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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 April, 2004, 00:38 GMT 01:38 UK
Children coping with genocide
By Justin Parkinson
News Online education staff

Children have been profoundly affected by the genocide of 1994

A decade after the killings, the children still have nightmares.

They, like eight million other Rwandans, could never forget - or rationalise - "the war", the euphemism given to describe three months of genocide.

Up to 800,000 of their countrymen - one in 10 - died in the summer of 1994.

The majority Hutu ethnic group formed militias, with government backing, to attack the minority Tutsis. They were shot and hacked to death at the rate of 8,000 a day.

Rwanda may have become synonymous with "the war", but the central African country is making efforts to reconcile its people, restore its economy and create a working democracy.

The education system is vital to this, but an estimated two thirds of teachers died or fled during the violence.

'Families wiped out'

The charity Voluntary Services Overseas is encouraging appropriately qualified staff in the UK to go to Rwanda to help fill the vacancies.

Harula Ladd, from Stratford-upon-Avon, worked at a secondary school in the southern village of Save, near the country's second city, Butare, from 2001 to 2003.

Pupils she taught English ranged in age from 11 to 25. Some had been toddlers when the genocide started. Others had been teenagers, whose education was disrupted when they became soldiers.

Ms Ladd, 26, said: "When I was starting to get to know people, they didn't talk about the genocide at all. But after about three to six months, some started telling their stories.

Karula, centre, with pupils and teachers
Karula Ladd found Rwandans to be friendly and hard-working

"One of the girls had been about eight or nine when the genocide happened. She was at her best friend's house. The girl's aunt had heard that something was about to happen, so she called a man round to pick her up and take her to safety.

"The man couldn't take the friend, so the girl only went kicking and screaming. The girl was OK, but the friend was killed shortly afterwards.

"Another girl had been one of 10 children. Eight were killed in the genocide and the remaining brother later died of Aids. That is not an uncommon situation."

Among Rwandans, secondary education is considered a privilege. Just one in five reach this level. Fewer graduate.

Secondary schools are for boarders only. Long travelling distances and poor facilities at home would make it impossible to learn otherwise.

Families often deprive themselves of food to educate one child. Fees cost 50 a year, compared with an average wage of around 500.

There is an openness to education, yet old attitudes persist.


Ms Ladd said: "On the surface, people say there are no boundaries, that they are all Rwandans.

"But one day I had a conversation with a friend about marriage. She said she could never consider marrying a Tutsi. But she didn't even know whether the person next door was a Tutsi or a Hutu.

"They are living in the same communities and attend the same classes at school and they are not easily distinguishable."

Prior to the genocide, the government issued identity cards bearing the detail of "Hutu" or "Tutsi". Widespread killing along ethnic lines became easier for the militias stationed at checkpoints.

One of Karula's duties was to run assemblies

These days the cards only state Rwandan citizenship, but the children remain aware of divisions.

Ms Ladd said: "In time, the genocide came up in the classroom. The kids said one day that they wanted to learn the words to Redemption Song by Bob Marley.

"When the lyric about 'mental slavery' came up, I explained it meant people trying to force their opinions on others.

"One child said it reminded him of the saying that all Hutus must hate all Tutsis. I felt quite uncomfortable dealing with the genocide, but the children brought it up themselves.

"Another time, I was talking about dreams, meaning what they hoped for in the future rather than what they thought about when asleep.

"One girl misunderstood and told me she dreamed of 'the war'. This girl always seemed so happy but she was still having nightmares about what had happened. That was true of so many of them."

It is estimated that 80% to 85% of children at Rwanda's secondary schools have seen someone being killed.

Pupils practising dancing
Dancing was on the curriculum

As the economy improves, tourists are again visiting the lush "land of 1,000 hills", attracted by its gorilla reserves and wildlife parks.

Local courts have been set up to reconcile the perpetrators of the genocide with relatives of victims.

Many of the two million Hutus exiled after Tutsi rebels defeated the government and ended the killings in July 1994 are returning.

Rwanda, it seems, is facing up to the future. Primary school enrolment has risen from 950,000 in 1994 to 1.67 million today and secondary places have increased five-fold to 200,000.

Ms Ladd said: "When the government was about to ratify a new constitution, officials came to the school to ask the children what they wanted from it. That was very reassuring.

"But 10 years is not a long time. People in Europe still talk about the Second World War and that ended almost 60 years ago. Rwandans are doing amazingly well, all things considered.

"However, Rwanda is a profoundly religious country. Everyone that you meet - Hutu or Tutsi - is a Catholic.

"I once told a woman I didn't believe in the Devil. She was horrified, asking how I could explain 'the war' otherwise.

"A lot of abrogation of responsibility is going on. Without the Devil to blame, how do you deal with what happened?"

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