Eighteen years ago, my native country of Rwanda was befallen by violence that not only took the lives of my relatives, friends and neighbors but also threatened to take mine, my family’s and everything that existed around me.
On April 6, 1994, the aircraft carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents was shot down. Everyone on board died and the whole country of Rwanda descended into terror that no scary movie can ever truly capture. Everything around me came crumbling down, literally. Houses were looted and burned. Bombings and shootings turned the skies of Kigali into smoke during the day and flashes of gunfire surrounded the whole city at night. Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hunted like wild animals and killed in cold blood by extremist Hutu militias. Fighting between the government soldiers and rebels forces threatened to take everyone’s life.
Neighbors rescued my family by taking us to a safe house where we were sheltered with several families fleeing the violence. Every day, until we escaped Rwanda, my mother vomited. The rest of us shook with fear and for a while, we became mute. My stomach performed cartwheels and eventually I became numb with fear.
With violence getting worse in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, neighbors arranged for us to get out of the city. It was during this period that my mother and I were separated from the rest of the family and were captured. Along with my mother, I was made to dig my grave. Had it not been for old friends and strangers who came and persuaded the militias not to kill us, mine would have been one of the many dead bodies lying in a pool of blood after being killed.
I am haunted by memories of my good friend who was hacked to death in front of my face by militias and saddened by the memory of his brother, who after fleeing, was shot by rebel forces. Vivid memories of human flesh odor mixed with gun smoke and screams and wails of help from innocent neighbors who were hunted and killed by other neighbors still give me nightmares eighteen years later. While I cannot forget the evil of those who killed my relatives, friends and neighbors, I also can’t forget the many members of the Rwandan community who risked their lives to save mine while the international community stood by and watched a genocide take the lives of a million people.
Those individuals and communities who came to my rescue are the reason why I believe it is important to teach about genocide and genocide prevention. When individuals and communities are educated about an issue, there are always many that will take action. Genocide education not only raises awareness about genocide but also raises awareness about the tools available to combat genocide.
I currently spend a lot of time raising awareness and working on solutions to modern day genocide and mass atrocities in Sudan, Burma and the Democratic republic of Congo. Not only is the Democratic Republic of Congo Rwanda’s neighbor, it has also had the highest number of innocent civilian casualties since World War Two. Since 1996, six million lives have been lost, the majority being children under the age of five.
Like the Rwandan genocide, the atrocities in the Congo have been neglected and ignored by the international community. While the claim in Rwanda was that the world did not know, I work with various organizations to ensure that no one makes that excuse when it comes to modern day genocide and mass atrocities.
I have presented at briefings both in the House of Representatives and the Senate about the UN Mapping Exercise report released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2010, documenting atrocities in the Congo, taken part in One Million Bones installation, participated in the opening of the “Genocide Prevention Institute” at the Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and also raised funds for those who need emergency relief in Congo among other genocide prevention actions.
Along the way, I have learned that the common denominator in genocide is dictatorships. One of the ways to confine genocide in history and live in a world without genocide and mass atrocities is to ensure that no dictatorships are sponsored by taxpayer’s funds.
Activists in the anti-genocide movement should push the U.S. government to discontinue any financial, military or other support for dictatorships around the world. I have yet to see a democratic country that has experienced genocide. Nazi Germany, Turkey during the Armenian genocide, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the extremist Hutu government in Rwanda, Bosnia, the Sudanese government, or any of the governments implicated in the Congo atrocities (Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Burundi) are/were democratic. Beyond being genocidal themselves, dictatorships breed rebellions and warlords.
Therefore, to prevent future genocides, we must promote democracy around the world.
Along with prevention of future genocides, perpetrators of past genocides must be held accountable. Many perpetrators hide behind presidential immunity to continue committing atrocities and keep themselves from being held accountable. Activists must not cease demanding accountability for the sake of the victims of such atrocities. While international justice may take long and in some cases, seem nonexistent, we can still ensure that perpetrators are held accountable in our own countries by ensuring our government deals seriously with them by primarily through economic and military sanctions on such governments. The U.S. government’s support for sanctions against Apartheid South Africa contributed to the end of that system. Is there any reason it can’t work against other such governments?
I urge activists and the world community to join me in commemorating the Rwandan genocide by remembering its victims, along with victims of other atrocities. As we commemorate, let us live the words “never again” by pushing for accountability for past and modern day genocides and mass atrocities.
Claude Gatebuke is a U.S. based human rights advocate and a fellow with United to End Genocide. He survived the Rwandan Genocide and civil war. He is a regular guest at campuses, churches, community organizations and conferences around the U.S. and has appeared on local, national and international radio and television stations. He can be reached at [email protected]