Being Young and of Mixed Ethnicity in Rwanda

By Doná, Giorgia | Forced Migration Review, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Being Young and of Mixed Ethnicity in Rwanda


Doná, Giorgia, Forced Migration Review


The transition from childhood into adulthood is particularly complex for young people of mixed ethnic backgrounds who experience being 'out of place' twice: as young adults and as ethnically mixed. The challenges are clear in Rwanda.

Many young people of mixed ethnicity are growing up in the shadow of the war and genocide. They are confronted with many decisions, choices and challenges. Their mixed background has an effect on their social identities, emotions, friendships, love relations, and access to resources. They are 'out of place' in many ways: educationally, economically, socially and emotionally.

Yet, as they learn to navigate the complex postgenocide social landscape of Rwanda, their agency is visible in their choice of what to disclose and what to keep secret when they meet new people, join sports clubs, attend university or go for job interviews; in their choices of friends and partners; in deciding to leave their neighbourhoods, villages and country and go to places where their complex life history is less relevant; in finding strategies that minimise their suffering; and in focusing on what is valued in society like education and family.

Both inside Rwanda and abroad, community-level reconciliation initiatives offer these young people the opportunity to share their sufferings, to disclose their sense of isolation and to manage the stigma. For many, religion and faith are ways to make sense of the past and have hope in the future. Mental health initiatives also assist them to articulate their complex feelings and to work through them. In exile, shared commemorations for all those who died violently help them to give dignity to all their lost loved ones.

The 1994 genocide

Although there were many families of mixed ethnicity, these did not officially exist because ethnic registration was done at birth along patrilineal descent lines, meaning that children took on the ethnicity of their father. As violence escalated in the 1990s, members of families of mixed ethnicity were persecuted, attacked or forced to flee to avoid death. In general during ethnic clashes, families of mixed ethnicity are among the first victims of violence because they represent a threat to divisive ideologies.

Young boys and girls growing up in ethnically mixed families where the father was Hutu (and the mother Tutsi) were considered Hutu. Therefore they were not directly targeted for killing - but were forced to take sides and often to be involved in violence. Like other Hutu juveniles, the young men in these families were required to participate in roadblocks and patrols to identify, stop, arrest or kill Tutsi. If they resisted, they could be fined, forced to flee, or killed with the accusation of being accomplices of the enemy. At times, they were forced to witness violence being exercised upon their Tutsi cousins, relatives and even their own mother without being able to intervene. At other times, they risked their lives to protect their loved ones.

Rape is commonly used as a weapon of war to 'dilute' the ethnic purity of the victims' group, to humiliate its women and disgrace its men. Babies born out of war rapes become young adults of mixed ethnicity who are 'out of place' in many ways: they will grow up without a father, often unwelcomed by the maternal side of the family, and stigmatised by society.

During the 1994 genocide, individual and gang rapes took place and the children born from these forced sexual encounters are now teenagers of mixed ethnicity. These young people are angry and confused, struggling to make sense of their new personal and social identity, which carry stigma and shame. They are 'out of place' in post-genocide Rwanda where they find it difficult to reconcile their multiple identities: they are Hutu offspring yet they are raised by Tutsi mothers and they are children of genocide perpetrators who are raised by genocide victims. They who grew up thinking of themselves as 'genocide orphans' have to integrate the dissonant reality that they are also 'children of rape', a discovery that is likely to affect the ways in which they cope with love and future marriage prospects. …

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