Traumatised child soldiers return to school

18th August 1995 at 01:00
Sixteen-year-old Jeour Ndizeye is one of an estimated 4,000 children who fought or were attached to army units in the war.

In the space of little over a year, he has witnessed his parents' brutal murder by the interhamwe. Eight of his nine brothers and sisters were also massacred.

He escaped across the border into Burundi, but was back within weeks with the advancing Rwandan Patriotic Front as a front-line soldier, fighting in the final advance after the fall of Kigali on the road to the southern university town of Butare, where the war ended in July.

He is now one of 2,465 children aged between eight and 17 who have been demobilised by the victorious army and who are now at a special children'straining centre and school near Butare. While only the older children fought as front line soldiers, many - already traumatised by their own experience of massacres - have witnessed violent scenes of war, in particular the aftermath of massacres and the mass graves, including the common practice of throwing mutilated corpses into pits used as latrines.

Like Jeour, most of the children joined the army at the height of last year's killings and have similar experiences. The centre is attempting to reunite children with surviving members of their families, but such is the scale of the task that it will be some time before many children, the lucky ones, can go home. One list of 49 children produced by the centre's deputy head, Ben Sineuza, a 34-year-old Ugandan whose parents fled Rwanda in 1959, showed only 16 have parents still alive.

The centre's children, together with a further 1,500 attached to the defeated army in exile in Zaire, are among an estimated 95,000 children who were either orphaned, lost, abducted, separated or abandoned in the wake of the genocide. Of these, 4O,000 are living in special centres or staying with foster parents in Rwanda, with the rest in similar circumstances in refugee camps in Zaire or Tanzania. With more than 28,000 children currently in foster families inside the country and nearly 4O,000 more in the camps, most Rwandan families are caring for children other than their own.

Looking after these children has been the main priority of the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, which has played a prominent role in the international effort to aid the new Government in the daunting task of restoring normality to the country.

After the international outcry following last year's killings, UNICEF succeeded in raising more than Pounds 3O million, which helped bring immediate relief in the form of food and medical aid and help with the restoration of clean water and sanitation. Much of the effort is now going into a major campaign to trace the families of unaccompanied children and to provide long-term foster families for those who have lost their parents.

Thousands of children have been photographed and their details distributed throughout Rwanda and the refugee camps. Every week, hundreds of families are now being reunited, bringing some relief to the tide of human misery experienced by most Rwandan families. In a typical week in July, UNICEF's district office in Butare dealt with 8O mothers who came in search for their missing children. As a result, 27 children were reunited with their families. The hardest task is reuniting babies and children under five because they can provide few clues to their parents' whereabouts. In Butare alone, there are between 25O and 300 unclaimed children aged four or under.

A further indication of the tragedy that has consumed Rwanda's children is the l,O19 who have been held, usually under appalling conditions, in prison or detention centres, many of them since last July. Children as young as five have been accused of crimes, with 179 children aged under 13. While some are accused of taking a part in the killings, others were imprisoned simply because their parents are facing charges.

Recently, these children have been moved, with the help of UNICEF and other agencies, to a special youth detention centre in the provincial capital, Gitagata, where they are receiving a basic education. Their welfare is being monitored closely by human rights groups, as the country's judicial system, together with the United Nations, attempts to bring the leaders of the genocide - many of whom are still at liberty in neighbouring Zaire - to trial.

For the child soldiers of Butare there is perhaps more hope than expectation. The difficulty tracing the families which survived the massacres is made more acute because many are not living in their real homes. Many more are living in acute poverty, while others have had to delay family reunions because of a shortage of transport.

In the meantime, after more than a year of dislocation they are at least back at school, with most following a primary curriculum of Kinyarwnda, maths, gymnastics, French, hygiene and religion. Most, according to deputy head Ben Sineuza, can read and write and are numerate.

Jeour Ndizeye is happy to be back at school, but like so many of his generation, orphaned, traumatised and perhaps brutalised by the genocide and the war, he does not know what the future will bring.

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