GIKONGORO, Rwanda - Most days for 17-year-old Claudette Mukakirwanirwa go something like this:
She wakes at 6 a.m. in a grass-roof storage hut where a neighbor lets her stay. She and six other children sleep on a mat spread on the dirt floor. Claudette starts a fire that blackens the mud walls and fills the hut with smoke. If there is corn or cassava root on hand, she cooks porridge for the younger ones. Often the children start their day without breakfast.
Then Claudette straps her year-old daughter, Tuyishime, on her back with a blanket and walks barefoot through puddles and cow manure outside her door. She gathers firewood with a machete in a small grove of eucalyptus trees. Afterward, she plants sweet potato cuttings, chopping the heavy, wet soil with a hoe while her daughter sleeps, still strapped to her back.
Occasionally her thoughts drift back to 1994, when her parents were among the half-million people killed in the ethnic genocide that engulfed Rwanda. Her parents were hacked to death for hiding ethnic Tutsi neighbors from bands of Hutu killers.
Claudette was 13 then. For the last four years, she has been the head of her household, caring for her four younger siblings and a cousin whose mother was also killed in the slaughter.
Two years ago, her burden grew heavier. While working in the fields, she says, she was attacked and raped. The assault left her with a sixth child, this one her own, to raise and feed.
``I feel sad, but there's nothing I can do about it," she said, speaking in a measured, stoic voice. ``I console myself by keeping quiet and doing my work."
At least 65,000 Rwandan families are headed by children, some as young as 12 years old, the United Nations Children's Fund estimates. The huge number of child-headed households is one legacy of the 1994 genocide, when Hutu extremists attempted to wipe out the ethnic Tutsi minority that historically had formed Rwanda's elite.
Four years after one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, Rwanda has barely begun to recover. The spectacle of a half-million people wiped from the face of the earth has forever stained the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country. The tiny nation in the heart of a volatile continent remains crushed under the weight of the dead, its people still terrorized by ethnic murders, still dispossessed, still afraid of the future.
The ethnic hatreds that motivated the killers in 1994 are still nursed by thousands of Rwandans, triggering a new slaughter of innocents somewhere in Rwanda almost every week. Each new killing merely adds to the nation's burden of grief. In Rwanda, the aftershocks of mass murder are measured not in years, but in generations.
Of Rwanda's estimated 8.2 million citizens at the start of the genocide, at least 500,000 were gone in just 100 days - one every 17 seconds, or roughly one of every 16 human beings in a country smaller than Maryland. The scale of the killing was so vast that it permeated every facet of life in a nation still paralyzed by ethnic warfare.
Despite $2 billion in international relief aid since 1994, the economy is decimated. Many of Rwanda's rich agricultural fields lie fallow. Gangs of killers terrorize villages, where people disappear in an instant, never to be heard from again. The justice system is in shambles, with 100,000 accused mass killers awaiting trial and thousands more walking free. The churches, once the spiritual anchors of this poor and rural society, have been cleaved by the murders of clergy and by accusations that some clergy helped plot the 1994 killings.
The genocide set off a mass exodus that, two years later, helped trigger a Tutsi-led rebellion inside Rwanda's giant neighbor, Zaire. With Rwanda's direct assistance, rebels toppled the despot Mobutu Sese Seko and renamed the country Congo. Last month, Rwandans again helped launch an uprising that continues today, this one aimed at deposing Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader whose forces ousted Mobutu.
Against this unstable backdrop on both sides of the Congo-Rwanda border, children are raising children inside Rwanda in desperate poverty, with unknown consequences for the future of Rwandan society. Forty-six percent of the population is under 15.
UNICEF estimates that 300,000 Rwandan children are growing up in families without adults - almost 5 percent of the population, and about 10 percent of all children under 18. Perhaps no nation in modern history has confronted such a percentage of its children forced to raise themselves. No one is quite sure what the long-term effect of so many parentless children will be on such a small and weak nation.
