Remember, Unite, Renew: Symposium on Genocide Commemorates 25th Anniversary

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May 20, 2019

The Rwandan-American Community of the Midwest and the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation hosted a Symposium on Genocide at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana on April 26 and 27, 2019. This year’s commemoration marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda when an estimated 1 million people were killed over a 100-day period from April to July 1994. Articles on Session I, Session II, and Sessions III, IV, and V are also available.

Early arrivals at the Saturday program for the Symposium on Genocide could walk through the small exhibition in the lobby featuring historical information on Rwanda, photos of the memorials and quotations from survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and displays of Rwandan cultural memorabilia before entering the auditorium for the afternoon program.

The program, which was live-streamed, kicked off with a 10-minute documentary film titled Kwibuka 25: Remember, Unite, Renew. Kwibuka means “to remember” in the Kinyarwanda language. Watch the film below or by clicking here.

The American and Rwandan national anthems were sung and then symposium organizer Immaculee Mukantaganira took to the stage to introduce the event. “There is no better gift you can give to a survivor than to be here today…25 years have passed, but for us it is as if it was yesterday,” she said. We’re asking you today to be people for humanity, to love lives, and to stand for what is right. Silence was felt while women were being raped, while world leaders ignored, and people were killed, she continued. We’re calling on everyone in this room not to be silent in the face of injustice, to stand up for what is right, to be upstanders, not bystanders. And to the survivors, Mukantaganira concluded, “thank you for your resilience and for forgiving, for fighting for what is right, for fighting to change the world.”

After a moment of silence was observed, Louis Nxumalo Ruhaya, president of the Rwandan-American Community of the Midwest, gave the opening remarks. “Our people did not die a natural death, they were butchered by machetes, beaten with clubs… We are here to celebrate their lives, we are not here to mourn, we are not here to cry, we are not here to get bitter, we are here to remember them. They were parents, siblings, relatives, and friends… We remember them not because we have forgotten; we remember them because it is our duty. If we stop remembering them it will be a victory to those who took their lives.”

He told the audience not to fall into the trap of the genocide deniers, many of whom have never set foot in Rwanda. “If you want to know the truth, go to Rwanda and find out for yourself. If you cannot go to Rwanda, speak to survivors…speak to someone who was a witness.”

“What does the world need to do to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity?” he asked, then quoted from Ellen G. White: “The greatest want of the world is the want of men — men who will not be bought or sold; men who in their inmost souls are true and honest; men who do not fear to call sin by its right name; men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”

Next there was a candle lighting ceremony with genocide survivors and their children. The passing of the light from parent to child symbolized hope to the youth, so they can be the light of the world and carry on the legacy of those who were lost.

Dr. Usta Kaitesi, CEO of the Rwanda Governance Board and commissioner at the Rwanda Law Reform Commission, then spoke on the topic of “Gender and Sexual Violence as Acts of Genocide,” which was the subject of her PhD dissertation. (She also spoke during Session III: “Genocide Ideology and Denial” on Friday.) She told the audience that her PhD advisors had counseled her that it would not be wise for a Rwandan to write about sexual violence too soon, but she felt privileged to be able to write on the topic, to be a voice for those who still struggled with the trauma, as well as a voice for the many victims who were murdered.

She discussed how the Hutu 10 Commandments, which were written in December 1990, were used as a roadmap for how the Hutu should see the Tutsi. Four of the 10 commandments mention Tutsi women. Gender and sexual violence were deliberately used as a tool of genocide, said Kaitesi. Squads were created of HIV positive men who had been taken from hospitals with the intention of infecting women through rape, causing them a slow death. Eighty percent of the surviving victims of rape and sexual violence were infected with HIV. “There was rape with no discrimination except that of ethnicity.” Today, the world condemns rape as an act of genocide because of the testimony from the survivors in Rwanda.

