One of the greatest challenges facing Rwanda, is how best to build a lasting peace among all its citizens, following the genocide of 1994.
The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission has encouraged reconciliation for over five years.
Recently, a joint program to give children a voice in the process of peace and understanding was launched by UNICEF and Rwanda’s Unity and Reconciliation Commission.
This is a new idea, as in Rwandan culture, children are usually expected to accept the wisdom of adults, to be ‘seen-and-not-heard’.
But staff at the Commission believes children can help shape a new Rwanda.
“We took time to ask people around the country their ideas on the reconciliation process. However, none of their remarks involved anything about children” says Fatuma Ndangiza the Executive Secretary of the commission.
UNICEF too believes that the adults of today should listen to the adults of tomorrow.
“I think we have to trust and to give confidence to the children and the adolescents” suggests Bintou Keita the UNICEF representative to Rwanda “I think this is the only way we can educate the kids to be good citizens of the country”
Rutayisire Antoine has been teaching reconciliation for several years. He says if one is thinking of unity and reconciliation and does not consider children, one makes a big mistake.
In April 2004, ten years after the genocide, UNICEF and the Reconciliation Commission organised the Children’s National Summit in Kigali. Children from all over Rwanda told delegates of their experiences during the genocide, about how they survived and how it still affects their lives today.
James Rutaburingoga spoke at that conference. During the genocide he was beaten up severely. Today he finds it difficult to speak because of stammering.
James sits in the same class as the children of his father’s killer. He believes Rwandan children can be reconciled. “Despite what happened to me, we live well with those children. I love them” he says
Nyirarukundo Clementine also shared her experiences, at the Children’s National Summit.
Her father died in exile during the genocide. This rendered her vulnerable, because she lacked parental care and protection. One day, on her way to school, Clementine was raped.
Clementine’s baby, Jacqueline, is now nine months old.
Clementine has to raise her daughter and try to find time for school. Her mother tries to help, but is very poor. Clementine says life is very hard. But she’s not bitter. She is reconciled to her situation.
“I am ready to forgive him but I would ask him to look after the child” says Clementine.
Clementine’s mother Nyiratebuka Esperanza also believes in reconciliation from the roots. “Reconciliation would build in them as they grow and they would not think of their ethnic differences. They would be one” she explains.
Although the Commission focuses mainly on children, it also urges adults – particularly parents or guardians – to support the project in any way they can.
But children too, have ideas about how to build peace in Rwanda. Some of them say they want to testify at Gacaca, Rwanda’s traditional village courts, dedicated to post-genocide justice. What do the authorities think?
“I very much agree with it because I think the mind of a young person is fresh and not overloaded like that of an adult” remarks Mukantaganzwa Domitille head of the Gacaca courts in Rwanda. “ We accept that children should testify. We are still considering the age limit at which we should begin. We are thinking of beginning from children who were seven years old during the genocide”, adds Ms. Mukantaganzwa.
But not all of those teenagers, who wish to testify at Gacaca, are ready to forgive.
A student who preferred anonymity said he can not forgive the person who killed his parents. Such feelings are not unusual, but they might be difficult to resolve. So how does the Reconciliation Commission respond?
“Its evident a child who thinks like that has been deeply affected by genocide.
Problems of suspicion within the adults are also passed down to them” Says Fatuma Ndangiza head of the reconciliation commission.
The Head of Gacaca courts, Domitille Mukantaganzwa says every Rwandan must help children with such feelings and make them understand not to do to others what was done to them.
Staff at the Reconciliation Commission hopes to begin teaching reconciliation to children in schools and families. They believe the UNICEF Children’s Summit proved how effective such projects can be.
“I think it was a lesson to the adults. We asked them to come and listen to what their children say” says Fatuma Ndangiza. “Most of them were surprised to hear what their children knew. It awakened them and I think even back at home, they will listen to them more”
Peace and reconciliation might not be easy for Rwandans, because they cannot change their history. But perhaps they can create a better future by talking with ….and listening to … their children.