``When you talk to these children, they already have the mind frame of an adult," said Huguette Rutera, a UNICEF project officer. ``They've really grown up prematurely. Maybe there's latent trauma that will come back later in life."
In a nation where neighbor killed neighbor and relatives were forced to kill their kin, the traditional family structure that is the bedrock of African culture was as much a victim of the genocide as the half-million who died. Before the genocide, orphanages were virtually unknown because relatives or communities took in orphans.
``In 15 to 20 years' time, if nothing is done now, there will be another problem," said Nigel Marsh, spokesman for World Vision International, which conducted the study for UNICEF. ``We don't know what that will be. There's no precedent for a country having 300,000 people who grow up without parents. It's a tremendous psychosocial problem."
The problem of orphans raising orphans was recognized soon after the genocide, but Rwanda was preoccupied with other difficulties - reuniting unaccompanied children with relatives or finding homes for the thousands of other children living in orphanages. The genocide began after Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash on April 6, 1994. Hutu extremists responded by orchestrating mass attacks on the Tutsis and moderate Hutus they claimed were responsible.
Rwanda is hardly the only African country grappling with an increase in child-headed households. In Malawi and Zambia, UNICEF says, it is struggling to cope with increasing numbers of children who are losing both parents to AIDS.
But in Rwanda, the number of orphans is so much greater because of the war. The full scope of the problem became clear after a million Hutus who fled Rwanda to evade retaliation for the genocide came home in 1996. The repatriation swelled the ranks of child-headed households as renewed ethnic fighting generated even more orphans.
Often powerless and puzzled about maintaining family farms or houses, the children are easily dispossessed of their parents' property by unscrupulous neighbors or relatives. Others are forced to work at slave wages. ``Their exploitation is a daily occurrence," the UNICEF study said.
For some, the sense of helplessness is overwhelming.
``I'm the only one in the family who tends crops," said Yamukujije, a sad and small 16-year-old boy whose mother fell sick and died in 1996. (His father ran away after the genocide, he said.) His five brothers and sisters are often lethargic from hunger.
Although Yamukujije has an older brother, he considers himself the head of the household. He feeds his siblings with corn, bananas, sweet potatoes and sorghum he grows on a small plot.
The boy squatted next to scrawny potatoes piled on a worn reed mat inside the hut he calls home, near a town called Nyamata. Brewing in a corner, attracting fruit flies, was a vat of banana beer, which he and his siblings sell on the street to raise cash.
``When they don't have enough to eat, they just sleep," Yamukujije said of his siblings. ``They just look at me and cry, and I can't do anything. It hurts."
Nationwide, girls are in charge of three-fourths of households headed by children. They are more vulnerable in a nation where women are not even recognized as property owners. ``They live with extra fears and pressures," the study said. ``Young girls without protection may be forced to have sex, either by rape or for money."
The Rwandan government acknowledges the problem, but is strapped for resources to confront it. UNICEF is spending $1 million through 11 international organizations to provide some relief to the children - gifts of kitchen utensils, garden tools, seeds and some vocational training.
A remarkable thing is how many children attempt to create some sort of family life for their younger brothers and sisters.
``I'm going to keep on caring for the younger children whether I have the means or not," Claudette said. She stopped attending school after the genocide, but she hopes some of her younger siblings get an education. ``Maybe they'll have a better life and help me with my baby."
Claudette's parents, who were politically moderate Hutus, hid a neighboring Tutsi family in their house after the ethnic killing began in April 1994, Claudette said. One day a group of Hutu militia members surrounded their house and told Claudette's parents to kill their neighbors or die along with them.
``My father was killed on the spot," said Claudette, who hid when the attackers struck. ``My mother was hacked by machetes. It took a week for her to die. She couldn't speak. She was bleeding."
The attackers stole most of their possessions and destroyed the house. ``My father was one of the best cultivators in the country," she recalled. ``He used to win prizes from the government."
