Jacqueline Murekatete is an internationally-recognized human rights activist and genocide survivor, speaking out for victims and survivors of genocide around the world. Born in a small rural community in Rwanda in 1984, Jacqueline was not yet ten when she lost her entire immediate and extended family to the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi genocide.
(A shortened version of this interview was published by the Jüdische Allgemeine, the leading Jewish paper in Germany.)
Michael Holmes: You were only 9 years old when you survived the Genocide in your home country Rwanda. But you lost your entire family, many relatives and friends. How much do you remember? And how do you manage to cope with your memories?
Jacqueline Murekatete: Although I was still very young when the genocide began in my country, nine years old to be exact, the various horrors that I exprienced are still very vivid in my mind even today, 14 years after the genocide. I can still hear the announcements on Radio Rwanda, the national radio, saying that Tutsis, my ethnic group, were cockroaches deserving to die. And even though I did not understand the implications of this propogranda and hate speech until my Hutu neighbors no longer said hi to me and my hutu friends and classmates no longer played with me as we used to do every night. I can still see the fear that characterized my family and other Tutsis in my village in the periord shortly before the genocide began.
And when the genocide began, the memories of my fleeing with my grandmother from one place to the next, our many confrontations with death, and the many times I spend watching men, women, and children being dragged to their death, the nights that I spent terrified in hiding, not knowing whether or not I was going to live to see the next day, there are horrors, memories, that will remain with me for as long as I live.
When the genocide ended and I learned that while I had been one of the few survivors, my parents, all six siblings, and most of other relatives had been among the people murdered during the 100 days of killings, I refused to believe it. For a long time after the genocide I refused to believe that what had happened in Rwanda had actually happened. And many nights I went to bed hoping that the next morning when I woke up, somebody would wake me up and tell me that I had had a long nightmare. And then I would wake up from that nightmare and would be a child again, surrounded by my family and friends, with goals and deams like any other child. But like every other survivor, soon later, I had to acknoledge that what had happened in my native country was not a nightmare, but a reality in which it is now estimated that more than a million people were systematically murdered by their own government, simply becuase of their ethnicity. Yes it was hard to cope and the period after the genocide was difficult for all of us who survived. There are many occasions when many of us wished to have died instead of suffering as we did with no one to console us. But soon, I came to conclude that I had to go on, that I had to live, not only for myself, but for my family, and all the people whose lives were unjustly taken before their time. That is how I coped.
MH: How do you feel about the murderers of your family today?
JM: In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda became a place where survivors found themselves living next door to those who had killed their families. It was estimated that at least two million Hutus had participated in the murder of their Tutsi neighbors, and many of those who had not directly participated, had refused survivors safety, had pointed fingers at the hiding places of their now murdered relatives, and had engaged in other forms of indrect participation.So how does one cope in such environment, where justice has become elusive even today? Does one hate? Does he or she get angry? Does one spend the remainder of his or her life being hateful, angry and bitter?
Yes, I was angry and bitter after the genocide. I and other survivors wanted justice to be done and sometimes even wished those who have killed our families to be killed as well. But today, fourteen years after the genocide, I have chosen a different path for myself. While I still believe that those who participated in the genocide including those who murdered my family should be brought to some form of justice, I have chosen not to spend my entire life thinking about or hating the people who mudered my family or being bitter about what they took from me.
Not too long after the genocide, I made the decison that instead of spending my time and energies hating and being bitter, something that would in the end destroy me the most if anyone, I would instead focus my energies elsewhere. I decided to focus my time and energy in spreading awareness about what had happend in my country, about the unjust murder of my family and my people, in hopes that I might prevent any other human being from ever having to live through the horrors that I went through, or lose what I lost in 1994.
MH: You are not only very succesfull, but you even seem to be a happy and positive person. Is this true? And how is this even possible after all you have been through?
JM: I try to live a positive and happy life everyday. I try to live in a way that my family would want me to live, and I try to live for my siblings and other young people whose lives were taken before their time. I know that my family can only live through me now, and thus I always try to live a life which reflects their love, goals, and dreams, which they shared with me in the short time that I had them. Spending my life in anger, hate, and bitterness is not an option for me. It is not the way my family would have wanted me to live.
MH: How have other people been a help here?
JM: In the aftermath of the genocide and after losing so much, I so needed to feel loved and cared for again. And today, I am here and have done what I’ve done because of the love and support of people that I have crossed paths with at one point or another in my post-genocide life. And whether it was the teachers who spend their time volunteering to teach me English after I arrived in U.S in 1995, or the friends who called me every night to see how I was and who would later become more like family to me, I know that I have been blessed in many ways. And while the loss of my family is something that will never be filled by anything or anyone, I thank God for the many special people that God has brought into my lfie. Without them, I do not know where I would be.
MH: When and why did you decide to take up the struggle against genocide and human rights abuses?
