As a Rwandan, I spent this past weekend reflecting on the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. I joined Rwandans and friends of Rwanda at Georgetown University to remember and honor the victims of the genocide and to reflect upon the theme of this year’s commemoration — “let’s learn from our history to shape a bright future”. Participants came from all corners of the country, some even crossing the pond to attend a two-day event that started with a series of talks and heartbreaking testimonies from survivors. A march at the National Mall capped a well attended event organized by the Rwandan Diaspora in North America and sponsored by the Rwandan Embassy in the United States.
Every year on April 7th Rwandans all over the world remember the innocent civilians butchered in cold-blood during the genocide. What was their crime? They were of the Tutsi ethnic group, something they never chose nor could change. Rwandans and the international community at large remain steadfast in their commitment to make the words “Never Again” a reality. Rwanda’s Ambassador to the United States Engineer James Kimonyo noted, “The 18th commemoration comes at the same time that the perpetrators, with their followers, appear to be gaining ground in rewriting our history—essentially turning the truth upside down—by denying the genocide while claiming themselves to be the victims”.
Genocide denial was one of the major themes addressed by speakers, including Mrs. Immaculée Ilibagiza, a genocide survivor. Ilibagiza noted that “genocide denial is painful for survivors”; it robs them of their dignity and questions their suffering. “We need to continue fighting the denial of genocide,” she added. Ilibagiza’s life was transformed dramatically during the genocide. She and seven other women spent 91 days huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of local pastor’s house.
Ilibagiza’s first book, Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, tells of the story of a woman coming to terms with the horror of genocide and how she forgave those who killed her family members. The heartbreaking testimony of Consolée Nishimwe, who was raped during the genocide and became HIV positive, reminded those present of the importance to remember what happened 18 years ago and ensure that this does not happen again in Rwanda or other parts of the world.
Learning from our history involves learning from our failures to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. Much has been written on the failure of the international community to intervene in Rwanda. But there are numerous examples of foreigners who stayed behind and helped save Rwandan lives.
Carl Wilkens, keynote speaker at the event, spoke eloquently on how the global community is more than international bodies such as the United Nations.“The journey that we have come on over the last 18 years is something that none of us could have ever imagined or predicted both in terms of progress and development but even more profoundly in terms of walking closer and closer. We are closer to people once distant from both within and outside Rwanda and have become part of this once nebulous group called the international community. That sense of being close to one another gives us hope”.
In 1994, Wilkens was the only American, and among few expats, who chose to remain in Kigali when the killings began. A close friend of mine, a genocide survivor, confided in me that if it were not for Wilkens’ action, he probably would not be alive today.
Rwandans have learned from their history and are now shaping a brighter future. Ambassador R. Barrie Walkley, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of Congo, applauded the achievements and resilience of the Rwandan people and their government. Rwanda has emerged from the ashes of the genocide into becoming one of the most competitive and stable African countries. Rwanda’s commitment to fulfilling the words “Never Again” is also illustrated by the presence of Rwandan troops as peacekeepers in Darfur.
As I joined fellow Rwandans and friends of Rwanda on a “walk to remember” at the National Mall, I reflected on what my role should be in preventing genocide and mass atrocities. I was fortunate not to have been in Rwanda during the genocide. I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the time and moved to Rwanda shortly after the genocide ended. I was a 9-year old when I returned to Rwanda. I may not have witnessed the genocide but I saw the devastation it caused. Kigali felt like a haunted place. I could see in the people’s faces, the remains, and other remnants of the war that a tragedy had taken place. I never want to see such atrocities unfold neither in Rwanda or in other parts of the world and for that I joined United to End Genocide.