Three months after the genocide began, a rebel Tutsi army seized control of the government, and the Hutu extremists who had engineered the slaughter fled the country. Claudette and her siblings moved into a four-room house vacated by one of the Hutus who had fled.
For the next two years, she and her sisters tended her father's sorghum and corn plots. One day a man raped her when she was working in the field, she said. The rapist was arrested and imprisoned after he attacked other girls.
In late 1996, the Hutu refugees returned to Rwanda. The owner of the house where Claudette was staying reclaimed his property. At first Claudette's family was permitted to stay in the house. But last year, after Claudette had her baby, the owner evicted them.
Unable to find a new house near their fields, they moved into the shed behind the house of a family friend. It's a two-mile walk to their field, which is growing wild from lack of care.
World Vision gave her money to buy a grinder to turn corn into meal for sale. But she got sick, and then her baby contracted malaria and scabies - ``rough skin," she calls it. ``So I haven't had a chance to sell anything," she said.
A few miles from Claudette lives Alphonsine Mukeshimana, 16, who raises her four brothers. Dressed in a purple T-shirt and denim skirt, she appears girlish and demure - light, quiet, just coming into adolescence.
Alphonsine lives in a different kind of loneliness. Her father also died during the genocide, but he was a member of the Hutu militia that carried out the killings.
``I heard there was a war, but I didn't know what that meant," Alphonsine said. ``I didn't know it involved death until I saw a lot of people killed."
Alphonsine's family fled Rwanda to escape retribution for the genocide, seeking sanctuary in neighboring Burundi. During the retreat, the refugees came under attack and her father was killed, presumedly by Tutsi forces. Alphonsine was separated from her mother and siblings in the pandemonium. She ended up in an orphanage.
A year later, she was reunited with her mother. Finding their family farm destroyed and feeling uncomfortable in their old community, they moved to Gikongoro, to the house of an uncle who also had fled the country but did not return.
Alphonsine's mother fell sick and died in 1996. As the eldest child, Alphonsine took over the care of her four brothers.
Alphonsine's house is in better condition than many: Only a few tiles are missing from the roof, and the walls are mostly intact. They have some household goods provided by World Vision - a foam mattress, an aluminum pot, plastic basins and hand-me-down clothes. The house is surrounded by sorghum, sweet potatoes, green beans and avocado trees that contain a couple of beehives. World Vision also gave them a pig; five of the first litter of piglets will go to other child-headed households so they can raise pigs, too.
Nevertheless, Alphonsine has a difficult time raising enough to feed her brothers. The oldest boy, Alphonse, 14, the only one who could really help with the crops, recently announced he was taking a job as a houseboy in town because he was hungry.
``He came and said goodbye," she said. ``He said he was going to work for money."
A few neighbors have helped with food. But others are unkind, and accuse the children of digging up their potatoes at night. Some are envious because the children receive visits from World Vision case workers.
``Hey, you kids are rich!" an old man taunted Alphonsine as he followed her along the footpath leading to her house.
``The neighbors say they are children of the killers, so they're often mistreated," said Eugene Shyaka, a Rwandan employed as a World Vision community worker. ``They're especially mean if they are related to people who were killed in the genocide."
On a recent morning, Alphonsine went off to the market in Gikongoro to sell 100 small, unripe avocados. Her three youngest brothers, ages 11, 8 and 5, listlessly hoed through a harvested sweet potato patch, looking for leftover roots. Finding none, they sat down in the dirt to await her return.
Alphonsine came back from the market after selling the avocados for the equivalent of 30 cents for the whole lot. She used the money to repay a debt.
``I care for my brothers as an elder sister, but I'm not sure if I'm caring for them correctly," she said quietly after setting out a mat in the shade for her visitors. ``I don't have money to buy clothes or food. I'm not sure if what I'm doing is right."
She stopped going to school in third grade. She has no friends her own age. She is so cut off from traditional families that she thinks the way she lives is natural.
``I feel sad, but it's normal, isn't it?" she said. ``Everybody loses somebody."