Whether we face genocide or a pandemic, a timely response is needed
None of us is really tested until we live through a time when everything we take for granted changes. The Holocaust was such a time, and, in its own way, the Coronavirus pandemic might also upend our world in ways we do not yet grasp.
Each April, I recall what it was like trying to survive three months in 1994, when everything I understood changed forever. Like a medical emergency or a car crash or an earthquake, the Rwandan genocide drew a line between my life up to that point and the years that followed.
Just as many people feel now, I recall a creeping dread as my family realized that the rumours were true – our ethnic group was being hunted, house by house, by an extremist militia. Just like the COVID-19 virus, we hoped to be spared; while others were being murdered, we might somehow survive.
Our unrealistic optimism evaporated as the militia arrived at our village. It was too late to escape, and within a matter of minutes my parents and siblings had been killed. I tore off my shirt and bound it around my sister’s head, hoping I could hold her scalp together. Then, together we fled into a swamp, and spent weeks hiding there, defying malarial insects, until the militia had been defeated. Eventually, I ended up in an orphanage. I was sixteen years old.
Each April, we mark the 100 days in which one in ten Rwandans were killed by the extremist Hutu militia. The international community knew what was happening because the Canadian general commanding the UN contingent, Romeo Dallaire, warned them repeatedly in the months before violence erupted. Dallaire reckoned that if he had been sent a battalion (5,000 troops) it would have sent a message that the world was watching the extremists. It could have deterred them.
The historian Linda Melvern has constructed a paper trail proving that diplomats ensured the Rwandan genocide was not discussed at the UN. After, world leaders vowed to never let this happen again, and the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, was adopted by most UN member states in 2005. But since then, the same has happened in Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, and now Cameroon.
Ironically, well-meaning foreigners urge Rwandans to forgive and reconcile, while ignoring the need for an urgent response to early warning signals elsewhere. For survivors like me, there is no easy way to put the past behind. I had to give up school so I could work and take care of my sister, and I was dispossessed from the land I should have inherited from my parents. I was fortunate to be rescued by an uncle, and to have my college education sponsored by a British couple, but most were not so lucky.
As the memories of Holocaust survivors illustrate, living through a time of fear requires the determination not to give up. But the next phase, after the fight-or-flight instincts are exhausted, is challenging. I fear the killers will wish to silence witnesses like me. Some remain at liberty because Rwanda did not have the resources to imprison each killer. Others were in jail but are now being released.
There are also hurtful daily experiences when you have lost almost all your loved ones: seeing fellow graduates congratulated by their parents; attending weddings and holidays where there is more than one generation present. In addition, it is hard to succeed without the connections provided by family, or their moral support.
We will look back on COVID-19, learning lessons about how we ignored the early warning signs. But right now, the world’s diplomats should ‘never forget’ to send a united and sustained message to the leaders and militias taking advantage of this hiatus to persecute their own people with impunity. The world must let them know there are consequences such as sanctions and criminal indictments if they continue to murder and displace “the other” within their societies. We are all in this together, whether stopping war crimes and genocide, or fighting a new plague.
Niyonkuru Eric is a Rwandan genocide survivor. His real name is withheld to protect his security. He told his story to Rebecca Tinsley, author of “When the Stars Fall to Earth, a novel of Africa”