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ORPHANS IN RWANDA // Children Raising Children

Eugenie Mukamana exudes all the shyness and uncertainty of a normal teenager. Her voice is achingly soft. She tugs at the hem of her skirt when she is nervous. She daydreams.

Yet, "I am an adult," Mukamana said last week. "I have adult responsibilities. I do not have the choice to be a child anymore."

Mukamana, 16, has been the head of her household for two years. She takes care of her four brothers and sisters, feeding them, clothing them, disciplining them, sending them off to school.

And in Rwanda she is far from unusual. Government officials and aid workers say the central African country's recent bloodletting, which has left roughly 100,000 children as orphans, has thrust thousands of teenagers into early adulthood as surrogate parents.

"These are the situations we find most painful," said Alexis Bilindabagabo, director of the Barakabaho Foundation, a Rwandan non-governmental organization that aids about 150 child-headed households. "If we are running out of food, I tell my people, make these houses the priority. Imagine a teenager who must deal with seeing his or her siblings starving."

The explosion in the number of child-headed households in Rwanda springs from both the ethnic massacre of 1994 and the refugee crisis that followed it.

In April 1994, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government and military _ in concert with Hutu militias throughout the country _ tried to wipe out the Tutsi tribe and any Hutus believed to sympathize with the Tutsis. The Hutus killed at least 500,000 people before a Tutsi-led force overthrew the government in July and halted the massacres.

As the Tutsis consolidated their hold on power and sought to capture the leaders of the genocidal campaign, 2-million Hutus descended upon neighboring Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania.

About 1-million of those refugees have poured back into Rwanda over the last month from camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

Trauma has wracked children of both ethnic groups. Some saw their parents killed. Other saw their parents kill.

Now many have returned to empty homes, either because their parents died during the genocide, or because they got separated from their parents in refugee camps.

Some teenagers caring for as many as seven children have quit school. They must scramble daily to feed their families. Few show outward signs of trauma; they often seem too overwhelmed with their new responsibilities.

"We don't get many in here for counseling," said Evode Kazasomako, director of Rwanda's National Trauma Center. "They are struggling every day to survive materially. They don't show a lot of trauma, because they think they have to be strong."

Scarcity of food is their most urgent problem. Often they take care of other community orphans in addition to their siblings. They rarely find help from their extended families, because relatives have homes packed with orphans, too.

"I've had cases where teenage girls had to turn to prostitution, because they didn't know how else they were going to feed their families," Bilindabagabo said.

Mukamana, whose parents were killed during the genocide, has taken over the care of her two brothers and two sisters, because her aunt is housing seven orphans.

The teenager lives with her siblings in a spotless, three-room, mud-walled house that stands in front of a small cluster of banana trees. The family's lone goat rested in a slice of shade. The youngsters played in the yard.

Mukamana's daily routine is exhausting. She does a six-mile round trip to secondary school, cleans the house, finds firewood, fetches water, cooks dinner, washes clothes and puts her siblings to bed about 9 p.m.

Then she does her homework.

Slim and sharp-featured, Mukamana has remained in school but worries that the burden of caring for her siblings will crush her dream of becoming a doctor.

"Obviously it's very difficult for her to concentrate," said Laurence Rutaganira, her aunt. "Whenever I talk to her, I know she is traumatized. But she has such a sense of responsibility. For her to have fun like other adolescents is out of the question.

"I offered to take in (Mukamana's) brothers and sisters, but she did not want to give them to me. She saw that I already have a burden. And she did not want to be far from these children."

That sense of responsibility means that Mukamana sacrifices the small moments she once savored when her parents were alive. Since their deaths, she said, she does not celebrate her birthday.

"Every year, my parents would buy me a new dress," she said with a wan smile. "Now we cannot afford that. So when the day comes, I smile to myself. Then I forget about it."

Her aunt gives her $10 a month. Occasionally she ekes out extra income making banana beer and selling it.

Usually her siblings try to match their big sister's maturity, helping with chores and striving to treat her as a parent. Yet sometimes tensions overflow.

"Sometimes my brothers and sisters complain," she said in her whispery voice. "They ask me how are we going to survive. I tell them God knows how we will live."

And sometimes when she disciplines her siblings, "it is very difficult, because they say, "You are not the one who gave birth to us.' I feel insulted, because they know that the person who gave birth to them is no longer here."

She wrung her hands. She stared at the ground. She fidgeted with the hem of her skirt. "Sometimes the things that have happened to me make me wish that I had died," the teenager said. "Then sometimes I feel like I don't have a choice but to do my best with these conditions."