In a recent interview, I spoke with internationally recognized human rights activist and Rwandan genocide survivor Jacqueline Murekatete. Murekatete is the founder of the Genocide Survivors Foundation which is dedicated to preventing genocide and supporting survivors in need.
KS: For readers who are unfamiliar with the Rwandan genocide, what are some high-level details that you think are important for them to know and understand?
JM: I think that it’s very important for people to recognize that, like any genocide, the genocide in Rwanda did not happen overnight. Hutus did not get up one morning out of nowhere and want to take up machetes and murder their Tutsi neighbors. The crime of genocide—generally and in the case of Rwanda—is a crime that is preceded by a series of events... In the case of Rwanda, the 1994 genocide against Tutsis rose from years of state-sanctioned discrimination against Tutsis...in every aspect of the Rwandan society. Growing up in Rwanda, we had an ID card that was introduced in Rwanda by the Belgians to divide the Rwandan population along ethnic lines. But unfortunately for us, this ID system was continued in post-independence Rwanda by Hutu regimes who felt they could use this same ID system as a way to monopolize power by discriminating against Tutsis. So growing up in Rwanda, I was well aware even before the genocide that Tutsis—my ethnic group—were considered second-class citizens…
Between the years 1990 and 1994, you saw a series of dehumanization campaigns which portrayed Tutsis as snakes—as cockroaches that needed to be exterminated. Extremists would come on the radio and write in the newspapers...telling Hutu neighbors that Rwanda can become a prosperous country once they have gotten rid of the Tutsi population. That’s what I mean when I say that the genocide was preceded by this mental preparation and indoctrination...a genocide that the government knew they were going to carry out. There are reports now of machetes being imported to Rwanda as early as two to three years before the genocide; and videos and reports of Hutu citizens—particularly youth—being trained to carry out the genocide… So it’s very important to me whenever I discuss this to say that genocide happens in a process...Because it doesn’t happen overnight, there’s always an opportunity for people and for the international community to intervene. The genocide [in Rwanda] is now known as “the preventable genocide” because, again, there were years of preparation and many opportunities for the UN Security Council, for example, to intervene but there was no political will at that time.
KS: Now I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about your own experience during and after this genocide as someone who lost your entire family but survived.
JM: My story of survival is a long one, and I’ve told it many times. If anyone wants to...hear more of my story in its entirety, they can watch a number of videos online… When we, survivors, look back at all of the times we faced death, we realize that it was nothing less than a miracle that we survived… My grandmother and I initially ran away to a county office where we thought we would be protected and...managed to leave...before we were killed… My uncle found a Hutu family who hid us for about a week until we were discovered and...came face to face with armed Hutu men who wanted to kill us… To this day, I have no logical explanation as to how we survived that day. I remember the Hutu men who were hiding us kept pleading on our behalf, “how can you say these are the enemies of Rwanda?”... After that discovery, I would soon find myself in an orphanage because the man hiding us was told he would have to kick us out of his house because when those men came back, they would not spare our lives. So he told my grandmother of an orphanage that was owned by Italian priests [who] had made the choice to stay in Rwanda during the genocide to try to protect children...and risked their own lives...
KS: In an interview with the Brooklyn Reader, you described the Hutu man and the Italian priests who hid you as “upstanders”. Can you talk about what that word means to you?
JM: A big part of my work is helping people to understand that whether you look at the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, or…other genocides that have taken place, you recognize that during these darkest times in human history, people made choices. I very much love Facing History and Ourselves’ slogan: “People make choices and choices make history.” This is a fact; this is what happens. When you look at the genocide in Rwanda...people made choices to participate in the genocide, people made choices to be bystanders, and then you had a few people who made the choice to be upstanders… This was not an easy choice but people made it and at the end of the day, if more...Hutus had stood up and become upstanders—rather than perpetrators and bystanders—I have no doubt in my mind that the genocide would not have happened… So part of my work is really trying to increase the number of people who become upstanders when they find themselves in a situation where people are being targeted… I know that if it wasn’t for those two Italian priests in Rwanda—or even the Hutu family that hid me in Rwanda...then many other survivors and I wouldn’t be here today… They are people who stood up and today, I try to increase the number of people who stand up to injustices.
KS: I’m wondering if you can talk a bit now about the mission and work of your organization, the Genocide Survivors Foundation?
JM: The mission of the Genocide Survivors Foundation is twofold: (1) genocide prevention education; and (2) raising funds to provide comprehensive services to genocide survivors starting in Rwanda, but hopefully being able to work in other countries that have gone through genocide. The educational component is carried out through my lectures at schools, workshops, conferences, churches, and synagogues. And in terms of supporting survivors, we work with local survivor's organizations to raise funds to provide educational services, economic empowerment services, and healthcare services. Now we are trying to deal with the trauma issues that many survivors are faced with...
I always say that the best way we can honor the victims of genocide—those people who lost their lives in 1994—is by making sure that their widows and orphans are taken care of and support them in their ongoing struggle to rebuild their lives. The second way is by working hard to prevent the crime of genocide from continuing to happen...
KS: Earlier in the interview, you mentioned that rape was a component of the genocide. With that in mind, I want to ask you about what inspired you to support the Women Genocide Survivors Retreat within your organization and what it entails.
JM: During the genocide in Rwanda, rape was used as a weapon of genocide. It was [my friend and fellow survivor Liliane Pari Umuhoza] who proposed the idea for the Women Survivors Retreat. What [the retreat] does is...it brings together women who were raped during the genocide—many of whom live with HIV/AIDS and bore children out of those rapes, and are trying hard to provide for those children… For most survivors, even having the opportunity to talk about what happened to you, having a listening ear, and empathy and understanding from people helps to restore your dignity and sense of self-worth because there’s nothing more difficult than going through something like that and then finding yourself alone and suffering in silence… Going a step further, the retreat also provides them with tools and resources to help them better their lives...
KS: Do you have any closing thoughts for our audience?
JM: For me, the most important message...is people have to see genocide, not as something that happens far away and to people we don’t know. We have to see it as a crime that can happen anywhere and to anyone given the right conditions… It begins with words, it begins with dehumanization, it begins with propaganda. And when we see those things happening in our country, that is the time to speak up because once people start the actual killing, sometimes it’s too late.
It’s always important for me to emphasize that prevention is something all individuals can participate in… We all have the power to bring about positive change in our world and in our communities… You have to show up and…you have to vote for those ideas that respect diversity...and human rights. My hope is that...people can realize that no matter who they are, they can make a positive difference; it’s just a matter of deciding that they want to get involved...and there’s no better time for us to step up our prevention efforts than today.
Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our "Genocide Still Happens" Teaching Idea to spark dialogue in the classroom.