted on ethnic Tutsis in 1994. It has been estimated that about 350,000 women and girls were raped during the genocide. This estimate includes those who survived and the many others that lost their lives. According to testimonies from survivors, many of those who suffered these atrocities were assaulted in front of their families, neighbors, and others within the community.3Mullins, C. W. (2009b). “He would kill me with his penis”: Genocidal rape in Rwanda as a state crime. Critical Criminology, 17, 15-33. In the aftermath of this violence, an unknown number of women conceived and gave birth to children fathered by the perpetrators of these crimes.

Because of the shame and trauma associated with being sexually victimized, many women rape survivors have concealed the truth of what happened to them from their children. However, in recent years, group counseling and other types of support provided by nongovernmental organizations that work with women survivors of genocide rape have helped some of these women to begin disclosing to their children the truth about their identity. However, even with these efforts, many women are still hesitant to tell their children the history of their conception because of the potential trauma that disclosure could trigger in these children. These women’s choice to conceal their experiences of sexual violence may also be a mechanism to self-protect from traumatic episodes that often accompany genocide remembrance.

Many women rape survivors experience somatic panic disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and other health problems associated with their experiences of the genocide and tend to live in isolation because of social stigma. Some are living with HIV/AIDS and struggle to make ends meet for themselves and their children. These women’s problems intertwine with those of their children who have grown up bearing witness to their mothers’ struggles and who are themselves stigmatized by society. Scholarly research suggests that children born from war rape tend to inherit their mothers’ trauma and often contend with adverse life circumstances due to social stigma.4Clark, J. N. (2014). A crime of identity: Rape and its neglected victims. Journal of Human Rights, 13, 146-169.  Denov, M. (2015). Children born of wartime rape: The intergenerational realities of sexual violence and abuse. Ethics, Medicine and Public Health, 1, 61-68.

Until recently, young people born as a result of sexual violence during the genocide have remained in the shadows. In both research and national discourse in Rwanda, these young adults—who continue to be referred to in Rwandan society as “children born of genocide rape”—have arguably not received the attention they deserve. Although the genocide happened close to twenty-five years ago, peer-reviewed research on this group of vulnerable youth has only just begun to emerge in recent years.5Denov, M., Woolner, L., Bahati, J. P., Nsuki, P., & Shyaka, O. (2017b). The intergenerational legacy of genocidal rape: The realities and perspectives of children born of the Rwandan genocide. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-22; Eramian, L., & Denov, M. (2018). Is it always good to talk? The paradoxes of truth-telling by Rwandan youth born of rape committed during the genocide. Journal of Genocide Research, 20, 372-391; Hogwood, J., Mushashi, C., Jones, S., & Auerbach, C. (2017). “I learned who I am”: Young people born from genocide rape in Rwanda and their experiences of disclosure. Journal of Adolescent Research, 33, 549-570. There is still a lot we do not know about these young people. For instance, we do not know how these youth construct personal selfhood or how they make sense of nationhood, particularly in the context of societal stigma and marginalization. A discourse on selfhood among this population can help us better understand where these young Rwandans feel they belong within the wider society. After all, ideas of “belonging” and “nationhood” are a critical part of the discourse on transitional justice in any society recovering from conflict.

To begin understanding selfhood among young Rwandans born from genocide rape, I traveled to Rwanda in July 2018 to carry out research on this population. During fieldwork in Kigali and the Eastern and Southern Provinces, I found that most of my research participants had endured emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their mothers and/or other relatives during their childhood years and were socially stigmatized by their communities. As a consequence of these experiences, some of the respondents struggled with a low self-image and felt marginalized by society. In fact, for most of these young people, the emotional and psychological trauma experienced in early childhood continues to linger on even as they mature into young adulthood.

Despite these challenges, these young adults continue to show resilience. Some of those I interviewed constructed positive portraits of themselves which they attributed to the psychosocial support they receive, as well as improved relationships between them and their mothers. When I asked them about their sense of nationhood, a majority said they embraced their Rwandan identity (what Rwandans like to call Ubunyarwanda) and supported President Paul Kagame’s Ndi Umunyarwanda initiative—whose aim is to promote Rwandan unity. Overall, the respondents I interviewed communicated an important message: they want fellow Rwandans to forget about the past ethnic divisions (ubwoko) that tore apart the country over twenty-four years ago. Moreover, they do not want to be labeled “children of Interahamwe“or “Hutu children”; they simply want to be called Rwandans.

References   [ + ]