The Last Survivor: Stop Saying ‘Never Again’
At the beginning of April in 1994, Jacqueline Murekatete was nine years old. As was common in Rwandan culture, Jacqueline was spending some time away from her parents and siblings, looking after her grandmother who lived in a neighboring village. Jacqueline has fond memories of such visits. Living at home with six siblings, it was often a struggle to get the attention she craved from her parents. But alone with her grandmother, Jacqueline reveled in the affection she was given. Her name, Murekatete is Kinyarwandan for “may she be spoiled” — a name her grandmother lovingly allowed her to live up to.
On April 6, 1994 genocide broke out in Rwanda. In just 100 days, genocidal Hutus slaughtered over 1,000,000 Tutsis. These murders were not carried out systematically in gas chambers or ovens — most victims were slain individually at the hand of a machete; others were killed by machine guns or grenades. The killings were not hidden behind barbed wire, below ground, or inside remote camps — they occurred in churches, in government buildings, and in the streets.
Just days into the genocide, after the savage murder of a group of Belgian peace keepers, the United Nations pulled out of the small East African country. For its part, the United States chose to all but ignore the genocide. In fact, they preferred the term “ethnic cleansing” after an internal survey of International law concluded that referring to the events in Rwanda as genocide “could commit [the U.S. government] to actually ‘do something.’” (Power, Samantha. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Harper Perennial: New York. 2002 Pg. 359.)
Before her own murder, Jacqueline’s grandmother brought her treasured grandchild to an orphanage run by Italian priests. There, Jacqueline remained — a young child traumatized by the horrific events she witnessed beyond the orphanage gates. And when the genocide ended, a surviving cousin told Jacqueline what had happened. One day, Jacqueline’s Hutu neighbors rounded up her parents, her four brothers and her two sisters. They took them, along with her uncles and aunts and the rest of the Tutsis in the village, to a nearby river. And there, like so many others who perished while the world turned a blind eye, they were slaughtered.
Jacqueline is now 23-years old and is a graduate of New York University. She remains in New York City where she works at a non-profit, Miracles Corners of the World, speaks to students about the genocide in Rwanda, and works to build a community center for Survivors who remain back home. We have had the opportunity to see Jacqueline speak many times over the past two years and what strikes us is that her message is eerily familiar. Jacqueline talks much of the vow of “Never Again” that was made after the Holocaust — and after Cambodia, and after Bosnia — and the world’s failure to live up to that vow. For us, as members of a young generation, it is a message we are used to hearing from Holocaust Survivors — older individuals speaking of a time of which we have no memory and a failed promise for which we bare little responsibility. But at 23-years old, Jacqueline is one of us. And the failure of the world of which she speaks is our world.
In the wake of Genocide Prevention Month, Jacqueline’s speeches are rather fitting: “A genocide is not something that happens over night,” Jacqueline likes to say. “It is something that occurs in a process.” And as such, there are always opportunities for global intervention before the violence reaches the levels it did in April of 1994.
Indeed, long before April 6 of 1994, the dehumanization campaign that would ultimately end in genocide was in full swing in Rwanda. On national broadcasts, Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches” and “Rwanda’s misfortune.” Lists were drawn up of prominent Tutsis that would be the first targets of the genocide, machetes were imported in greater quantities than ever before, and newspapers and radio broadcasts informed Hutu’s that “the time was coming.” If these horrific occurrences sound familiar it is because we have seen them before. In Europe in the 1930s, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars that distinguished them as second class citizens, they were forbidden from opening businesses and the many who had already done so soon found their shops and offices destroyed. In Sudan, the Arabic government forbade Darfuris to enroll in the country’s most prestigious universities and in Congo, genocidal Hutus, who had fled Rwanda after the genocide, re-established power within refugee camps sponsored by the United Nations. “A genocide is not something that happens over night.”
When the genocide in Rwanda ended in the summer of 1994 it was not because the world decided it had finally seen enough. The Rwandans were left to their own devices — establishing a rebel army that ran the genocidal Hutus out of the country into neighboring Congo.
When it was over, however, the world did come together. Together we declared our outrage at the unchecked genocide. We asked the Rwandan Tutsis for their forgiveness and in one strong voice we solemnly vowed “Never Again.” If this noble vow sounds familiar it is because we have heard it before.
So as we move into April, a month in which six genocides are commemorated, let us consider a revision in our tactics. When the genocide in Darfur is finally brought to an end, let us gather and honor the victims; let us ask the forgiveness of the Darfuri people for not acting more swiftly to prevent the deaths of their loved ones; and let us support the Survivors in rebuilding their nation.
But let’s not say “Never Again.”
Instead, let’s recognize that this will happen again. For it is only by such an acknowledgment that we will force ourselves to look out for the warning signs that foreshadow impending violence — the very warning signs we’ve seen before and can be certain we will see again. It is only by recognizing that this will happen again that we can insist that our government take on a policy of genocide prevention rather than one of reaction.
The Genocide Prevention Project has compiled a list of 33 countries most at risk for mass atrocity crimes. So when the genocide in Darfur is finally brought to an end, let’s not say “Never Again” and instead recognize that it is already happening again.
What we both find most tragic about Jacqueline’s story is that it could so easily have been prevented.
Much more about Jacqueline’s story and the important work she does in the area of genocide prevention will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor. The film will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to host your own screenings – watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and start your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, Genocide Prevention Month and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part three of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. You can read future posts of this blog series every Monday and Thursday on the Huffington Post and change.org