Kizito Kalima, founder of the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, who also spoke briefly during Session IV: “Forgiveness and Unity for Sustainable Peace,” then gave his survivor testimony. He was a teenager home from school on Easter break when the genocide broke out. Men with guns invaded his home. “I’d never seen a gun before,” he told the audience. He ran away, taking shelter from a Hutu man who protected him until the man’s younger brother, who was part of the Hutu militia, warned them that it was no longer safe. Kalima ran, but as he was crossing a river to escape, he got caught by the militia who attacked him with a machete to his head, and left him for dead. When he woke up he discovered his ankles had been broken, and only managed to get 50 feet before being caught again and taken to a killing site. At these killing sites, you could pay the Hutu for a quick death by bullet, otherwise you would be forced to die slowly and painfully. He did not have money, so he decided to run hoping this would force them to shoot him so he could die quickly, but nobody did and he was able to escape.

Because he was so young, he didn’t really understand all that was occurring and thought if he could just get back to his house, he’d be able to go back to a normal life. When he got there though, a neighbor told him he couldn’t be there, and he should flee to the nearby Seventh-day Adventist Church for shelter. When he arrived, he found the rest of his family was there, too. But before he had been there very long, the mayor of the town came through with a loudspeaker, calling everyone to come with him, that they would be safe. It was a trick; the mayor was working with the Hutu militia. Kalima took off running again, this time with several other children. The kid next to him got shot and the Hutu used dogs to sniff out where the rest of the children were hiding and Kalima was caught again and taken to the killing camp.

His mother, nephew, and niece were all taken away in a red car and that was the last time he saw them alive. They were killed and put in a mass grave. To this day I can’t see a red car without being terrified, he told the audience. The killers ran out of cars to put people in and so Kalima was taken back to the building. He was the oldest and biggest kid at age 15 and so he took charge of the other children and told them they all needed to escape. While the killers were drinking, all the kids made a run for it and each went their own way. Kalima survived for the next several weeks on top of a hill. “God did miracles,” he said simply, describing how he had no shoes, and survived on eating grass and drinking water from a nearby swamp. His toenails became so infected they fell off, and he began losing his vision and hearing. When the genocide was finally over and the Rwandan Patriotic Front found him, they put him in a wheelbarrow, took him to a makeshift clinic, and got him on an IV drip. When he was finally conscious again, he discovered his entire family had been killed.

He went back to school after the genocide. I spent visitation days hoping someone from my family would miraculously show up but no one ever did, he said. In 1995, he planned to commit suicide with a stolen grenade, but a neighbor convinced him not to. By 1996, he decided to drop out of school and left the country. “Rwanda smelled like death,” he said. He started playing basketball which became his refuge and one day a scout offered him a deal. He told the scout he didn’t want money, he wanted the opportunity to go back to school, which impressed the scout. He started playing for Uganda and became a star. “What’s the purpose of being a star alone, in a foreign land by yourself?” he asked the audience. Eventually, he ended up coming to the United States to play, but his career ended abruptly when he ruptured his Achilles tendon. “Basketball was not my career, but it was my medicine,” he said. Without it, he started to have panic attacks, and suffered from anxiety, depressions, and PTSD. He felt compelled to start searching for others who had been through the same thing, and became a mentor to kids, even adopting two of them. My wife, Stacy, is an American, he told the audience. When I was hiding in swamps, I had prayed that I would one day find a wife like my mom. “I didn’t know I was going to find that in an American woman,” he laughed. We call her the General Dallaire of our household because she stuck with me, through it all. He ended up opening the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. “I feel like I don’t have anything else in this world to do but to help survivors and to help prevent future massacres,” he concluded.

The keynote speaker for the event was Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, a humanitarian, author, and retired senator, who served as Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the genocide and wrote the book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. He recounted that when he got the call to go to Rwanda, he had to “beg, borrow, and steal soldiers from all sorts of countries.” He had been given the mandate to simply observe, with no capability to defend, even though Rwanda believed the UN was there to protect them. “That was not the mandate,” he said. I was given a Chapter 6 mandate, which is to observe and be a referee between two groups who need assistance to bridge peace.

“Not one country in the world, including my own, had any interest in this small country that had no strategic value or resources like oil,” said Dallaire. “It is true that the UN failed Rwanda. It is absolutely true that I failed Rwanda in command of my mission. We made mistakes, we did not convince, we did not influence, we weren’t able to get people to shift their thinking from Haiti and Yugoslavia, and other genocides to help [the Rwandan] people and to see what was truly happening.”

