Born Under A Bad Sign

ALEN MUHIC'S BIRTHMOTHER wishes she could forget Feb. 20, 1993, the day he was born. ""When I heard him cry, I asked the doctor to bring him to me,'' the 33-year-old woman recalls. ""I wanted to strangle him.'' Instead she abandoned him in the besieged Bosnian town of Gorazde, at the hospital where the delivery took place. He was a living reminder of the rape and torture she had survived. The sickly, malnourished infant might have died there. But a repairman at the hospital fell in love with him. Muharem Muhic took the boy home to his wife in the daytime and brought him back at night. Food was scarce in the Muslim enclave, and the Muhics had no heat or running water. They formally adopted Alen when he was 5 months old. Now he's a talkative, friendly boy obsessed with airplanes. He calls the Muhics Mama and Papa. He has never been told the circumstances of his birth. ""I love him so much, more even than my own daughters,'' says Avdia Muhic. ""I don't know how I'm going to tell him, but I must.''

If the Muhics don't tell him, someone else is bound to. The story was all over town even before they adopted him. Alen's natural mother, a Muslim now living in Sarajevo, came from Miljevina, a coal-mining town in eastern Bosnia. She says Alen's father was one of her neighbors, a married Serb with a daughter her age. He forced himself on her after the town was captured by Bosnian Serb forces in April 1992. When he was done, he slashed her with a knife, held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if she told anyone. She says he continued to rape, beat and threaten her several times a week. In October she escaped to Gorazde. She was five months pregnant. Doctors in Gorazde told her it was too late for them to perform an abortion. She thought about drowning herself. What keeps her alive now is her dream of taking vengeance on the man who raped her.

Thousands of women were raped during the war in Bosnia. The European Union estimates the number at 20,000; Bosnia's Interior Ministry says it was closer to 50,000. No one knows how many children were born from those rapes. Most pregnancies ended in abortions rather than births. But some women were too far along for an abortion by the time they reached a doctor. Hardly anyone is willing to talk about the babies they had--""children of hate,'' they are sometimes called. The victims believe they have brought shame on themselves and their families by being raped. Most say they never want to return to their former homes. Relief agencies that care for the unwanted children are almost as reluctant to address the topic. ""[The subject of] rape here is much more taboo than it is in the West,'' says Toril Araldsen, a psychologist who oversees a women's counseling center in Tuzla run by Norwegian People's Aid. ""It is so taboo that even the local therapists are hesitant to bring it up.''

The silence doesn't seem to have done the children much good. Uprooted and unwanted, they often inhabit a bureaucratic limbo. Until last year Human Relief International, an Islamic aid group, ran a small home in Croatia for nine Bosnian orphans, most of them children of rape. The group says it heard from plenty of foreigners eager to adopt, but the Bosnian government insisted that the children were Bosnians and belonged in Bosnia. Last May, at the government's insistence, the children were moved to the state orphanage in Zenica, an industrial town in central Bosnia. It's a big, impersonal building, fallen into disrepair after years of war and housing 148 children. The director, Aisa Klico, 57, refuses to answer questions about anyone's background. ""We do not single out the children of rape,'' she says. ""They will be told their names, dates of birth and citizenship, and that is it.''

Their hopes of finding new homes keep dwindling. Most children of wartime rapes in Bosnia are 3 or 4 now, and most prospective parents prefer newborns. Besides, not many Bosnians these days are in a position to adopt children of any age. Average family income is about $100 a month. Half the population is displaced. Klico says she never gives up trying to find new families for the children in her care--and she insists that breaking the orphanage's policy of secrecy would only make the job harder. ""Adoptive families want to know everything,'' she says. ""But very often they do not want to adopt children of rape.'' Especially not the children of ethnic cleansers.

Not even the most loving home can lock out the hatred that pervades Bosnia. The Muhics' neighbors describe Alen as ""a great kid.'' But many of them don't know his name. Some call him ""little Chetnik,'' a derogatory term for a Serb. Others casually greet him as ""Pero,'' a common Serb name. ""I hate it when people call me Pero,'' Alen says. ""I just hate it.'' The teasing and outright hostility aren't likely to stop as he gets older. ""Sometimes when I go into town, people sneer at us,'' says Avdia. ""Sometimes I just wish we could go away from here.''

The man Alen's birthmother identifies as her rapist still lives in Miljevina. He denies her accusations. ""Why would I rape her?'' he says, laughing. ""She wouldn't be worth it ... I would like her to look me in the eyes and tell me why she says this.'' Alen's mother says she dreams of doing just that. ""But I want to do it at The Hague,'' she says. ""There is not a punishment strong enough for what he has done to me. He has wounded me in a way that I will never heal.'' She is unlikely ever to get her chance. Prosecutors at The Hague are focusing on the worst offenders--and even then it's tough to make a case. Rape charges against Dusan Tadic, the first indicted war criminal to go on trial, had to be dropped because the woman who accused him withdrew her testimony. But the vision of getting her day in court makes Alen's mother glad she didn't kill her baby. ""I am so happy he is alive,'' she says. ""That child is my only proof.''

LEONILLE MUKAMAGERA NEVER saw the face of her baby's father. She remembers him only as ""a man in military fatigues.'' His gang of Hutu militiamen descended on the homes of her family and their Tutsi neighbors outside Kigali on May 6, 1994. The gang torched the houses and slaughtered most of the inhabitants as they tried to flee. Mukamagera was dragged to a windowless hut and locked inside. For the rest of that day and through the following night, one of the militiamen silently and repeatedly raped her on the dirt floor. In the morning, after the men left, she crawled out of the darkness. Near the smoking rubble of her house she found the dead bodies of her husband, her brother and her mother. Her four children were missing; she was crazy with grief until they reappeared, unhurt. A few weeks later she learned she was pregnant.