JM: The first time that I started sharing my experience was at age of 16, and in the aftermath of hearing a Holocaust survivor, and now a good friend of mine, David Gewirtzman. David came to speak to my 10th grade english class, after we had read the book, Night by Elie Wiesel, in which he too described his experience as a child during the Holocaust. As I sat litsening to David’s account of the Holocaust, I was horrified. But in addtion to being one of students who weeped as David described the horrors that he experenced during the genocide, I was also inspired to by David to start sharing my genocide experience as away to try and bring about a wold without genocide. So in 2001 I teamed up with David, and since then, David and I have delivered hundreds of presenations together in schools, churches, synagogues, and various conferences throughout U.S and Abroad. We both feel the responsibltiy to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and if not for the sake of the victims, we know that we must speak for the sake of future generations. What we both experienced is something that we would not wish upon even our worst enemy.
MH: You have conducted hundreds of presentations in the U.S., Israel, Germany, Belgium, Bosnia and in front of the United Nations. How important is it for you to speak up and be heard? Do you believe in the power of words to overcome hatred?
JM: To date, I have delievered at least 300 presentations about the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda as well as about the importance of tolerance in our world where hate, racism, Anti-Semitism, and the ideology of genocide still remain major threats that cannot be ignored. For me silence is not an option, I must speak and keep speaking. I know that there will be people who will hear and act, and those who will not hear or will hear and let the messages pass from one year to the next. But when I read the many letters that I recieve from the young people who I speak to throughout the year, telling me about the various tolerance programs they’ve started in their schools and communities as a result of hearing me speak, I know that my messages are being heard by someone. This always gives me hope and encourages me to continue to do the work that I do. I am convinced that education is the „ best weapon we have against hate“ as David often says, and I must continue to use this weapon for as long as there is need.
MH: The West didn’t even try to help Rwanda in its darkest hour. How do you feel about this fact?
JM: When the killings were happening in my Country, I and all of us believed that if an outside country knew what was happening in Rwanda, we would be saved. This Country or Countries would surely come to our rescue. After all, we were not criminals and were being murdered daily not because of what we had done, but simply because who we were. Because we had been born Tutsis in a country which believed that Tutsis did not deserve to exist. Whether it was because I was still young and naive or for other reasons, the idea that people, Powerful Countries could watch such injustice, and stand idly by as we were being murdered was something that I would not have believed in 1994. So when I came to U.S and learned that many countries knew about what was happening in Rwanda, and chose not to act, I was horrified! It was a new lesson for me in humanity. But I did not understand such silence, such indifference, and I swore that no matter what I ended up doing, I would try and fight this type of indiference by being the voice of the people who became victims when the international community refused to act. When I speak today therefore, whether it be to young people or old, I never close any presention without speaking about the sin, the crime of indifference amidst any injustice.
MH: You have also been a loud voice against the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Do you believe we can stop the violence there? And if so, why don’t we?
JM: I have alway believed that my responsiblity involves not only speaking about the genocide which took place in my country in 1994, but the crime of genocide in general. And that wherever I see or hear about genocide taking place anywhere, I know that I must be at the fore front of trying to end it. So since the genocide in Darfur began, I have participated in various programs , conferences, and rallies with the intention to bring the ongoing genocide to an end.
I do believe that what’s happening in Darfur can be stopped, just as the genocide in my country could have been stopped and even prevented. I believe that the international community has the means, and it just have to have the will to act. I believe that the genocide in my country was not stoped because those countries who were in the position to stop it did not think that Rwanda was important, politically, economically, or other things which would be in their so called „national interest.“ But I always say that until we realize that preventing and ending mass murders of innocent human beings is a priority, that it should be the essential part of our national or human interest, until we come to realize that „we are our brothers keepers,“ as it is often said, then the cycle of genocide will continue. This is another message that I try to share with all the individuals, communities, and institutions, that I’ve had the chance of addressing.
MH: President Ahmadinejad of Iran again and again threatened to „wipe Israel off the map“. People have warned against not taking him seriously. Do you see a connection between people playing down this threat and how a lot of people played down the genocide in Rwanda by speaking of a ‚civil war‘?
JM: Today and in the presence of President Ahmadinejad’s threats, one becomes even more convinced that the ideology of genocide remains alive and well even in the 21st century. I belive that every hate speech, and destructive ideology should always been taken seriously and actions taken to deal with it. We have learned too many lessons from history that any of us should repeat the mistake of remaining silent and inactive until it is to late.
MH: If a common person anywhere reads your story, wants to be a help in the struggle to put an end to all genocides once and for all, but feels too small and powerless to do so, what do you tell this person?
JM: I believe that every person, no matter the age, social, or economic background can make a positve diference in the world. One does not need to have a lot of time and certainly a lot of money to make another human’s being life better in one way or another, or to make a positive and lasting positive impact our problem filled world today. What is needed on the part of all of us, however, is the realization of our common humanity, and our responsiblity to live a life that not only acknoledges our existence, but also the existence of our fellow human beings all over the world. In our world that is becoming more and more interdependent everyday, we must understand that every man’s tragedy is our tragedy, and that individual peace will always be limited in the absence of collective peace within the global community. It is critical then that each and every one of us be proactive in making our world more tolerant, more peaceful, in seeking to fight those radical ideologies that seek to exterminate an entire group of our felllow human beings.
The opportunities to partcipate in genocide prevention work exist in the the various genocide prevention programs and organizations. Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner, my own genocide prevention program in New York, is but one of these programs. All of us in the genocide prevention movement are always looking for individuals to take our educational programs and messages to different parts of the world, and our work is based on the premise that every person can truly make a difference if he or she tries.