“That Child is Me,” A guide on how to explain Rwanda’s dark past to children

At just 11 years of age, terror befell Claver Irakoze who witnessed the Genocide against the Tutsi. The wretchedness and loss of both his parents, extended family and friends at that infantile age affected him while growing up.

Bloodshed, discrimination, hunger, betrayal is all he and his family experienced for a couple of years after his family returned from Burundi in 1988.

It is the assortment of his past wounds and emotions that stirred the writing of his first book for children, entitled , “That Child is Me,” a book that is aimed at conveying awareness to parents on how best they can package the information of Rwanda’s dark to their children, without traumatizing them.

25 years after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Irakoze says it is everyone’s responsibility to explain to young children what the Genocide against the Tutsi was all about.

However, he adds that as you enunciate the agony of the past, to children, there should be a procedure that ought to be followed as he believes that children’s psychology evolves with age, thus the traumatic truth should also be conveyed to them progressively

His book, which is full of illustrations and some incidents of what he went through during the genocide intends to raise awareness amongst children, something that he hopes to trigger them to want to know more about the Genocide. Somehow, this could help parents have a starting point of how they can narrate the pain to them without sparking anger or shock.

The book also includes a part of his recovery and resilience journey, which for Irakoze is very important to inspire young children to become dreamers and achievers of great ambitions. In his words, he said: storytelling is a great approach to make strong connections with our children. Through parents’ stories, children feel empathy and strong connections are established.

Irakoze is the Digital Resource Manager at the Kigali Genocide memorial in Gisozi. 

Irakoze, who is now 36 years of age is the fourth child in a family of five. He was born in Burundi; where his parents were exiled in 1973.  Him and his family returned to Rwanda in 1988 and settled in Nyanza in the South.

Just a few months later, they settled in Kabgayi where both his parents were teachers. Kabgayi is a very important Roman Catholic Church site in the Southern Province of Rwanda which was established by White missionaries in 1900. It is very developed with many schools ranging from Primary to secondary.

“My most memorable day in Kabgayi was when I started my primary school in September 1990. In 1994, I was 11 years of age in Primary four, when the Genocide against the Tutsi started. My family and I fled to College Saint Joseph, where my dad taught,” he recalls, with much pain.

 He says that Kabgayi hosted up to 50,000 Tutsi refugees who had come to seek refuge hoping to be protected by the church, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.

Irakoze notes that perpetrators accessed the church freely and were able to notice which families were next to be massacred. The church priests didn’t save people, their worry was killing them inside the churches. However, they looked on, as innocent souls were being taken to be butchered.

“Church programmes never stopped, on Sunday, killers would come to church, and that’s how they noticed which family was still alive. The Tutsi also came to church to make their last prayers,” he states.

“That time, government soldiers and the militia started going to every place with lists that included people’s names, which they read out loudly, noting who the next victim would be. That is how my father was taken on April 28, alongside many other men.

“What breaks my heart most is that, up to now, the remains of my father and all the men who were taken with him have never been recovered. I thought we could probably hear news from the church but, all in vain, this keeps the trauma on,” Irakoze says.

The author enlightens that a few weeks after the country was liberated, his mum passed on as well, following his grandfathers, aunties, all his uncles, cousins and friends.

Life lost meaning.

He notes that there was a Cholera outbreak due to poor hygiene, lack of water and those infected with Cholera were isolated from the rest to avoid transmitting the disease to others.

He stresses, after the genocide, living on as orphans with his siblings, was not an alternative but he appreciates RPF for rescuing them.

On government scholarship, we had to go back to school. Unfortunately we were broken and lacked motivation, courage and counseling. Pain was too much to bear, he states.

He says that they searched for solace from extended families and relatives they had never met, nor knew about.

 Irakoze says, “accepting that we had to move on without our parents seemed fable. The Government sponsored me until I finished University. I graduated in Computer Sciences at University of Rwanda in 2008. I know wherever my parents are, they are proud of me because they always wanted me to be educated.”

Irakoze (M) poses with AEGIS Executive Director Freddy Mutanguha (L) and AEGIS Trust CEO, Dr James Smith (R). Courtesy photos.

“Immediately after accomplishing my studies, I searched for jobs and got one at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi in 2010. I work as the Digital Resource Manager,“he adds.

He got married in 2011 and is a father of two beautiful children, who are seven and five. This is one of the things that lightens up his world a little bit. He gained happiness, after the pain.

He says, “I consider myself as one of the luckiest Genocide survivors, although I lost my people, I wasn’t physically wounded,  each day that passes, I have learnt how to deal with my past. It takes time though, but I am glad I am somewhere.”

He notes that his parents raised him and his siblings with a sense of responsibility, to love and help each other which made him realise that a home can be the best school. He has decided to invest his time into parenting.

Teaching children about the Genocide

His book is about creatively transmitting the past to children in a way that is not distressing. Exposure to traumatic events can hurt children. Information told to them needs to be packaged in a responsible manner.

He expresses that, “The other day my children asked me about their grandparents, well, I told them that they are in Heaven. I believe that when they are old enough I will tell them that they died.  Then later, I will be able to tell them more about how they died in the Genocide against the Tutsi.”

Adding that, it is a process to teach the kids, but what matters is to teach them about positive human values.

He urges parents that they should raise awareness but should not be silent because if children are not told what happened and they discover it later, they might develop a spirit of revenge, bitterness and hatred or even blame their parents for keeping quiet.

Irakoze has no doubt that, one day, he will be able to meet parents and discuss his book, as this is a generation where children need to be critical thinkers and it is parents’ responsibility to bring them into conversations.

He states that some parents lack words to use while narrating their dark experiences during the genocide to their children.

Irakoze hands over a signed copy of his book to the State Minister for East African Community Olivier Nduhungirehe recently. 

“I am raising awareness that this is an important topic to address.  A child only educated at school is a non educated child. Even when we send our kids to best schools, it is still not enough, home is the best school. The best can only be achieved when we talk about anything in the past, and the aspiration of the future,” he urges.

Irakoze also says that values are very important, teach your child to say sorry when they have done something wrong. They will grow up knowing that although sorry is hard to say, it is strong. It saves a lot.

He notes that parents shouldn’t expect teachers to do it all, it starts from home. For fellow survivors, he says, keep strong, recovery is a journey. Some choices need sacrifices because what everything parents do, is done for their children and grand children.

He says, since he works at the Genocide Memorial where genocide issues are discussed daily, it has helped him keep on recovering and knowing that life is precious.

His books are available at Kigali book store, Kigali Genocide Memorial and Imagine We Rwanda which published them and they can be home delivered upon request.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

 

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