exposing the dark side of adoption
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Rwanda's tug-of-war children

Rwanda's tug-of-war children
Innocent Rugomoka has seven children in total, but wants his daughter, Sarah, to return from Italy
By Olenka Frenkiel

Fifteen year old Gerard is struggling with his French at a school for orphans in Kigali. Like many Rwandans who survived the genocide of 1994, he has deep machete scars on his head and hands.

Sitting at his desk in this French class, he's looking a bit forlorn because, unlike most Rwandans, Gerard lived in Rome for six years until one day last September, he was told, "Tomorrow you go back to Rwanda".

It was a shock. Rwanda was where his neighbours had tried to hack him to death when he was only nine years old.

Listen to this programme in full

"I was forced to return", he says. "The Italian and Rwandan government decided. I was really sad because I lived with a family and the woman treated me like her own child.

"I loved her very much. After six years in a family home - to find out that you'll have to leave them and your friends the next day and never see them again is really, really sad"

Gerard was evacuated to Italy, where he lived for six years until last year
"What do you miss most?" I ask him in faltering Italian.

"The ambience, the atmosphere, the fun, the pizza - it's too expensive for us here - the snow in the mountains, swimming in the sea. They promised me I could finish my studies in Italy and then come back but they cheated me.

"My Italian family write to me but I have no money to write back. They promised me if I study hard they will help me return to Italy. This is what I hope. If I could, I would go there tomorrow."

Forty one children remain in Italy

Many of the scores of children airlifted to safety during those few short murderous months of '94 have returned. But 41 children are still in Italy.

Even though they have surviving relatives back in Rwanda, they've been adopted by Italian families determined not to let them go. And now they're the subject of a huge diplomatic row between the two countries. Last November Rwanda's President Paul Kagame went to Rome and demanded their return.The Rwandans now say they're going to sue - that the adoptions are illegal and the children have been kidnapped.

Bonaventure Nhatontuye fears his daughter, Gloria, will never know her brothers and sisters unless she is returned to Rwanda
Bonaventure Nhatontuye lives in Bujisera, one of the poorest regions of Rwanda. His daughter Gloria, now aged nine, now lives in Italy. Seven years ago, her mother died and her father took her to an orphanage. When the genocide started she was flown with the other babies to Italy.

Bonaventure traced her through the International Red Cross. He wrote a letter asking for her back. But he heard nothing. Then last year he learnt she'd been adopted by an Italian family.

No-one has the right to take my child

Rwandan parent Bonaventure Nhatontuye
Bonaventure is a poor man. Another child has been sent to live with a relative. His eldest daughter cannot read or write and yet he's adamant, Gloria is his daughter and he wants her back in Rwanda.

This is Bonaventure's only photo of his daughter, Gloria (pictured on right)
"No-one has the right to take my child" he says. "I want her back. Not here to my house because I can't afford to send her to school or even feed her. But the Government must bring her back and they will do it."

But why, I ask, if you can't care for her, must she return?

"So that she can know her brothers and sisters," he says. "If she grows up in Italy she will never know us. I'm getting old and might die."

The legality of the adoptions

A group of Rwandan children returning home after seven years away in neighbouring Congo
Under the Hague Convention, which Italy has signed, inter-country adoptions are permitted only if the authorities in the country of origin consent. The Rwandan authorities did not. Nor did the surviving relatives of the children.

In the Social Affairs Ministry, I am shown the letters many of their relatives wrote searching for the children.

Rwanda's Attorney General, Gerard Gahima says they'll go to court. "The case illustrates the arrogance of Italian Government Institutions and Law Enforcement Agencies that presume, because a country is poor, that it can take their children."

"We do not regard the adoption by strangers with no statutory process as legal - in fact we consider them to have been kidnapped. We do not rule out the possibility of adoption for some - but let them come and make application to the courts and social services departments - so do it by law.."

Wall of silence

In Italy, there's a wall of silence. The 41 adopted children all live in the industrial sprawl surrounding Brescia but no-one, certainly not the parents, nor the judges in charge of adoptions wants to talk except to say the adoptions were handled correctly and will stand.

But from the families' lawyer, Cesare Trebeschi, I hear a bombshell. At the time of the adoptions, he tells me, the Brescia Court was presented with all the evidence for and against the adoptions. Including the letters from the Rwandan relatives who wanted the children back.

Before leaving, I'm shown a video of the babies back in 94 when they first arrived in Italy and I begin to understand the incredible force which has lead these people to break the rules. Around a brilliant Hockney-blue swimming pool, a host of plump black cherubs shriek and splash with pleasure. With them is a phalanx of doting Italian matrons.

There is something disturbing about this footage. Perhaps it is the voracious glee with which this sleek rich world is devouring these exquisite Rwandan putti. It's as if the desire to keep these babies in a country with the lowest birth-rate in the world, was just too much for these baby-starved women.

Serri's surprising admission

In Rome, Riino Serri, the Under secretary for Foreign Affairs, tries to play his joker. The separation of powers under the Italian Constitution, he says, forbids him to interfere with decisions of the courts. I must talk to the judges.

"But that's where I came from and they sent me to you" I protest. "Anyway what if your judges breach your obligations under the Hague Convention?" "Then the Rwandans must take it to a higher court." "But", I reply, "the Attorney General of Rwanda says they've been kidnapped."

I am beginning to irritate him. He abandons his formula. "There is no kidnapping here. These kids were welcomed to our country at a very dramatic time. Ninety three have gone home. We will have to ascertain the legality of the adoptions of those still here."

"So these children might go back?" "I think they could," he says. "I think it's probable."

I have to hide my surprise. This is a scoop.

Incredulous, I ask, "Children who have lived all their lives here are going to be sent back to Rwanda? How's that going to go down with their new families in Brescia?"

Milliam's only surviving relative is her niece Akimana, who was adopted by a family in Europe
He's really lost his script now. "It's not important what Brescia thinks or what I think. In my opinion, it would be legitimate for the Rwandan Government to request their return to straighten out the adoptions. We would recommend that. But I should stress that while I have the greatest respect for your journalism, I can only respond if I receive a formal request from the Rwandan government. I would be in favour of it."

So there is a solution, if the parents are prepared to co-operate. I don't believe, after all this time that anyone really wants to force these children to go home. But for the Rwandans, it's a question of dignity, of being shown some respect. It's a risk but if the Italian families move now and take the children to Rwanda to make these adoptions legal, I believe they'll get to keep them. But if they delay - and let it go to court, virtually every precedent says - they'll lose.

Gerard Gahima
give his personal and official views of the Italian adoptions issue
Rwandan herons
hear their morning song
Night birds
birds sing the night away
See also:

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Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.
2001 Apr 12