The baby is 19 months old now, an animated boy with a contagious grin. She named him Bonheur--""Happiness.'' But she makes no effort to hide her mixed feelings about him. ""Whenever I even look at my child I think of that day, I remember how he was conceived,'' she says at her new home, a one-room concrete-block hut near Kigali airport. Bonheur nestles happily in her lap as she nurses him, her four older children looking on. ""If there had been a means of aborting, I would have done it,'' she says. ""But now I am obliged to take care of this child. I am obliged to love him.''

During Rwanda's four-month ethnic bloodbath, tens of thousands of Tutsi women like Mukamagera were raped by Hutu fighters and neighbors. ""When the violence began in 1994, it was no coincidence that it was sexual violence,'' says Binaifer Nowrojee, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch, which is releasing a new report on the subject next week. ""It was a very deliberate type of violence.'' The victims endured hellish cruelty. Some were gang-raped; others were dragged off to Zaire with the defeated Hutu army and held as sexual slaves in refugee camps. Thousands were savagely mutilated, psychologically maimed or infected with venereal disease or HIV. Perhaps worst of all, the living victims of the worst genocide since World War II must now endure ostracism from their own people. Rwanda's highly con- servative, Roman Catholic so- ciety considers rape a disgrace to its victims, who often suffer worse punishment than the perpetrators.

Their pain is being passed on to a new generation. According to human-rights groups and the Rwandan government, between 2,000 and 5,000 babies were born to these Tutsi women. Most were abandoned at birth to poorly funded state and private orphanages. A few are being raised by mothers tormented by the knowledge that the fathers were often the men who murdered their husbands and other children.

Some began life in the looted, bombed-out maternity ward at Kigali Central Hospital. Between 300 and 400 raped and pregnant Tutsi women were admitted there between early August and November 1994. Sixty percent had been mutilated by their attackers, with machetes, scissors, even acid. ""Most were hysterical, distressed, like zombies,'' recalls Gladstone Habimana, the hospital's director of obstetrics and gynecology. ""They were begging for abortions.'' But abortion is against the law in Rwanda. Habimana and other doctors tried to persuade the women and girls to keep their babies. ""We told them the child should not be victim, that he was an innocent party,'' Habimana says. ""But they said, "No way am I going to bring up the child of the killer of my family.' They would give birth--and then leave in the middle of the night.'' Between January and April 1995, nearly 80 babies were abandoned in the maternity ward.

From there they were sent to unregulated orphanages. The Belgian Red Cross found one group of those kids at a center in Kigali early last month. ""They had stayed 15 days without food, without clean water,'' says Gilbert Plumier, Red Cross chief of mission, who arranged the children's rescue. Today 16 of those abandoned children live with 20 others at the Belgian Red Cross orphanage's nursery, a tidy, red-brick building. A half-dozen nurses attend to the children round the clock, but most remain desperate for af- fection: they mob two visiting journalists, throwing their arms around them and clinging to their legs.

Should the children ever be told the truth about their parents? Some children's advocates in Rwanda argue that society has an obligation not to hide the facts, that everything should be revealed when the kids reach school age. But others fear such disclosures could instill dangerous feelings of inferiority and anger toward the entire Hutu population. ""Nobody has any desire to bring up another generation of children bred on hatred,'' says Gladstone Habimana, who believes that such children should be told simply that their parents died in the war.

The handful of children being raised by their rape-victim mothers are often objects of hatred. The children's mixed ethnicity isn't usually a problem; Tutsis and Hutus often intermarried before the war. But they face ostracism because they were born of rape. ""One woman whose husband died was raped, and her husband's family refused to have anything to do with mother or child,'' says Immaculee Ingabire, who works with rape victims and their children. ""They said, "You've slept with the man who murdered your husband.' They view her as a traitor.''

Rwandan women's groups want to shift the stigma from the victims to the rapists. A coalition of 80 such groups is backing a bill that would mete out stiff sentences for rape. (The current penalty: six months in prison.) The groups are also seeking to make rape during the genocide a crime punishable by death--and to persuade victims to break their silence. Some are coming forward. Donatile Mujawimana, 24, says she was raped and sexually mutilated by a neighbor, a teacher, not long after her marriage in 1994. ""He said, "I'm going to mutilate you, to make your whole race ashamed','' she remembers. Two years later she heard him reading the news on Radio Rwanda, the government radio station. ""When I heard his voice I went mad,'' she says. She went to Kigali and, surrounded by a half dozen Rwandan soldiers, confronted him as he left the studio. He was arrested and jailed. Today Mujawimana is three months pregnant. ""My husband accepts me,'' she says. ""He understands that if you couldn't escape death during the genocide, how could you have escaped being raped?''

Few other rape victims in Rwanda are so lucky. Mukamagera worries that she may have contracted HIV from her rapist and that she will die, leaving her children motherless. Most of all she worries about Bonheur's future. ""The worst problem is that when the child grows up, his siblings will tell him that he's the son of the man who killed everyone else in the family,'' she says, clasping him tightly to her breast. ""I don't know what that will do to him.'' She says she's never told any of the children. ""But the neighbors know. They mock us.'' It's an ir- rational prejudice. Just like the hatred that created the genocide.