In April of 1994, when 800-thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in a spasm of ethnic violence that is today recognized as a genocide, Rwanda had limited visibility with the general public and on the foreign policy agendas of the United States and other countries. Years later, survivors are gathering to observe the 15th anniversary of the slaughter that was carried out in 1994. Genocide Prevention Month is being marked this week in Washington and other American cities by survivors of major genocides that coincidentally all took root in various years during the month of April -- in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, the European Holocaust, and Armenia. Rwandan survivor Eugenie Mukeshimana, a participant in the program, says that lessons learned from the volatile conditions of that period influenced her determination to share and teach others about it.
"It's time for reflection. It's time to look back and find out what happened with all these different genocides. It's holding discussions, forums where people can learn more about the nature of the crime of genocide, and hopefully, that people will at the end of the month be more willing to commit themselves, whatever way they can, to join forces and try to do some work, whether it be in prevention or helping the people who still are in great need," she said.
Mukeshimana, an ethnic Tutsi who now lives in the United States and serves as a social worker in the northeastern state of New Jersey, was 22 in April 1994 and six months pregnant. She was able to evade Hutu extremists and survive the war by hiding in a succession of safe houses and with friends in Kigali during the three months of terror. Though her husband, Damascene, was slaughtered by machete-bearing Hutus, Eugenie and her daughter held on long enough to see the Rwanda Patriotic Forces (RPF) drive the extremists from the capital as the carnage abated. She says she was able to maintain a positive outlook because of concern for the child she was carrying and because of an unfounded hope that a rescue force from outside Rwanda was on its way to quell the massacre.
"One of the main supports that I had was actually to have a family that helped me to hide. The second thing is that I was pregnant and I didn't feel like I had the responsibility just for myself. I had the responsibility for the child I was carrying as well. But also the rumors that a military operation was on the way to come and help, and I found out later that it was just a rumor. But when I first heard it, I didn't know it was a rumor. So I would pretty much hang on one more day, each day, hoping that somebody would get to us," she explained.
Although Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus have made great progress in reconciling within the country, a military threat still exists in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which has inherited an outflow of Hutu fighters that continue to conduct hostile military operations in northeastern Congo. Since 2003, however, the Rwanda conflict has been largely overshadowed by the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, which the US government officially recognizes as a genocide. Mukeshimana acknowledges that Americans who are interested in becoming seriously involved in conflict prevention activities and learning about Darfur often refer to Rwanda when pointing out the foot dragging that prevented the outside world from doing more to help. But she maintains that much still needs to be done to get Rwanda back on its feet.
"People have to keep in mind that just because the genocide was over in Rwanda doesn't mean the lives of people -- you know, the problems -- have been solved. It takes time. Some of the trauma from the genocide, some of the medical and physical needs, will manifest themselves after quite some time. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done. Survivors are still living under conditions that are not up to appropriate. There are many needs that are not yet met. And, of course, there's the reality that the genocide ideology is not gone, even 15 years later. And we are also facing another issue, that people are starting denying that this genocide actually took place. As we try to recover and piece our lives together, you can't fully recover when you're still faced with basic needs that are not yet met and there are also people who are denying that this genocide actually took place," she noted.
Hundreds of organizations allied with the
anti-genocide coalition are joining together to launch Genocide Prevention
Month. Eugenie Mukeshimana points out
that a few hundred Rwandan survivors will gather in New York next week on April
7, the actual date that the slaughter began, to honor the memories of their
relatives and friends. There will also
be memorial commemorations in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and other