This is what genocide means to me.

Published: 23 November 2005

Op-ed from Grace Mukagabiro, Oxfam Program Coordinator, Kigali, Rwanda

On May 8th 1994 my husband was brutally murdered by armed militias in Rwanda. At the same time, his parents, sisters, his uncles, his aunts and cousins also were killed. My name was on a list of those to be killed the next day. At midnight I escaped, carrying my three small children and two others whose parents had also died. I was pregnant and my youngest child was 11 months old. We walked 18 kilometers to a small town called Nyanza, where two sisters agreed to hide us in their home and we survived.


This is what genocide means to me. My husband, my family and my friends were victims of a systematic attempt to completely exterminate the entire Tutsi ethnic group. Whilst the world watched, at least 800,000 people were massacred in the space of a hundred days. Along with all the Tutsis who fled or lost their lives, many members of the rival Hutu group also died, and many more risked their lives to save us. I would not be here today if it wasn’t for those two Hutu sisters.

Yet if genocide were looming today, would people be saved? The United Nations Security Council members – France, the United States, the UK, China and Russia – could have supplied the crucial mandate for UN troops to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Instead they pursued selfish foreign policies, leaving the tiny UN force in Kigali unable to protect innocent civilians.

Next month at the United Nation’s World Summit in New York, presidents and prime ministers gathering at the largest ever meeting of world leaders may sign an agreement to enshrine their responsibility to protect civilians and stop brutal mass killings.

The agreement would establish the responsibility of governments to take quick collective action to protect civilians from large-scale killing including genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

This would mean that the international community would be forced to act if there was another Rwanda or a similar mass murder of civilians where the national government was unwilling or unable to do anything to stop the bloodshed. They could use a whole range of tools, with force, exercisable by the UN Security Council, only to be used as a last resort. Such an agreement could help save the lives of thousands of innocent civilians, in places like Darfur, where many individuals are experiencing great suffering.

All nations realized the world’s failure in Rwanda, and say they do not want a repeat of that horrific situation. Yet since the Rwandan genocide, more than 40 million people have fled their homes in fear, and millions have died in terrible conflicts.

The Rwandan government, alongside the governments of South Africa, Tanzania, Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Singapore, Japan and all European goverments, is strongly supporting the proposed agreement and working to make it a reality. Yet despite the lessons from the Rwanda genocide the United States, Indian and Brazilian governments are trying to weaken the measure, so they would not be obliged to act to save lives. The governments of Egypt, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Malaysia and Venezuela are among those that are determined to block the move.

Any weakening of this measure could allow nations faced with a situation of ethnic cleansing to wiggle out of their obligations and renew the posturing and politicking that prevented action in Rwanda in 1994.

If world leaders do not agree to their responsibility to act swiftly to protect people, millions of innocent and unprotected people could once more be slaughtered while governments discuss procedures in New York.

In Rwanda, eleven years later, we are slowly healing. We realize the need for all Rwandans to co-exist no matter what has happened in the past. Before the genocide I worked as a secondary teacher but now peace building is the national past time. I work with the international aid agency Oxfam, helping train ex-soldiers, women and men in how to deal with conflict. Simple projects like brick making and raising cattle are uniting all ethnic groups together as communities, and traditional village courts called "gacaca" are slowly bringing a form of justice.

But my children have grown up without a father. Their earliest memories are of watching our house burn to the ground and running for their lives. Their dreams are still interrupted by horrific nightmares. They and all those who have survived or currently live in fear deserve to know that their nightmares will not be repeated for generations to come.

Grace Mukagabiro
Oxfam Program Coordinator, Kigali, Rwanda
GMukagabiro@oxfam.org.uk