It’s very easy to accuse the UN of having failed, he continued, but the UN is not a country — it is all of us. “The blood that ran in Rwanda is on the hands of the 193 countries that refused the UN and us in the field any capability to prevent the genocide and ultimately to even try to stop it. Every nation in the world that had any capability is guilty of having abandoned the Tutsi community of Rwanda.”

“Today is the 27th of April, today we’re in the third week of the genocide,” he told the audience. “But for me, the genocide happened this morning. There are times I wake up and for nanoseconds I am back in Rwanda. I can hear the screams, smell the burning bodies, hear the firefights, see the thousands upon thousands suffering. The ethical and moral dilemmas faced as me and soldiers tried to play God.”

Dallaire told the audience about a man from the UK who called him on April 7 when the killings began, demanding that 1,000 troops be deployed to go save the gorillas, because they are a protected endangered species. Dallaire replied that he didn’t even have 500 troops to save the over 1 million endangered human beings. We would have gotten more support if the issue had been about gorillas, instead of humans, he told the audience sadly. Another man told Dallaire at the time that Rwanda was overpopulated anyway, while a third said there was nothing in the country to save, nothing that mattered. “You were abandoned,” Dallaire stated succinctly.

On April 27, 1994, Dallaire finally got a call from UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had heard that Dallaire and his peacekeeping troops were going to be ambushed and killed. “The world cannot handle 450 peacekeepers murdered in Rwanda. It can handle 10,000 Rwandans slaughtered per day, but not 450 peacekeepers,” Dallaire said incredulously. Boutros-Ghali ordered him to leave, but Dallaire refused. “No. I refuse your order,” he told the Secretary-General. He wasn’t used to people saying no, so he hung up on me, said Dallaire. Boutros-Ghali called back again, but Dallaire gave the same answer, then the chief of staff called back and told Dallaire that he had defied a legal order and was now a rogue agent with no power over his troops. “I said, ‘yes, I am fully aware of that’ and then I hung up on him,” said Dallaire to applause and cheers from the audience.

Dallaire told his 454 soldiers, the majority of whom were from Ghana and Tunisia, that he no longer had authority over them, and that they did not have to follow his orders, but asked if they would stay and help anyway, and they agreed. His deputy commander, Ghanaian Major-General John Attipoe, stayed as well, defying orders from his home country to do so.

It wasn’t until May 17 that Dallaire was finally given the order that they could use force against the Hutu to stop the killing, and it wasn’t until July that the RPF was able to put an end to the genocide. “Rwandans stopped the genocide, not the international community,” said Dallaire.

The majority of killing during the genocide was done by a youth movement turned militia who were given free rein to destroy human beings, Dallaire said. “They had been indoctrinated that Tutsis were not as human as they were. There was a belief that not all humans were as human as others. That some matter more than others.” Because of what Dallaire witnessed in Rwanda, he has dedicated his career since the genocide to putting an end to the use of child soldiers.

During the Q & A session that followed, one audience member told Dallaire he didn’t understand why he felt guilty. “To me, you are a hero who didn’t get the job done, but by no fault of your own.” Dallaire waved off the ensuing applause, and said that as a soldier, you are given a mission, and you either accomplish that mission or you fail, and he failed. It’s not enough to do your best in an impossible situation. He shared that he takes nine pills a day and is in his 19th year of therapy, but “it will never assuage my sense of responsibility…ever. But you are very kind in taking my defense, thank you.”

Another questioner said that the new war is the genocide deniers. “You’re the only man out there who can speak and be heard for us because when a Rwandan speaks about what happened they say they are biased.” Dallaire replied that there are a number of deniers and revisionists all around the world. As a Canadian senator, I argued that it should be illegal to deny that the genocide against the Tutsi happened, as it already was for Holocaust deniers. That is the first step of lawmakers, he said, to make denial of these atrocities against the law.

He mentioned the BBC documentary from a few years ago, titled Rwanda’s Untold Story. “It’s the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever seen,” Dallaire said to applause, “it’s so one-sided, and I have fought every fight with them to retract the documentary because it’s based on falsehood. The next step is a lawsuit.” My own editor edited a book that came out eight months ago that was revisionist in nature, so I fired my editor, but now I don’t know who is going to publish my next book. “We are not winning the war against revisionism and deniers,” he concluded.

