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jacqueline-11 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.

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Farhang is a gay blogger and activist, living in Tehran. He runs Qulture and Q-Daily in English and Persian. He talked to me about life in Iran, the struggle for the rights of gays and lesbians, and how he feels let down by most Western progressives.

Michael Holmes : Where do you live? What is life like there? What do you do for a living?

Farhang : Contrary to what most people in Western capitals might think, Tehran, thanks to the petrodollars, has the appearance of an average metropolis. So it is not surprising that there are some great cultural gaps between different neighbourhoods and districts of Tehran. I live in a family that I can easily call typically Iranian, which is one with not very well educated parents but educated offspring, very much into politics as long as it is a matter of only talk, generally pro-American, but also at the same time Francophile, with some members who are moderately religious and a majority which is severely secular, with the average income of $6000 per year for each person, a house of their own, a French car, no pets, and with access to satellite, which is of course forbidden by law in Iran. That’s the way a quite typical Iranian family might look like. It is impossible for me to go any further about my identity.

MH : How dangerous is it for an average Iranian to discuss politics? Do you have to restrict yourself a lot in everyday life? How open are politics being debated in the private sphere? Are there ways of symbolically expressing dissent without risking too much?

Farhang : You can say anything you like, but only if you have nothing to lose. That means you must be mentally ill or very old to criticize the government in public. In any case, however, talking about the Supreme Leader of Iran is simply unthinkable. On a crowded bus, for example, if you start talking to another person about the economic problems or inflation, there is always a fair chance that another person stands up in defense of the government. People incessantly voice their complaints about economic hardship, but they don’t see or wouldn’t like to see that there is a basic political problem behind this. So they somehow voluntarily never ever touch issues like democracy or freedom in their discussions, and that’s particularly true about the young.

Some believe when a girl on the street pushes her headscarf a little back to show more of her hair, she is actually symbolically expressing dissent, but in reality these kinds of “dissent” are pretty tolerable for the regime. In the private sphere people could trust each other and be open about the way they think about current affairs. This, however, is changing. As more young people see their lives depend on the government – be it a promotion, a scholarship or simply a raise – they become more tight-lipped about politics. To be concise, there is no systematic thought police intimidating and suppressing the people, simply because there is no NEED to do so (of course I am not talking about the media and newspapers, which ARE systematically censored and controlled.) Does the propaganda machine of the government work well? I doubt it. One suspects that deep cultural characteristics of the Iranian people, which make them reluctant to grapple with their problems head-on, might be at work.

I believe at the moment there is no serious alternative to the Islamic regime of Iran at sight, both inside or outside.

MH : In which ways is life for gays and lesbians even more difficult? How do you or others deal with the situation?

Farhang : The simple point is: “we don’t exist”, as Ahmadinejad once said at Columbia University. And if you don’t exist, you’re either dead – approximately 4000 executions of people because of (though not always accused of) their homosexuality since 1979! – or you just keep a very low profile and have a hush-hush life. You just meet a guy and the government can and will never get entangled with you, as long as you don’t get involved with politics, gay or otherwise. That’s why the Home Secretary of Britain has just come to this conclusion about gay life in Iran: “The evidence does not show a real risk of discovery of or adverse action against gay and lesbian people who are discreet about their sexual orientation.” In other words: only if you don’t exist. Of course she holds double standards; she believes we are less equal than the British to enjoy the “luxury” of living freely and openly. But she is right to some extent. The regime is not so stupid to kill you only or blatantly because of your orientation, but of course they have an active gay hunt program on the internet in place, of course they have closed a major newspaper because of an interview with a lesbian poet, and of course they force and even financially help you to undergo sex-change surgery to “cure” your “perversion”. But having said all this; you can have a discreet life as a queer in Iran. How this type of life destroys your human dignity and distorts your psychological health is of course far beyond imagination.

MH : How important is the help from gay-lesbian movements abroad or other human rights organizations?

Farhang : Sadly not very much. Unfortunately, they are totally misguided at best. Most of them are busy “exporting” gays from Iran to Canada or Sweden. These organizations have found the solution in helping asylum seekers to flee the country and this way, I believe, they provide the Ayatollahs in Tehran a great service. Is this just a coincidence? Hard to say. Surprisingly, one of the most vocal dissidents, Akbar Ganji, who is nonetheless a practicing Muslim, has made a plea for tolerance towards LGBTQ people. On the other hand, the Noble Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi is utterly pathetic. She is a great disappointment to all human right activists in Iran who thought that in her they have found a great voice.

