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“Goals and Dreams”:
Honoring Rwanda’s Memory and Looking to the Future
When a community gathers to commemorate a horrific occurrence like genocide, it does so not only to remember the victims, both living and deceased, but also to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that others might never be made to endure similar atrocities in the future. In this way, such events are particularly powerful because they underscore the belief that “never again” also means to “never forget.”
April marks the 19th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were savagely murdered by their Hutu extremist neighbors, who believed that a person’s ethnicity determined his or her right to life. Nearly two decades later, the legacy of these victims and their descendants is continually remembered throughout the world, as the darkness of those 100 days of slaughter has left an impermeable mark on humanity, along with a resolve to do better the next time we are faced with similar situations. In an effort to uphold this commitment, on April 14, Jacqueline Murekatete, a Rwandan genocide survivor and founder of MCW Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner, organized “A Special Program Commemorating the 19th Anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda,” at New York University Law School, co-sponsored by the Latino Law Students Association. Featured guests at the event were Auschwitz Institute executive director Tibi Galis and CBS 60 Minutes assistant producer Jonathan Schienberg.
Murekatete opened the program by reminding those in attendance that it is important to raise awareness and support for genocide survivors in Rwanda, as well as to remember those “whose lives were brutally and unjustly taken away.” She then offered a moment of silence for the victims in Rwanda as well, before turning the microphone over to Khalid Elachi of MCW, who explained that the organization’s goal is “to empower young people to become agents of change,” citing the building of a community center in Rwanda and the establishment of Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner as examples of how MCW carries out its mission.
These remarks were followed by a short film entitled Jacqueline’s Journey, produced by Schienberg and shown publicly for the first time. In the video, Murekatete discusses her personal survival during the Rwandan genocide, despite losing her entire immediate family and many aunts and uncles, as well as how she eventually arrived in the United States and became inspired to start telling her own story. She emphasized the importance of enabling survivors to achieve their goals and dreams, and to “live a life that our families could be proud of, if they were here.”
The keynote address was then given by Galis, who began by discussing his personal journey to working in mass atrocity prevention. Growing up in Romania, he said, “We were taught in school that all the tragic moments of humanity . . . were behind us,” admitting that in light of contemporary crises such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “this hope is a bit baseless in today’s world.” As he explained, the prevalence of atrocities persuaded him and others of the need to move away from the idea that such catastrophes are accidents or anomalies, and instead to “try to understand where these mass atrocities come from.”
The Auschwitz Institute, Galis explained, was established to pursue this systematic approach to understanding genocide. In particular, he noted the historic dearth of governmental involvement in prevention, and identified this as the impetus behind AIPR founder and president Fred Schwartz’s motivation to establish the organization in 2005. The need to better understand the complexities and roots of such violence is exemplified in the Auschwitz Institute’s educational program for government officials, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, which centers on the process of genocide and an “inventory of what has been tried in recent times” to prevent such crimes. In this way, Galis explained, the goal has shifted from “[stopping] the worst from happening at the very last possible moment,” to developing the “restructuring of societies in a way that we see the signals of the bad to come, and we try to do something about that” right away.
The Auschwitz Institute further empowers its participants by offering “resources that they need to start their own” prevention programs domestically, as the organization firmly believes in assisting governments in any way possible to do their duty – “that being to protect and not to harm its citizens. We feel it cannot be more basic than this.” Currently, Galis stated that alumni of the Auschwitz Institute’s programs number more than 200 individuals from 60 different states. He concluded by noting the role that civil society plays in prevention, explaining that “most of the time, we prevent mass atrocities and genocide without even realizing it,” through education and our daily interactions with those in our communities.”
After giving his presentation, Galis was joined by Murekatete and Schienberg for a discussion moderated by Roberta Richin, a member of the Board of Directors Emeritus at MCW. Richin posed the initial round of questions, beginning with Galis and asking about challenges facing international organizations. Galis’s response included the need to educate the leadership of institutions on what an institution is expected to deliver and implement, as well as communication problems between organizations. He also stated that organizations like the Auschwitz Institute are “the beginning of the answer,” but that good intention requires money as well as words.
Richin’s question for Murekatete focused on the connection between the “small stuff,” such as schoolyard bullying, and the “big stuff,” specifically the genocide in Rwanda. Murekatete agreed that it is sometimes difficult for individuals to recognize the long-term process that culminates in genocide, and discussed in particular how what occurred in Rwanda was a result of years of escalating hostility, propaganda, and dehumanization.
Richin then opened the floor for questions from the audience. The first focused on seeking perpetrator justice years after atrocities have been committed, to which Murekatete stated simply: “There is no deadline to the suffering . . . the horrors . . . that [victims] endured,” and that efforts to find and hold killers accountable for their actions should reflect this limitlessness. The next was addressed to Schienberg, and asked him to talk about the hardest part of making Jacqueline’s Journey. Schienberg stated that he sought to depict “what [survivors] would want me to represent,” while at the same time respecting that “it’s a very personal thing that people experience,” and that we must be careful of not generalizing too much from story to story.
Another question, to which Schienberg also responded, centered on the role of the media. He discussed how media attention can be big, but that this doesn’t necessarily stop atrocities. In addition, he stated that “media still has an obligation, obviously . . . and [journalists] need to be persistent in trying to expose . . . the happenings in those countries where atrocities are being committed.” As the moderator Richin summarized at the discussion’s conclusion, “words have power; words have consequences” – and so does a lack of words.
Jeanne d’Arc Byaje, deputy permanent representative of Rwanda to the United Nations, spoke after the panelists, and offered a view of the progress Rwanda has made since the genocide. In particular, she noted the improvements the country has achieved in its justice sector reformation. She was followed by student Jessica Gatoni, who read two poems written in honor of Rwanda: one from the perspective of a survivor trying to guard the memory of those she had lost; the other about youth empowerment and the concept of agaciro, which means “dignity” in Kinyarwanda.
Murekatete closed the event with words she had echoed throughout the afternoon: “goals and dreams.” Indeed, it is this potential that was lost during the genocide, and it is this same potential that Murekatete and others hope to help cultivate in the descendants of survivors, as well as in all individuals in the generations to come. This cultivation, however, cannot be done from the sidelines. It must occur through the work of those actively committed to preventing opportunities for individuals, who would otherwise attempt to steal or destroy these dreams, from becoming a prominent voice in their society. As Galis eloquently stated earlier, “When we see a problem and look away, we are to a certain extent supporting the roots of evil.”
Photo: Alex Zucker