A poem written and performed by the children of genocide survivors followed Dallaire’s address, and then it was time for another survivor testimony. Jean Leonard Kagabo was 12 years old when the genocide began. He told the audience he woke up that first morning to gun shots. He recounted how his large family scattered, all hiding in different locations. He and a younger brother and sister, along with some older cousins sought refuge with a Hutu man who used to work for their father. The man and his wife hid the children and fed them what they could, which wasn’t much. Kagabo’s brother, who was only six, struggled with only being fed in the evenings, and so the older siblings and cousins began setting aside some of their own food for him to eat in the mornings, but sometimes the mice got to the food during the night and there was nothing left. Kagabo began stealing sweet potatoes from the kitchen pantry at night. Still though, we were better off than some, he told the audience. He later found out that two of his sisters who were hiding elsewhere went seven days without eating. When they eventually came out searching for food, they were killed.

After about three weeks, Kagabo received word that his mother was about three miles away at an aunt’s house, so Kagabo took the other children and they headed toward the nearby village. They encountered both kind Hutu and those who tried to kill them along the way. I became so discouraged, but then I remembered my father and his rosary and my mother telling me about miracles, and the faith they both showed, he said. Prayer was the only thing that got him through, he told the audience, adding, “It doesn’t matter how old your child is, teach them how to pray.”

When they finally reached their aunt’s house, she told them their mother was not there, but to go to Kigali and search for his older brother who worked there. When they reached the older brother, he told them he had almost been killed by Hutu two days before but had survived. A few days later, they received word the Hutu were coming again, so Kagabo’s brother gave him a piece of paper with his bank account information on it and told him to run and use it if he survived. His brother thought because Kagabo was so little, the Hutu may not care about him and would decide to let him live. Kagabo headed back to his aunt’s house where he learned that the Hutu did kill the brother he had just left. His aunt told him to take his younger siblings to an orphanage she had heard about where she thought they would be safe.

When they arrived, they found there were over 300 people there, of all ages, all seeking refuge. Every day at the orphanage, the Hutu militia would come and pick people to kill, said Kagabo. They would normally concentrate on the adults.

One day, a man named Carl Wilkens brought water to the orphanage. Wilkens, a Seventh-day Adventist who worked for ADRA Rwanda, was the only American who chose to stay in the country after the genocide began. The Hutu militia decided they couldn’t kill the Tutsi in front of this white man, said Kagabo. Wilkens went and pleaded on their behalf to take them out of the orphanage to a church and the Hutu agreed. It took six buses. Wilkens used the term orphans, saying “you have to save this orphanage,” when really it was all sorts of people who had been staying there, said Kagabo. But the Hutu had agreed not to kill anyone coming from the orphanage to the church and they kept that promise.

When the genocide ended in July, Kagabo learned that his father and mother were both killed. His mother, who was found by a neighbor, had been slaughtered and thrown down a toilet the Hutu continued to use. His father was killed by machete and left in a field. Kagabo was able to gather the remains, wash them, and give them a proper burial.

“I encourage you to share your stories, this is the only way we are going to live without fear of the genocide deniers, because our truth will be out,” said Kagabo, who has written a recently released book titled, Angels on My Path.

A brief message of hope, given by Dr. Emmanuel Rudatsikira, Andrews University Dean of the College of Health & Human Services,” followed Kagabo’s testimony, then the guest of honor, First Counselor Lawrence Manzi from the Embassy of Rwanda to the US, delivered a message: “To the survivors we acknowledge the burden you carry and yet we ask you to carry more, to sustain more, to tell your stories so that we can have the country that we do today. It is the forgiveness that you on record give that has enabled Rwanda to go miles, to have these milestones.”

 

Further Reading:

Symposium on Genocide Discusses Awareness and Prevention — Session I

Symposium Examines Rape as a Tool of Genocide — Session II

After the Genocide: Symposium Wrestles with Denial, Forgiveness, and Hope — Sessions III, IV, and V

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

Image courtesy of racofmidwest.org.

 

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