MH : What is the role of the internet for the gay-lesbian-community?

Farhang : Without doubt, the history of LGBTQ movement in Iran can be divided in before and after the Internet, even if we in Iran face the strictest internet censorship in the world. Just to give you a vague idea: it must be shocking to your readers to know that in Iran not only words like “sex” or “porn”, but also words like “women,” “hot”, or “teen” cannot be googled. So if you are a student and you want to write a paper on “women” filmmakers or you just want to check out “hot” news or you want to take a look at a website containing information about the 30th (XXX) volume of a writer’s collection, you will face an “Access Is Denied” page. It is just tragically ludicrous. As anywhere else in the world Iranian gay and lesbians use the chatrooms or social networking websites (all blocked in Iran) via proxy and anti-filtering techniques to communicate with and get to know each other. The difference is, however, that this is virtually the only option to find each other. We also have something like 40 active LGBTQ bloggers right now. The subject of most of these weblogs is, however, not politics but literature. Persian is the language of poetry as you might know. Having said that, it is overtly evident that this virtual Iranian gay community on the cyberspace is a great light of hope for us all. We support each other and feel the presence of each other, despite all filtering and censorship. So when they block the access to your blog (let’s say http://www.hunk.wordpress.com) we just add a 2, or 3 and so on (like http://www.hunk2.wordpress.com) and we open a new one, and this cat and mouth play goes on and on.

MH : Do you feel let down by Western ‘progressive’ intellectuals who are always ready to take a stand against homophobia in their own countries, but then don’t really seem to care much about the far worse situation of gays and lesbians in the Middle East or other underdeveloped regions?

Farhang : It is really frustrating to see people marching on the streets of New York or Paris protesting the war in Iraq or a possible one in Iran, but then not once pour massively to the streets defending the rights of the bloggers, the women, the gays or the Bahai people to write, to wear, to love and to practice what they want, the way they want it. That is pure hypocrisy. When you scream NO to war against Iran and you don’t do the same thing and in the same fashion to the brutal and sweeping violation of human rights in countries like Iran, I can’t call you a friend of mine; consciously or not, your actions are thoroughly aligned with the Ayatollahs.

There is a close link between changes in Western attitude towards gays and lesbians and those of third world countries like mine. And I don’t think the harsh position of the Islamic regime towards gays and lesbian can be mitigated by any activist struggle in the West, no matter how sincere or serious. We are aware and we are grateful of people like Peter Tatchell for example, but unfortunately even these rare well-intentioned activists don’t know the Iranian government and the way it functions. You just can’t make a noticeable change this way.

MH : How does the general population’s attitude towards homosexuality differ from that of the regime? Is it part of the problem or part of the solution – or both? Has it been changing over time? Is there a big difference between urban and rural areas?

Farhang : People are not the major problem, it’s the government. My father may use the word “pervert” to describe a gay man but he watched Brokeback Mountain more than once. So he hasn’t made up his mind, he just needs to see these “different” people and to feel their reality. My father doesn’t allow himself to think of a “Sir” Elton John as a worthless creature who will go to hell; never, not for a minute. He watched his marriage on BBC and he never ridiculed it. If the West wants to do anything for us, the path is clear: help us to build our democracy and take Hollywood more seriously as a generator of huge change and cultural impact, even well after the time we have our nascent democracy.

Some of my audacious friends have come out to their family and friends, indeed, but most of them paid a price for that as well; for many families having, or rather the awareness of having a gay son or a lesbian girl, is an earthquake, an inevitable disaster.

We made some progress during the Shah period (before the 1979 Islamic Revolution) in tolerance towards gays and lesbians, but right now we have some huge cultural difficulty in this regard. Interestingly enough, in Persian poetry the homosexual love is well and abundantly documented since at least the middle ages. So one can’t dismiss it as pure Western “decadence”. But the current negative (or perhaps harsh) attitude towards gay people exists only because of ignorance and not because of religious fanaticism. I believe the decisive challenge for the Iranian LGBTQ movement, like in any other place, is to win the people’s hearts and minds. And knowing Iranian culture I am confident that, unlike the Arab nations, this ultimate battle will be easy to win, if we only manage to get rid of the currently ruling totalitarians, who have blocked every form of political dynamism. We have to face the people and to start a long process of persuasion and argumentation, but this regime has thwarted such a process even before it has begun. I believe our real problems are yet to come. You know, in our high schools there is no such thing as gay bashing, simply because there is no such thing as homosexuality; again, we don’t exist.